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Art

The Curator of the Erotic

She went from a Lutheran school in a small Texas town to director of a sex-based museum in Las Vegas, but Dr. Laura Henkel has no regrets

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Dr. Laura Henkel relaxes with two of her museum co-workers.
Photo: Beverly Poppe
Kate Silver

A nun is walking staccato-like through a parking lot on Industrial Road, habit blowing in the breeze, zip in her stride, obviously unsure of where to go. Her face is painted as white as a Hollywood smile, and a slit in her shiny black vinyl skirt bares occasional peeps at her hairy legs. The sister walks up the stairs on the east side of the building and gazes curiously at a door. She smiles serenely through her goatee.

“The entrance is over here!” a woman in a black dress and heels calls up from street level, walking in the same direction she points.

“Thank you,” says the nun, hopping down the stairs.

“You look lovely,” says the woman.

“I was going to say the same to you,” says the nun. “Love the black.”

Rounding the corner of the building, they arrive at the entrance to Las Vegas’ newest museum, Harry Mohney’s Erotic Heritage Museum (formerly Déjà Vu Love Boutique, located next to the Déjà Vu strip club). The nun turns out to be a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (a philanthropic organization whose members also happen to dress in drag), and will be blessing the building a little later.

They’re greeted by two life-sized, motion-activated figures, who open their trench coats and flash visitors while shouting out “Welcome!” to the party. Inside the museum, dozens of men and women sip champagne and admire all that the museum has to offer, making their way from Larry Flynt’s gold wheelchair to a display of sex toys (one of which is solar-powered), gazing in pained interest at the deflowering instruments, smiling at the erotic comic book collection and the erotic videos on display, discussing the erotic art.

Inside the Erotic

The epicenter of the museum is the House of Gord display. Jeff Gord is a hydraulic, electrical, structural and civil engineer who combined his scientific know-how with his love of women to create these … machines. They’re designed to fulfill sado-masochistic and bondage-and-discipline tastes. Some are active, like the mouse wheel, where the woman must keep up a particular clip and is stimulated as her reward for doing so. Others are passive, like the lamp stand, office chair and chandelier, where women simply perch and become part of the furniture.

The House of Gord models are here for tonight’s party. Though they’re not playing on the machines, they’re keeping busy in other ways. Two brunettes are chained to one another, and one of them has her hands bound behind her back. They’re wearing all white, and their waists are cinched by black leather so that they look just a few inches wide. A redhead leads the duo around, telling them when to sit, when to stop and when to pose for photos with the male guests.

In the background of it all, an elegant blond woman with a heart-shaped face and clever blue eyes greets guests with a warm hug. She’s wearing a flowing black-and-white gown, and as she makes introductions her voice is soft and her Southern drawl slight. Like a doting mother, the woman manages to be in about three places at once, mingling with guests, ensuring that the models have everything they need and directing traffic upstairs to hear a comedian’s brothel-themed routine. Though she doesn’t own the museum, it is unquestionably Dr. Laura Henkel’s baby.

So just how did this 41-year-old woman, who spent her formative years at a Lutheran school in a small Texas town, go from being a Toy Tiger Drill Team member to the artistic director and associate curator of an erotic museum in Las Vegas?

“I’ve always been open about sexuality,” says Henkel. “Growing up it was never an issue.” Maybe so-called “ladies” didn’t talk about such things in Irving, Texas, but in Henkel’s childhood household, sex was never a dirty topic. She remembers going to an art gallery with her grandmother and looking at paintings from the 1700s, when her grandmother burst into a rhyme:

The Erotic Heritage Museum

“In days of old when knights were bold and the ladies weren’t too particular/The knights would lean them against a wall and screw them perpendicular.”

“I was just floored,” laughs Henkel, with her Southern lilt. The bawdiness stuck with her (as did the rhyme).

“She was always a determined child,” says Jackie Baxter, Henkel’s mom, during a phone call from her home in Irving. “She always had a good strong head on her shoulders.” Then she adds, “I’m really proud of her. I think maybe her mind might be a little bit too open, but that’s just her generation. She’s a good girl.”

When she graduated from high school, Henkel wasn’t quite ready for college. “I had a good time in my 20s and was not interested in school,” she admits.

She spent time in Miami and then San Francisco, working as a legal secretary for 18 years. When she was ready to settle into a collegiate schedule, she enrolled at John F. Kennedy University, a small school in Berkeley (with two other California campuses), where she studied liberal arts and psychology. After graduating she knew she wanted to be a fertility counselor for couples. She decided to get her doctorate in sexuality at a unique school called the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. In an effort to simplify her life she bought a boat to live on. That’s where she would write her dissertation.

Henkel began intellectualizing that which most people follow on instinct, and learning everything there was to learn about sex. She took classes such as Sexual Anthropology, Female Sexuality and Sexual Attitude, and watched 300 hours of adult films. But the class that truly changed her life was called Erotology, which is the scientific study of the graphic depiction of sex and love. During that course she started looking into the value of erotic art, particularly the collection of Dr. (and Rev.) Ted McIlvenna. He had a series of original adult-movie posters that he’d been selling for about $20 each. He also happened to be president of the school and trustee of the Exodus Trust, which for 40 years has been collecting and preserving erotic art, relics and devices. Now, at age 76, he clearly remembers the day Henkel went from a fresh-faced student to something more.

“She went after me and said, ‘Do you understand the value of this material? Don’t you know it’s a lot more valuable than what you’re saying?’” he recalls.

“And damned if she wasn’t right.”

After extensive research, the posters sold for thousands of dollars each at auction, bringing in nearly $200,000. All thanks to the fresh-faced student.

“I told her get on a plane right now and go to Paris and all the museums and talk to the collectors of this stuff,” recalls McIlvenna. “And then I said go to Italy and do the same thing.” Henkel spent three years traveling Europe and Asia. “She came back and over the next couple of years became the best in the field,” says McIlvenna.

Her drive and passion to save what she deems our erotic heritage is seemingly unrivaled. Whether she’s rescuing items from the trash or explaining to collectors the value of their erotic comic book collections or pornographic videos, Henkel has found her life’s calling. She’s like a roving anthropologist whose mission is to preserve the sexual relics that many deem trash, smut. To her, it’s folk art that makes a statement about who and where we are as a culture. Just as ancient artifacts and paintings belong in a museum, so does the evidence of our sexual proclivities. It’s a lens through which we can see the experiences of others, and ourselves.

Of course, back when he sent Henkel to Paris, McIlvenna wasn’t thinking about the impact the newfound interest could and would have on his own collection, or the tour de force he was creating.

“One day she came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you protect the rare books in your library? Do you know that you have material that nobody in the world has? If those are lost, we’ll never get them back.’

“I told her, ‘Mind your own business.’

“She said, ‘You told me this is my business, and I took it seriously. Now this is my business, and you’re to blame.’”

So when McIlvenna and Harry Mohney, who founded the Déjà Vu strip clubs and also has an extensive collection of his own, began talking about opening a museum, which would be owned and managed by the Exodus Trust, the reverend knew exactly which houseboat to approach to find the artistic director and associate curator. Henkel, who by then had earned an advanced degree in human sexuality and a Ph.D. in erotic art, accepted. She packed up the boat and moved to Sin City.

About a week after the museum’s August opening, Henkel walks through the contemporary and keenly designed space with ease, sharing rich stories about different displays and memories. She speaks candidly about her visits to dungeons here and abroad as research, prattles about the history of peep shows and adult video booths and glory holes in the same manner she would tell you how she likes her eggs cooked. Videos play throughout the museum, and there’s an appropriate moaning soundtrack to her words.

When asked about the weirdest experience she’s had, Henkel thinks for a moment. As an academic, she’s not comfortable with value judgments accompanying sex.

“My friends all think I’ve done weird things,” she allows. “All my friends say I should be writing everything down. Every now and then I would catch Sex and the City with them, and I would be like, ‘Oh, God, been there, done that, okay, I don’t need to be watching Sex and the City.’ I think I’ve just had some really fun adventures, like going to the House of Gord.”

Located outside of Seattle, the House of Gord, at least judging from its website, makes the machines at the museum look almost tame. There, women take the forms of sprinklers, weather vanes, hood ornaments. But there is at least one commonality here and there: the ponies.

“I found myself at the House of Gord, and I’m like, when does a girl get an opportunity to be in a place like this? I wasn’t all that comfortable to try one of the fucking machines. But I was like, ‘Can I please try on one of those pairs of shoes?’”

She’s referring to a pair of boots, which can be seen at the museum, meant for women dressed as “ponies” who pull a chariot.

“It’s literally the ballet shoe, in the toe position, and the heel just goes straight down. These models walk in those things for like 12 hours; they can run in them, and they’re the sexiest boots. So I tried a pair on, and as soon as I did I felt charley horses, I fell backwards. These women are athletes! I mean, it’s incredible.”

While she cherishes those memories and experiences with a healthy sense of curiosity and a hearty sense of humor, Henkel is quick to point out that in addition to the House of Gord and the trench-coat flashers and the solar-operated vibrators, the museum carries a deep and noble message. It’s an important reminder of the value of free speech, education and awareness. And it’s also a humanizing place in its ability to open eyes to what’s out there, and who’s doing it—and how fun and lighthearted it can be. Beneath our often puritanical faces, we humans are a randy lot.

“Everyone has a kink, no matter what it is,” says Henkel. “Everyone’s bent in some way, shape or form. Whether you’re a morning person or a night person or you like this or you like that. Those are kinks. Our proclivities. And it’s really not right to put someone else down, because it could go right back at you.”

Back at the party, the House of Gord models are up to something. One of the brunettes has changed into a red latex catsuit, and the redhead leads her to a cordoned-off area, where a man in a shirt with a House of Gord crest helps rearrange her chains (the other brunette is off-duty and mingling). The tall model takes a seat on what looks like a gym bench with a wheel on the bottom. She’s tied so that her legs squeeze tightly against her chest. Her arms are festooned to the side of the bench. A couple of audience members wince as they watch her body compacting, her outfit stretching. It’s impossible to see if the model herself is wincing, because a black leather face mask covers everything except her nose and eyes. The tighter she’s pulled, the shinier her eyes get.

“She’s in pain,” says an older gentleman bystander, pausing for effect, “but she’s loving it.” He shrugs.

The nun is nearby, feeling up the wandering Gord girl. He takes a break to look over at the shackled woman, as she’s wheeled through the museum. “I smell sweat!” he shouts, beaming, to no one in particular.

The Gord girl’s scream is muffled under her semi-hood, jarring a man who’s been texting nearby. He looks up, then down, taking it all in. “To each his own,” he says, eyes a bit wider then a moment ago, and he walks away.

The message couldn’t be any clearer if Henkel had said it herself.

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