Ex-Museum of Sex tour guide sues over alleged sexual harassment

A spokesperson for the New York City museum said it makes "every effort to protect its employees, and Ms. McMahon’s allegations to the contrary are unfounded."
Image: The Museum of Sex in New York in 2011.
The Museum of Sex in New York in 2011.Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images file

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By Minyvonne Burke

A former tour guide at New York City's Museum of Sex filed a lawsuit claiming that she and some of her colleagues were sexually harassed by intoxicated customers and staff, and that the management did not take immediate action when they complained.

Katherine McMahon worked as a part-time gallery worker giving tours at the museum from February 2018 until December 2018. During her almost yearlong employment, she said she endured "constant and persistent sexual harassment from Museum customers," according to a suit filed Wednesday in Manhattan Supreme Court.

The harassment ranged from "utterly inappropriate sexual language" to groping, according to the lawsuit.

The staff would also be asked questions about their sex lives, the lawsuit states.

"The Museum of Sex, despite its provocative advertisements, is still a place of work, and, as such, its employees are entitled to a workplace free of sexual harassment," the suit states. "The Museum cannot continue to get away with refusing to address systemic sexual harassment."

During an October 2018 incident, two patrons asked McMahon if they could "have sex in the bounce house," an area with inflatable breasts. When McMahon refused and told them that having sex in public is illegal, the visitors asked her to "spank them."

McMahon and several other gallery attendants made repeated complaints to the management and human resources but "nothing of substance was done to improve the working conditions," according to the suit. Following one complaint, McMahon was told by the management that it was "the nature of the establishment," according to the suit.

In an email to higher-ups, the gallery and retail staff expressed concern that the museum extending its hours would only allow for more intoxicated customers. The workers asked the management to keep customers who are drunk from entering the museum and demanded a better way to report instances of sexual harassment.

"There is no way for us to call security when we need them, and further, when we are able to report sexual harassment or assault, the patron is simply followed throughout the rest of the museum instead of rightfully asked to leave," read the email, which was included in the lawsuit. "We ask that HR take these concerns more seriously — the response in the past has been dismal."

The staff ended the email by offering ways that the management could handle their grievances, such as issuing a code of conduct on how customers should act in the museum and treat workers. The lawsuit alleges that it took months for the management to implement some of the suggestions and that they did not make a code of conduct easily accessible on its website.

In addition to the complaints about the environment at her job, McMahon alleges that her bosses did not accommodate her illness. According to the suit, she has endometriosis which causes fatigue and extreme pain.

McMahon had asked her supervisors to allow her time to sit during her shifts, which they agreed to do but would reprimand her when they found her doing so.

According to the lawsuit, McMahon suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia, anxiety and depression. She is seeking unspecified damages.

A spokesperson for the Museum of Sex called McMahon's lawsuit "meritless" and said her claims were "unfounded."

"We are disappointed by Ms. McMahon’s decision to file a lawsuit and take her meritless case into the public arena. The Museum of Sex makes every effort to protect its employees, and Ms. McMahon’s allegations to the contrary are unfounded," Tripp Potts said in a statement.

"Further, the Museum repeatedly and consistently accommodated Ms. McMahon’s medical needs, and would have continued to do so had she not elected to voluntarily resign her employment," he said. "Ultimately, we will prove that Ms. McMahon’s claims are baseless and we look forward to resolving the matter."

McMahon's lawyer, Walker G. Harman, told NBC News in a statement that "no 'museum' is immune from anti-discrimination laws, regardless of its subject matter."