I got married last weekend. The venue was on Fifth Avenue. We said our vows, the rings were exchanged, and we smiled for a picture. And then the three of us walked out of the Museum of Sex to grab lunch in Chelsea.
No, you’re not reading about my polygamous marriage at the age of 19. Nor are you reading the introduction to an episode of Sex and the City (but please do picture me writing this in my fictional Manhattan brownstone wearing designer clothing). My two roommates and I recently took a whirlwind trip to New York City as a belated celebration of one of their birthdays. When planning what to do with our 48 hours in the city that never sleeps, we decided to visit the museum dedicated to the act of sleeping with people.
We said our vows, the rings were exchanged, and we smiled for a picture. And then the three of us walked out of the Museum of Sex to grab lunch in Chelsea.
The museum takes a multi-faceted approach to sex, with each level serving as a gallery with a different theme. The first exhibit displayed memorabilia and historical artifacts ranging from illustrations of the Kama Sutra to Hugh Hefner’s robe, followed by a contemporary art exhibition centered on social justice for women in the sex industry and gender violence. Next, a gallery explaining the relationship between carnivals and sexual liberation (and exploitation) led to an interactive fun house complete with a slide, a bounce house, and arcade-style games.
At the very end of the tour, a pink vending machine-type box – the AutoWed – stood near the exit doors. My roommates and I scanned our tickets, then followed the lighted instructions to punch in our names, sexual orientations, and the words “I do.” A plastic bottle with two metal rings popped out of a slot. And then we repeated the entire process to get four rings, because apparently there is no option for a three person ceremony.
Something about that kind of garish, kind of naively sweet machine stayed with me as we burst out onto the sidewalk outside of the museum. It was one of those moments you have when you’re having a really good time – like, remember-it-and-romanticize-it good – and you get choked up with the real life emotion of it. Even as the coolness of the ring on my left ring finger dissipated, I kept thinking through the idea that I had just married two of my best friends. I had agreed to love them, comfort them, honor them, and be faithful to them, in sickness and in health, as long as we three shall live. And what struck me most was the fact that these words, though written for Protestant marriage ceremonies, ring true in all of the close friendships I’ve made with other women throughout my life.
I had agreed to love them, comfort them, honor them, and be faithful to them, in sickness and in health, as long as we three shall live.
I can imagine walking through a gallery of artifacts from my friendships, much like the one on the first level of the Museum of Sex. Nestled in glass cases along the walls would be my very first string friendship bracelets from camp, knotty and uneven with inexperience, which I made during the summers for my first Best Friend in elementary school. The countless drawings of the pair of us as mermaids, Hogwarts students, princesses, and Camp Half-Blood campers (the list truly goes on) would be tacked to the walls above:
Cecilia in Hogwarts Robes, 2011
Pencil, gel-ink ballpoint pen on paper
Gift from the artist, 2022
Moving along to sixth grade, every single physical memory was unfailingly glued to my scrapbook pages as my pre-teen self sunk her teeth into the delicious fact that I could now go out and do things. Museum visitors will lean in, scratch their chins, frown, and step back, perplexed, when faced with my obsessive collection of movie ticket stubs, brochures from Busch Gardens, and (somewhat greasy) receipts from the local burger place. My oldest friend, as curly and blond as my hair is pin-straight and brown, would take my receipt and meticulously fold it into little rectangles. When she finished, I in turn pulled it back and tucked it into my Vera Bradley wallet. Even then, at eleven, we had our little rituals. Even now, as nineteen year olds sitting across from each other at Grit Coffee on the Corner, she folds her receipts the same exact way. Like relics from a bygone era, each little piece of paper or woven string would act as historical evidence of my friendships.
During my visit to the Museum of Sex, I was caught off guard by the proximity of the history exhibit to one that addressed the complexities of sexual violence. I didn’t remember seeing it when I briefly skimmed through the website before buying my tickets, and I felt uncomfortable with the fact that the room was sandwiched in between two generally lighthearted topics. While the tone of the gallery conveyed hope and aimed to educate viewers, the experiences of the victims of violence and exploitation displayed in the gallery were so traumatic, they were best communicated without words. In truth, this meeting point of the dark and the light could not be closer to the reality of female friendships and conversations about sex – and especially conversations about sex with friends.
Some of the most sensitive conversations that require that foundation of mutual trust and empathy can evolve from the most casual conversations... I have had friends literally hold me up when I’ve broken down to them, only to be eating a frozen pizza and laughing an hour later.
Women, especially young adult women here at UVA, must talk about sex in ways that at once celebrate the fact that sex is in and of itself not a dangerous thing, but are also constantly forced – and here I do mean 24 hours, 7 days a week – to be aware of the risks surrounding it. This necessitates close female friendships that take the form of safe spaces. Between friends, solidarity, intimacy, empathy, and trust are crucial for the funny moments, genuine questions, and awkward stories that arise from last Saturday night. More importantly, though, they establish supportive environments in times of need, whether those needs are caused by the lows of day-to-day life or something more serious. Some of the most sensitive conversations that require that foundation of mutual trust and empathy can evolve from the most casual conversations. Similarly, I have had friends literally hold me up when I’ve broken down to them, only to be eating a frozen pizza and laughing an hour later.
To move through the Museum of Sex, you have to carry with you the good and the bad. While we played Skee Ball and jumped through a moon bounce made of inflated boobs, none of the three of us could quite let go of the stories of pain and trauma that we had read on the floor below. As our faces met the cold air outside, our steps matching pace, the duality of the museum resonated with us just as much as the flimsy metal bands on our ring fingers. I’ll be the first to admit that saying that the Museum of Sex represents friendship – with all of its intricacies – seems like a stretch. As time goes on, as my relationships grow or fade or end too soon or get left behind, I find myself appreciating the memories of my sunniest days as well as my mistakes and my bruises. And on the first anniversary of the Big Day, I will remind myself that even our automated wedding ceremony had a few kinks.