Within seconds of arriving, you sense the Museum of Sex Objects is not going to be your average museum. Buzzed in from an intercom off a Covent Garden side street, you are whisked through a paved courtyard by a guardian known as The Keeper, and ushered into the inner sanctum.
The Keeper may or may not be sporting a bright red cloak, channeling Offred from The Handmaid's Tale.
For a city rippled through with lust, vice, debauched and an incessant desire to bother boundaries, London is oddly gauche about sex. Its trinkets and tomes of erotica have traditionally remained stashed out of sight, in hidden rooms and private cases, such as the British Library's 2,500 tomes of naughtiness.
Deborah Sim — the current 'Keeper' of the Museum of Sex Objects — is ringing in the changes by inviting the public on personal tours of artefacts and letters that weave stories of London's sexuality through the ages: slipware pottery depicting the 'Winchester Geese' prostitutes of medieval Southwark; a replica of a meretrix whip, fashioned from blonde hair and symbolic of the 'high-end' calls girls once the height of fashion throughout the Roman Empire. "A lot of objects we see in museums are actually replicas of the real thing anyway," says Sim.
Objects related to sex are not traditionally kept and passed down the generations — there's a sense of embarrassment or even shame about them. That makes Sim's collection all the more extraordinary.
An artist and former creator of music videos (she worked with Diana Ross back in the day), Sim's museum is inspired by countless hours with her nose stuck in old books, determined to winkle out the bare truth, and present it in a museum of her own design.
The museum also happens to be Sim's house. Its rooms are now taken up by a rack of spanking branches (holly is, apparently, for the older gentleman with tougher flesh); porcelain figurines of mollys and a particularly dominant pair of penises scrawling in chalk onto a slate canvas. The latter is a reference to some graffiti which poet and literary critic John Addington Symonds stumbled upon near Leicester Square in 1886. It chilled him to the bone, not because it promoted homosexuality, but because it promoted proletariat homosexuality.
Sim is currently spending her nights on a blow-up bed. A washing machine whirrs away on spin cycle, and her 21-year-old son has a mate around. Sex is a deeply personal thing, so in a way, someone's home seems a fitting framing device. Yet Sim is reluctant to talk about the act of sex itself. She recalls being on a BBC radio show recently and putting the presenter in his place, "I said the museum's not about how you have sex, it's how you show your sexuality."
So this isn't London's answer to those museums of erotica frequented by stag dos and frisky couples on trips to the continent. "It's a museum for a post truth time," says Sim, as a gaggle of schoolchildren flood out of the school past the open window.
She singles out a Rococo figurine of Gabriel Lawrence posing as a milkmaid; Lawrence was a 'molly' hanged at Tyburn following a raid on Mother Clap's Molly House, near Farringdon. "Everyone was having too much fun back then," says Sim dryly, before leading us on to a Wedgwood loving cup, crafted to commemorate 1967's Sexual Offences Act, which made homosexuality legal in the UK. The cup is in an old shoe box, found in an attic by the owner's niece. It's lined with a sheet from the Mirror, dated the day after the act was passed.
This collection of objects might appear haphazard, but they're stringed together by the 'People of the Red X' — a clandestine outfit committed to preserving accounts of sexual practices. Their first Keeper, says Sim, was Lady Sexburga of Ely, Queen of Kent, back in the 7th century. Objects are brought to the Keeper during their tenure, and handed down from one to the next. They are often marked with a red X.
You come into the Museum of Sex Objects expecting one thing, and leave having experienced something altogether different. In between there's a moment where you reel back and go "Sorry, so it's... what...?".
"People find it hard to compute, or are even upset," says Sim. But what she is doing here, Sim says, is only what, say, Hilary Mantel did with Wolf Hall. Great amounts of research have gone into this pint-sized museum — and anyway, it's making some pertinent points about how our views on sexuality have evolved, and also how they haven't.
"I'm not a fraud as such," Sim laughs, adding, "You know when you've just got to do something?"
Visit the Museum of Sex Objects website, to contact Debora for a personal tour