In honor of this most romantic of holidays, we ventured to the seedy stretch of Industrial Road—reserved for strip clubs and industrial suppliers—to interview the Erotic Heritage Museum’s resident sexologist, Laura Henkel. After earning a Ph.D. in Sexology from the Institute for the Advancement of Human Sexuality, Henkel found herself tending to America’s only nonprofit museum dedicated to all things erotic (eroticheritage.org). A self-professed traditional straight woman, Henkel hopes to make the museum as much about community and scholarship as titillation and exploration.
How does one become a sexologist?
Basically, I had an interest in psychology, and I realized I needed to specialize in something. My father is European and my mother is really down to earth, so sexuality was really open. Friends would always come to my mom or me and ask me questions. I thought, “Well, I might as well talk about sex because everyone has always asked me.”
What is a common misconception about your profession?
A lot of people think it’s just pure smut, and it’s not. It’s hard to describe to people what’s inside [the museum] because there’s so much, and you really have to just experience it.
Do you have to fight preconceived notions about the museum because of its name?
Yeah, you use the word “erotic” and it just sends shivers down people’s spine. They think whatever it is for them and usually take it to the worst common denominator.
What has been the reaction to the museum?
People say this place is amazing. They want to come back. They want to be on our mailing list. People want more. The No. 1 comment is that the place is so sophisticated and tasteful. People can experience a subject matter that usually is associated with a lot of shame or discomfort, and deal with it as an adult.
What do you think every person who visits the museum should know?
That the place isn’t scary. It’s actually a fun place to visit. It opens up a dialogue. You really get to know someone in a safe way. It’s one thing to engage with someone personally on an intimate level and this is another way to engage with someone on an intellectual level that’s intimate.
What’s your favorite part about your job?
One, I really meet incredible people. Be it artists, be it educators, be it just the people who come to visit. It’s just amazing that people who thought they were outcasted somewhere can discover that, no, you’re not outcasts. They may be doing something a little different but they’re not alone in the world. Another thing I like here is that people have fun regarding sexuality. It can be flirting; it can be discovery. I like the fact that everyone comes out of here with a smile on their face.
How do you define “sexy”?
Personally, I think what’s sexy is what works in the mind. I like things that are intellectual and fun. I like where there’s no judgment. Someone might be very comfortable with whom they are in terms of their values and their mores but that they can be open to what other people may be doing in the world. My big motto is, as long as it’s respectable, responsible and consensual, you’re good.