The Secret World of Consumers, Connoisseurs, Curators, Creators, Dealers, Bibliographers, and Accumulators of "Erotica"
By Geoff Nicholson
Simon & Schuster. 274 pp. $25
Geoff Nicholson is an Anglo-American novelist -- he lives in London and Los Angeles -- whose subjects often have been "obsession, sex, and the relationships between people and things," so perhaps it stands to reason that he is the first writer to devote an entire book to the subject of people who collect "any type of object or artifact that is primarily sexual." Or at least the first writer to do so in public, since heaven knows what lurid volumes may be hidden away in some secret library of erotica. In any case, collecting matters of a sexual nature certainly dovetails with his favorite themes, so you won't be surprised to learn that he has risen to the task.
Sex Collectors is mainly a lark, irreverent and amusing, but it's thoughtful, too, on matters such as sexual obsession, the urge to collect, art versus pornography. Nicholson understands that collecting often is far more than a hobby, and he cites "plenty of psychologists, not least Freud . . . who'll tell you that collecting is an anal compulsion," though with regard to the subject at hand "anal" may not be exactly the right word. Whatever. Getting heavily Freudian, Nicholson continues, "He says that orderliness, obstinacy, and parsimony are the three traits that go along with anal eroticism. The need to keep and the refusal to give is [sic] what adults do as a substitute for the childhood habit of retaining feces. We gather objects, or indeed money, because we can't bear to part with our dung."
As the late and eternally lamented Jack Benny would have put it, "Wel-l-l-l-l-l. . . ." Though Nicholson goes on to argue, with the help of the psychiatrist Werner Muensterberger, that "there's something primarily sexual about collecting" and that "all collectors are psychologically damaged," he probably gets closer to the mundane truth when he writes: "To the collector it seems a perfectly natural pursuit. If you accept that certain things in the world are inherently attractive and desirable, and if you have the means to acquire them, then why wouldn't you do so?"
There are collections, of course, and then there are collections. Make no mistake about it, the ones described herein are nothing if not unusual. It takes a certain cast of mind, for example, to want to acquire Napoleon's or Rasputin's desiccated penis. The former, if that is what it really is, "was shown in New York in the 1920s, 'looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shriveled eel,' according to a contemporary account," and now is in the collection of a urologist whose interest presumably is entirely professional. As for the latter, "Rasputin's penis was regarded as similarly collectible, and went into an auction at Christie's in 1995. It was withdrawn, however, when investigations revealed it to be a sea cucumber."
Then there is Jane Marshall, who seems to be a perfectly normal woman but who has assembled an impressive collection of Chinese lotus shoes, worn by women whose feet had been bound, "a grim form of female mutilation" but one with distinct sexual undertones, especially for foot fetishists. When Nicholson saw her collection, he was surprised to find the shoes "quite beautiful," "profoundly, quintessentially odd, and that oddness was wonderful." Yet they were also "strangely sexless," "child-sized, but there was nothing remotely childlike about them."
Then, considerably more famously, there is Cynthia Plaster Caster, who "has been collecting penises for thirty years or so; not real penises, though real ones are certainly involved, and not collecting them in the sense of taking them away from their rightful owners and putting them in her own private stash, but rather in the sense of making replicas by casting them in plaster, hence her name, and her reputation, such as it is." As of the time Nicholson visited her and her "sweet babies," as she calls them, there were 71 of them, the most celebrated having been cast from the tumescent member of Jimi Hendrix, who for some reason thought she was contributing to the betterment of humankind, or something like that. Perhaps because the great age of rock music is now a mere memory, she has moved along:
"Lately Cynthia's been doing female breasts, which are so much easier, she said, a less tricky shape to cast, no breakages, and no erection to be sustained. I can see that must be satisfying, and I can imagine that plenty of people would be happy to have molds of the breasts of Peaches or Laetitia Sadier from Stereolab, but somehow they just don't seem quite as collectible as penises."
Right, and probably not as collectible as erotic bookplates, which are the specialty of Gordon P. Smith, who "said he was probably the only collector of erotic bookplates in England who'd be prepared to talk to me at all, though I didn't test out this thesis." Not merely does he collect them, he commissions them from a number of artists, including Lynn Paula Russell, an example of whose work is reproduced in Sex Collectors . It is indeed erotic, though in a rather peculiar way, but one is left to wonder precisely what book one would want to paste it in.
In various places around the world are sex museums, not to mention "quasi-sexual establishments such as the Frederick's of Hollywood Lingerie Museum," among them the Hollywood Erotic Museum, the Beate Uhse Erotic Museum in Berlin, the Museum of Ancient Chinese Sex Culture in Shanghai and MoSex in New York. These are collections on a grand scale, some of them involving thousands or even tens of thousands of objects. Then there are those on a rather less grand scale, such as that assembled in Miami by Naomi Wilzig, a widow of a certain age who went public with her collection a while back. Her motives for collecting, not to mention publicizing her collection and letting people in to see it, are far from clear, but Nicholson is probably right when he says, "It made her special, unusual, a little bit notorious, and it guaranteed that she got attention."
There are, in any event, more people than you might think who are or were into collecting objects of sexual interest, and those objects seem to possess limitless variety. Thus at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction in Indiana, Nicholson found a veritable universe:
"There are erotic artworks and artifacts, about seven thousand items, everything from Picassos to pornographic ashtrays. There are about seventy-five thousand photographs, professional and amateur, arty to obscene. In addition to the films shot by the institute under Kinsey's direction, there is footage of animals mating, anthropological movies, porn films, erotic 'art' movies: eight thousand films, four thousand videos. . . . Recently people have started downloading images from the Web, putting them on CD or DVD, and sending those in, documenting the current state of erotic technology while also displaying their own preferences and fascinations."
Some people collect sex not as objects but as sexual acts themselves, pure and simple (or not so simple). Nicholson introduces us to one woman who has made giant strides in that direction, as a visit to her Web site -- no, I couldn't resist the temptation, and neither will you -- quite vividly makes plain. Whatever the sex collectors' particular passions, Nicholson found them to be "a literate, articulate, and well-read bunch," albeit with fixations that most of us will have trouble comprehending. He argues, though, that it is the aphrodisiac quality of sexual material that "separates sex collections from all the other types of collections in the world," so being a sex collector "requires a certain amount of nerve or indifference to the opinions of others."
Or, as they used to say back when Linda Lovelace ruled the world, different strokes. ?
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.