Pushing Boundaries, Building Relationships

A 19th-century historic house museum may not seem like the most appropriate host for a documentary film series promoting sexual freedom. Nevertheless, since 2009 the Sex Positive Documentary Film Series (referred to as SEX+++) has found its home at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). The series has opened possibilities for one of Chicago’s oldest institutions to build new and meaningful relationships. While the content of SEX+++ has at times felt very radical for the museum, the community collaboration has been a best practice.

The sex positive movement advocates for sexual freedom and increased awareness of the role that sexuality plays in society. SEX+++ cofounder and activist Clarisse Thorn defines the mantra of the movement by saying, "among consenting adults, there is no ‘should.’" SEX+++ strives to be radically inclusive, incorporating pro-sex, pro-queer, and pro-kink films and highlighting communities that are often marginalized. The mission is to reduce stigmas and bring Chicago’s diverse sexual communities into conversation and collective action. When Clarisse and I conceived of the series, we gave serious consideration to where it would be hosted. We wanted the venue to be a cultural institution with an appealing central location, but we weren’t certain that Hull-House would be a good fit. Turns out, it was just the right place.

While known for its progressive work around immigration, education, labor, peace, and women’s rights, the Hull-House Settlement, founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr, is less identified with issues of sexuality despite being renowned as a women’s history site. The museum’s first foray into the topic of sexuality came about in 2007 when director Lisa Lee asked the public to explore Jane Addams’s closest relationship, with a reformer named Mary Rozet Smith. Lee and the Hull-House staff created three labels for a portrait of Addams’s long-term partner, each highlighting a different aspect of the history, and asked visitors to respond to the labels by choosing the one they preferred. This Alternative Labeling Project pushed visitors to consider how historical narratives are produced and proliferated. What do we gain when private (and non-heteronormative) aspects of our national heroes’ lives are revealed? What is lost when they are obscured? The project and the Museum’s effective outing of Addams’s same sex partnership led Therese Quinn, a queer educator and activist, to call Hull-House "one of Chicago’s queerest sites," opening the door for the SEX+++ Film Series and the continued exploration of sexuality at Hull-House.

When Clarisse and I started SEX+++, the museum staff continued the excavation of sexuality by researching Hull-House’s historic advocacy for sex education, which had gone unrepresented in the museum’s exhibits. The history is impressive. In 1922, Hull-House founded one of the first "family limitation centers" (birth control clinics) in Chicago. One of the residents at Hull-House, Ukrainian immigrant Rachelle S. Yarros, M.D., worked alongside Margaret Sanger as a physician and sex educator who pushed for immigrant communities to have access to education about contraception and venereal diseases. Yarros helped to found the American Social Hygiene Association and in her book, Modern Woman and Sex: A Feminist Physician Speaks (1933), she argued that women were "unwilling to be subjected to involuntary motherhood" and felt they ought to have "the power of choice." Importantly, she rejected the eugenics movement, which sought to limit the reproductive rights of immigrants and people of color, and she vigorously advocated for education and sexual pleasure for all.

At SEX+++ screenings I share bits of this history with our audience, a truly diverse group of LGBTQ advocates, students, sex workers, feminists, trans and kinky folks, and other curious attendees. At its height over 140 people attended the series each month and at least 95% of this audience had never visited the museum prior to the series. Many of these people have told me not only how surprised they were to learn that Hull-House was so progressive in matters of sex education, but also how impressed they were that the museum would take on such a potentially controversial film series. With film titles like When Two Won’t Do (on polyamory) and Hot & Bothered: Feminist Pornography, we all expected some pushback, either from UIC or the public. It hasn’t come. And Hull-House’s stance on sexuality—that sexuality plays a meaningful role in the fight for social justice, and that institutions need to resist and oppose oppression that comes from relegating topics to the private sphere—has allowed us to become an ally for the sexual communities that we work with. By using its institutional privilege and cultural capital, the Hull-House Museum is able to support the sex positive movement, providing resources, public attention, and a space for dialogue.

The relationship does present a number of challenges, requiring the museum to constantly reckon with the ideas and questions posed by the sex positive movement. The answers don’t always come easily; for example, should the museum allow the SEX+++ community curators to have full control over the series, even when their choices of pornography or the film Graphic Sexual Horror, about a highly problematic bondage pornography website, come into conflict with the museum’s feminist principles? Can or should we seek funding from Playboy when doing so may be unacceptable to the museum’s advisory board? And how, exactly, should the museum respond when two audience members take the call for sexual freedom literally … in the darkened theater during one of our screenings?

I take direction from what is perhaps the most poetic tenet of the sex positive movement: that negotiation within rela-tionships is a constant process. Consent is not a one-time decision, but must occur actively and enthusiastically as individuals explore their boundaries together. This is a lesson for all types of relationships, even institutional ones. Museums and other institutions often seek to avoid conflict, dissent, and differences, but great strength can be found within those tensions and the ability of institutions to be responsive to them. Perhaps the important thing is not to be a sex positive museum, but a museum that is in dialogue with and moving toward sex positivity.

Thanks to our continued work with the sex positive movement, the new permanent exhibition at the Hull-House Museum, opening in September 2010, will embrace topics of sexuality that have previously been overlooked or considered marginal to the museum’s mission. In the new museum, Rachelle Yarros will be highlighted and her groundbreaking work in sex education will be told for the first time alongside other reformers who worked for labor and immigrant rights, public health, and the arts. The museum will bring Addams’s sexuality from margin to center by highlighting Smith in Addams’s recreated bedroom. Never before shown love poems and letters, photographs of the two sharing their lives, and the material residue of their deep commitment will be displayed alongside Addams’s most intimate possessions, honoring this relationship as central to Addams’s life and a critical part of what sustained and motivated her work.

In her defense of Settlement work, Addams wrote, "the only thing to be dreaded in the Settlement is that it lose its flexibility, its power of quick adaptation, its readiness to change its methods as its environment may demand. It must be open to conviction and must have a deep and abiding sense of tolerance." The same might be said of any institution. The Hull-House Museum’s conviction, flexibility and willingness to push its boundaries by incorporating and critically engaging the sex positive movement has resulted in a more inclusive, more relevant and just museum, and, I believe, is an institution of which Addams would be proud. ◊