I took Pornhub’s tour of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s nudes

Believe it or not, the adult site’s ‘Classic Nudes’ self-guided tour was less pervy than it was enlightening.

Author Matt Wille in front of Gustave Courbet's The Source (1862), at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Matt Wille

Getting lost at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is less a rite of passage than it is a reality of exploring such a ginormous museum space.

I’ve never been to The Met and not gotten lost. But ending up adrift in the museum’s impressive collection as a consequence of hunting for nudes — well, that’s a new one for me.

Earlier this week, Pornhub announced “Classic Nudes,” a series of interactive guides to “some of the sexiest scenes in history at the world’s most famous museums” — including The Met, Paris’ Louvre, Madrid’s Prado Museum, and London’s National Gallery. You can take all the tours virtually, but I was curious about the IRL experience. So I did what any somewhat bored, sex-positive journalist would do: I checked out the Met’s tour for myself.

The author outside The MetMatt Wille

I went into the experience mostly blind. I knew ahead of time that some of the tour stops included narration by Ilona Staller, the former porn star and politician better known as Cicciolina (who, by the way, was once the wife and muse of pop artist Jeff Koons). I also knew that most of the tour’s landmarks chosen at The Met were paintings, with a couple of statues thrown in for good measure.

After checking in at the ticketing booth — the staffer behind the plexiglass barrier did not have any idea what I meant by “the Classic Nudes tour,” but seemed intrigued when I showed her its landing page on my phone — I set out to find French painter Camille Corot’s Diana and Actaeon (1836). Based on Pornhub’s map, it seemed like an easy enough place to start, set off from the rest of the first floor as it was.

Camille Corot’s Diana and Actaeon (1836)

My instincts here could not have been more wrong. I ended up looping around the general area where I thought I’d find the painting three or four times before realizing it was in a room right off the rotunda, not, as I’d first thought, in the rotunda itself.

This quickly became an ongoing theme of my tour. You see, Pornhub’s map leaves a lot to be desired. Even with the help of The Met’s “Living Map” open in another tab for cross-reference, locating each stop on the tour was pretty difficult. Pornhub’s map includes no reference points other than a vague overview of the general area in which the painting or sculpture can be found. Room numbers or even just gallery descriptions would’ve made the hunt much less taxing.

This unintentional meandering did have one fortunate side effect. With nudes at the forefront of my mind, I ended up finding a bunch of scantily clad subjects that had been left out of the tour. French painter Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Women Bathing (1892) ended up being right where I thought the Corot painting would be, for example. Finding these other gems got me thinking about how exactly Pornhub curated its tour. Why, for instance, had Gauguin’s nude been excluded?

Officer & Gentlemen, the design firm Pornhub worked with on this tour, had the answer: Gauguin is canceled. “The original long list of paintings was put together by ourselves and vetted by a team of art historians here in Spain, who gave us insight into each piece and helped us remove those with questionable backgrounds or subject matters,” Officer & Gentlemen co-founder Alex Katz tells Input via email. And when I took a few minutes to Google Gauguin on the subway home, I found out about his very problematic history with portrayals of Polynesian people.

Despite Pornhub’s insistence that it worked to feature “as many works by women and BIPOC artists as possible” and its inclusion of a section on the Classic Nudes site meant to highlight diversity in the world of naked art, every work but two on my tour were created by white men. It’s no wonder, then, that the vast majority of the stops on the tour are of nude women.

Edgar Degas’ Male Nude (1856) features the lone peen on the tour.

The Met tour includes just one male nude, an unfinished Degas portrait. Sure, there aren’t nearly as many famous paintings of naked men as there are naked women — but there are plenty of visible penises at The Met, especially attached to male statues. The first- or second-century sculpture of Aphrodite included in the tour could’ve very easily been replaced with any number of naked Greek men, for example. There are only so many white womens’ butts you can see before they all start to look the same.

Curation issues aside, I genuinely enjoyed the Classic Nudes tour. The Met, which I’ve always viewed as a pretty conservative space, came alive with fresh, horned-up feeling as I ran around looking for all the best nudes it could offer. The descriptions Pornhub’s written for each piece are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. To wit: “Water has often been used by artists throughout history to represent sperm. And that’s why many of us refer to the ocean as God’s bukkake. Or is that just me?”

And the audio narration by the Hungarian-Italian Cicciolina — who speaks in a thick accent and really hams up the performance — takes the tour to the next level. “Okay, I know what you’re thinking: per-ky,” she says of French painter Gustave Courbet’s The Woman in the Waves (1868). “Right… now focus on the art.”

Gustave Courbet’s The Woman in the Waves (1868)

I had thought I might feel a little pervy visiting The Met just for nudes; instead it made the museum’s collection come alive in ways I’d forgotten it could. Okay, actually there was one moment when the tour left me genuinely uncomfortable: The tour page for Degas’ Male Nude includes a seemingly harmless video that turns into an extremely graphic blowjob scene. Luckily, no nosy tourists were looking over my shoulder.

Given the year Pornhub has had in the media — a December 2020 New York Times column about exploitative and illegal porn on the site prompted the company to nuke millions of videos — it’s a little difficult for me to see beyond Classic Nudes as a reputation-rebuilding PR stunt. But as far as PR stunts go — and despite the project’s emphasis on the cis white male gaze — this is a fun one. I can tell you one thing for sure: I’ll never think of the ocean quite the same way again.