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‘Punk Lust’: How Sexuality Fueled a Musical Revolution

A new exhibit at New York’s Museum of Sex shows that punk’s transgressive spirit extended far beyond the songs themselves

Pat Bag and Alice Bag, 1978 punk lust

Alice and Pat Bag of the Bags. "Punk Lust," a new exhibit at NYC's Museum of Sex, explores the ways that sexuality infused the early punk scene.

Ruby Ray

Richard Hell is known for many things — his short-lived stint in Television, his success with the Voidoids, his long career as a downtown poet. But maybe best of all, he’s known as the handsome lothario of the 1970s NYC punk scene. Yet when cultural historian Carlo McCormick asked Hell about the connection between punk and sexuality, Hell told him that wasn’t the point. “I remember Richard Hell saying to me, ‘Well Carlo, punk wasn’t really about sex,'” McCormick says with a smile in a gallery at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan. “‘I mean, I had a lot, but it really wasn’t about that.'”

Lissa Rivera, an artist and Museum of Sex staff curator, says she got the same reaction from many of the artists and musicians she spoke with. “My response was, sex doesn’t always mean the act of sex,” she explains. “Sex is the fetish-wear, sex is putting explicit images on your album covers that will make it so you’ll never be signed to a major label. Sex is transgressions, gender expression, totally breaking free from gender norms and the role of women in rock music.” Sex, in other words, was so ubiquitous that the very people who helped create the scene didn’t even realize how much it permeated every aspect.

dead boys

Courtesy of Manic Panic/PunkArchiveNYC

In the museum’s new show “Punk Lust: Raw Provocation 1971–1985″ — on exhibit in New York through November 30th, 2019 — visitors can engage with art, images, videos and ephemera that illustrate how “the language of sexuality,” as the museum describes it, informed the music, fashion and art associated with the movement. The show covers musicians that have become icons (Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Adam Ant) as well as underground heroes like the Slits, Crass and Jayne County. Across the board, though, these artists used sexual imagery in their lyrics and album art as a way to shock. “I think the politics were different — London had the Clash, bands [with] a much more overt political agenda,” McCormick says, contrasting it to the New York scene. “But I think the sexual politics were pretty much the same.”

Yet it makes sense that some of the people involved in the scene didn’t see their movement as a sexual one — that had been for the hippies. The earlier generation rebelled by embracing free love; punk rebelled by embracing something darker. “There was a real separation from normative culture, and sexuality was a way to create the space that was inaccessible to one’s parents’ generation,” says Rivera. “Sexual relationships [in the punk scene] were more geared toward BDSM relationships, more aggressive. More interaction with violence and with risk-taking than the generation before. It was a real revolt against that.”

The show came together after Rivera, who’d grown up with a punk-record-collecting father, saw the success of “Night Fever,” a similar Museum of Sex show that examined sexuality in the disco era. “Music shows are a really great way to connect different generations,” she says. She teamed up with McCormick and with Vivien Goldman, a professor and author of the upcoming Revenge of the She-Punks: A Feminist Music History From Poly Styrene to Pussy Riot, to begin the research. They started by reaching out to Toby Mott, a punk historian who’s been building his Mott Collection archive since he was a teenage squatter in London.

In New York, the show’s organizers found that Tish and Snooky Bellomo — the sisters who opened Manic Panic, the first punk store on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, which later expanded into a hair and makeup empire — were contributing to the recently established Punk Archive NYC, “a collective of individuals who have brought together all of their personal items,” as Rivera explains it. They offered the museum the nun outfits they wore to perform as the Sick Fucs — which the pair modeled on original Manic Panic mannequins — as well as Johnny Thunders’ leather jacket from his time in the New York Dolls. They linked up with Young Kim, the director of the estate of Malcolm McClaren, proprietor of the London punk shop Sex and manager of numerous bands, including the Sex Pistols. They also found photographers who offered original shots of everything from the Dead Boys’ Stiv Bators getting a blowjob onstage to Richard Hell with his pants unzipped. “It was really wonderful because we were able to bring in a lot of voices, having worked with the photographers who were there,” Rivera says. “Not just the photographs.”

Rivera had always thought of the scene as largely heteronormative, but during her research, she found this was largely untrue. “Revisiting it, looking at the ways punk was transgressing gender norms, [it] was directly related to queerness, through Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground and Jayne County.” She did find, though, a real lack of racial diversity in her research — aside from Bad Brains, she had difficulty identifying many punks of color whose work fit in the show. “There’s people in bands here and there who should be more widely recognized, but that was kind of hard, curatorially, because it does have to be related to sex,” she says. “But Nervous Gender, the Gun Club, Poly Styrene and Pauline Black — we tried to weave these stories in.”

Putting together the show, Rivera also discovered that a surprising number of people from the the punk scene, both male and female, engaged in sex work. “There was not a wide acceptance of alternative hairstyles, of having tattoos, and there wasn’t a lot of money in being in a band,” she says. “Even if you were signed to a record label, unless you were the Sex Pistols, there wasn’t a lot of money in it. So people of all genders did experiment with sex work as a way to make money and not have to adapt to normal society.”

She points to a letter written by Sable Starr, a prominent groupie who was dating Richard Hell for a time, where she describes taking up stripping to help Hell pay off some debt. “It’s really sweet,” Rivera says. “She signs it with a lipstick kiss.” There are spreads of British avant-garde musicians Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge in a porn magazine — Tutti had become prominent in London after her Institute of Contemporary Art show “Prostitution” ruffled British feathers. “She was using porn as an art form,” Rivera says.

On a different wall, there’s a Polaroid of a half-naked Mark Morrisroe, a Boston photographer and performance artist who helped create the Boston punk scene, and who died of AIDS at the age of 30 in 1989. “I was told this is an image he was using to advertise himself,” Rivera says. Sylvia Reed, Lou Reed’s wife and manager, was a dominatrix. So was Poison Ivy, who used the earnings to keep her band the Cramps afloat. “There was a real crossover of art and sex industry,” Rivera says. Sex work isn’t something that’s usually covered in punk histories, she notes, and given that the museum is a sex-positive institution, she was careful to not present it as something these artists and musicians were forced into. Rather, it was another medium for expression. “I don’t feel that sex work is something that you do because your desperate — ‘the record didn’t work out so she had to do porn,’” she says. “That’s a bad narrative.”

punk lust posters

Courtesy of Toby Mott/Mott Collection

One narrative that she does support, though, is how fetish and clothing shops helped create the punk community of the 1970s and 1980s. “In the punk era, stores were where people could meet,” she says. “People hung out there, there would be music playing there, it was where you’d find people to start a band with. Not everyone could afford the clothing, but it was a place where you could meet. It became like a community center.” She refers to a picture of Chrissie Hynde — the American singer who moved from Ohio to London in the 1970s, where she founded the Pretenders — with a group of people at the store Sex. “”Where do I find these people?'” Rivera says. “That’s where you go.”

Rivera points out that “Night Fever,” the disco-era Museum of Sex show, transcended being simply a museum exhibit. “It became a performance space,” says Rivera. “There’s parties that happened down there, there’s vogueing, there’s programming.” Similarly, Rivera says that she hopes the punk exhibit could be a meeting place in the way that Manic Panic and Trash and Vaudeville used to be in the East Village. “Sixty percent of our audience is women in their twenties and thirties, and I think that we get a lot of people who have just moved to New York,” she says, noting that when they get here, they find the city completely gentrified. “They’re looking for this. So these spaces are little time capsules that people can enter and learn from.”

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