by Norine Dworkin
Despite Western art’s long tradition of the female nude, sex and art have, at best, an uneasy relationship. Traditional female nudes, styled by the male artist/creator to signify male pleasure and ownership, have taught women to view themselves as sexual commodities to be bought, sold and traded. But within a feminist context, nudity and sex can be reclaimed to enunciate an active female sexuality and pose a challenge to the female body’s passive object status. In this arena, pornography becomes a significant, highly-charged tool for exploring female sexuality and the politics of representation.
Sprinkle’s productions… tend to satirize “traditional” pornography and question its current definitions
As a former porn star and prostitute, as well as a continuing sexual explorer, photographer, videomaker, and performance artist, no one straddles the schism between pornography and art as effectively as Annie Sprinkle. Brandishing a sense of sexual potency usually accorded only to men, Sprinkle repossesses the female body, inserting a female subjectivity into the canon of representation.
Sprinkle first ventured into the art realm with “Deep Inside Porn Stars,” which replicated a round table rap session of sex industry professionals, at the New York performance space Franklin Furnace in 1984. The following year she was “discovered” at a 42nd Street porn theater by director/professor/scholar Richard Schechner, who was showing his New York University Performance Studies class “non-traditional” performance not generally considered to be performance. Taken with her alienating stance toward burlesque, Schechner invited her to participate in his production, “The Prometheus Project,” where she performed her Nurse Sprinkle routine, including pie charts and graphs illustrating why she chose a career in the sex industry and a striptease sex ed class where she asked the audience to examine her labia with a flashlight and describe its texture and color.
This is a distancing technique I’ve seen Sprinkle use often, and it is one of her most effective, indeed Brechtian, tools for inverting the iconography of porn, forcing the usually passive pornography spectator to confront and perhaps reevaluate his own position in the patriarchal active/passive system of watching and being watched. In a paper about this performance, Schechner wrote, “At each increment of sexual opportunity, Sprinkle interviews the spectator asking him [sic] to describe what he sees, or how he feels. This automatically distances the action from its own sexual possibilities – making it antiporn or a send-up of porn.
Ironic both in stance and presentation, Sprinkle’s productions do tend to satirize “traditional” pornography and question its current definitions. Using pornographic language to hamstring male oriented and dominated pornographic conventions, Sprinkle’s subject is always the acknowledgment and articulation of female sexuality and subjectivity, undercutting the manner in which male desire has, for centuries, constructed females and female sexuality as passive, available, yielding. Grounded in the feminist, autobiographical performance tradition pioneered by artists such as Eleanor Antin and Linda Montano (the artist who has perhaps influenced her most), the tale Sprinkle tells in so many variations is essentially Woman’s relationship to sex, her body, and personal identity.
Transforming or performing autobiography in ways that transcend race, gender and age boundaries, rendering it nothing more than historical fiction or fantasy has long been a part of the articulation of female subjectivity. With Antin, who spent a month in 1980 living in New York as “Eleanora Antinova” the celebrated Black ballerina from the Ballets Russes, while she performed “Recollections of My Life With Diaghilev,” and Montano, who created life performances around “nurse” and “Salvation Army Bell Ringer” figures, Sprinkle shares a determination for constructing alternative versions of “self.”
“Ellen/Annie,1′ performed in both “Annie Sprinkle, Post Porn Modernist” and its reprise, “Post, Post Porn Modernist,” juxtaposes photographs of “pre-Annie” Ellen Steinberg, a shy, Jewish girl from the suburbs, with the wild Queen of Kink. Slide after slide of retiring wallflower set against blatant exhibitionist illustrates a desire to stretch the limits of identity and a refusal to be bound by cultural stereotypes. Similarly, “Annie/ Anya” details, again through slides, Annie’s transition away from raunchy sex. Created for “Post, Post Porn Modernist,” “Anya” reveals a new, less risque, but equally sexual identity that speaks to Sprinkle’s evolving interest in the spiritual side of sex.
What these segments, along with other vignettes such as “Before and After: The Transformation Salon” (depicting sex industry workers and ordinary women before and after they’ve been made up to look like sexy centerfolds) and the slut/Goddess and fetish clothing segments of her new video, “The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop or How To Be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps, “have in common is active encouragement for women to examine their many-faceted sexualities. “You can change your consciousness by changing your clothes,” Sprinkle says in “Sluts and Goddesses.”
Writing in her 1979 essay, “Feminism, Moralism and Pornography,” Ellen Willis stated, “A woman who enjoys pornography (even if that means enjoying a rape fantasy) is in a sense a rebel, insisting on an aspect of her sexuality that has been defined as a male preserve.”
Sprinkle is such a rebel. In addition to her two stage productions, since leaping into the art world, Sprinkle has produced four films/videos – “Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle;” “Linda, Les, and Annie: The First Female To Male Transsexual Love Story;” and “Rites of Passion,” about her introduction to Tantric sex. She has also appeared as herself in Monika Treut’s film, “My Father Is Coming.” She runs spiritual sex workshops and seminars, is a porn photographer and regularly contributes to sex mags such as Adam. The story of her life in porn and art is told through photos and narrative in the book, Annie Sprinkle Post Porn Modernist.
Through all of her pieces, Sprinkle works to conflate the chasm between the “good” girls and the “bad,” showing that the slut and the goddess (madonna/whore) are one and the same. Ultimately she points the way to a new, feminist, erotic spectacle that encourages women to discover and explore their sexuality in whatever form it takes.
In doing this there is no question that as a performer, Sprinkle skates close to obscenity’s edge, something that has made even some propornography feminists very uncomfortable. In her two stage productions I have seen – “Annie Sprinkle Post Porn Modernist” and “Post, Post Porn Modernist” – she has douched, masturbated, displayed her cervix, fellated dildoes, juggled her breasts, and posed for “tits on your head” photos with any audience member willing to pay five dollars. Sprinkle would be the first to affirm that her performances derive directly from pornography, and that, at least on certain levels, she has more in common with the sex industry than the art world. I am particularly uncomfortable with her “tits on the head” photos, an act she unabashedly describes as “prostitution,” as this is the least ironic, and actually serves to reinforce the exploitation of the female body that the rest of her show seeks to dismantle.
But the bulk of the short pieces making up her shows and video remain very political and affirming in their celebration and examination of female sexuality. In “Public Cervix Announcement” Sprinkle shows diagrams of the female reproductive system. Then, spreading open her vagina with a speculum, Sprinkle invites the audience to inspect her with a flashlight and comment on what they see. This is not just sexual spectacle, nor mere peep show. By inviting people to peer into her vaginal canal, Sprinkle not only comments on society’s fetishization of female genitalia, she demystifies one of the oldest icons in Western art and literature – the vagina denta, a dark, mysterious, potentially dangerous region. Passing out flashlights to curious spectators and making them comment on what they see, Sprinkle quite literally “enlightens” the crowd about the mysteries within.
In “Sluts and Goddesses” Sprinkle takes this a step further in a way that she probably cannot in a live performance: Framing an assistant’s vagina in extreme close-up, Sprinkle advises her to lovingly explore it, to relish its texture, taste and smells, thus dismantling what our society, through a campaign of flavored douches, feminine washes and deodorant tampons has constructed as unclean. “Your pussy is your friend,” Sprinkle counsels video viewers.
Although when I’ve interviewed Sprinkle in the past she has been more than open about her early years as a porn star, these days she’s more reluctant, countering probing questions with “I did the book so I wouldn’t have to tell stories of the past.”
She is, however, always more than willing to discuss her thoughts on sex, art, pornography and her current projects. What follows are excerpts from two separate interviews – the first in 1990, when she was performing “Annie Sprinkle Post Porn Modernist” and the second in 1992 after the release of “Sluts and Goddesses.”
You chose your “Annie Sprinkle” alias at 18?
Actually 19. By 181 was into prostitution and 191 was into pornography. The character was just because I didn’t like Ellen at all. I was working in a massage parlor, and I needed a name. The manager said, why not Annie? So I said o.k.. You used to change your name all the time, but somehow Annie stuck. Sprinkle was after I did a couple of movies. There were a couple I did as “Annie Sands,” because I figured it was from the desert; I liked the beach. Then it still wasn’t right. I had to think of a name because I did a movie, and they wanted to give me the credit. Sprinkle just popped into my head. I always say that God gave it to me. I always liked “Sprinkle” because it’s confetti to me, and I like the relationship to sex. Wet, wetness, all the types of wet. And, of course, as I got into porn, I was the girl who’d do anything. I’d do some golden showers scenes. Everyone assumed I picked the name because of that, but that wasn’t true.
How much of your performance material is drawn from your own life?
All of it is. Being raised in the suburbs, for women in our society, sex is such a big secret horrible thing. I was really scared of it. I was never sexually abused or anything horrible, but that was just fear I had. After I lost my virginity and found out that it wasn’t so bad, I became really curious and wanted to know everything there was to know about sex. I never thought I’d be onstage as an actress doing a one-woman show, a performance artist. I just thought I’d be a porn star.
What role do humor and parody play in your performances?
I’m not really interested in being erotic. I’m not trying to turn these people on at all. I worked for years turning people on. Now, I’m not interested in that, artistically. That’s the goal of porno movies, the goal of stripping, the goal of writing stories for sex magazines. Now, I’m more interested in looking at sex in all the other ways it can be looked at.
I think that humor helps ease the pain at looking at sexuality. It’s not easy for people. Sometimes people get upset or freaked out. The humor makes it easier to take; makes the medicine easier to swallow. I don’t really like upsetting people. I don’t want to provoke people to be angry. I didn’t want to be on the 700 Club as “There’s the devil.” I don’t want to pick a fight. But then, I can’t be stifled.
Do you think you’re objectifying yourself by performing this kind of material?
I don’t know if I’m turning myself into an object. I’m focusing on one aspect of myself. My sexual and spiritual side, which is right now my interest in terms of my work. For example, if you have a magazine that’s about hairdos, you,focus on the hairdo. If you have a magazine that’s about cooking, you focus on the recipe. All those feminists are so uptight: “Sex magazines don’t give the whole picture, the whole woman. They don’t tell about the person.” Why should they? We’re talking about sex here. We’re looking at bodies, we’re looking at curves, we’re looking at breasts, we’re looking at sex. In terms of my show, I think I’m trying to give lots of different thoughts and different aspects of my own sexuality. What’s wrong with being exciting? What’s wrong with desire?
“Post Porn Modernist” has shown up in the titles of both your stage shows. What does it mean?
It implies something after regular porn; it implies something artistic. To me, it’s the genre of sexually explicit performance of materials that are more feminist, intellectual, more creative, more artistic than regular porn, but still has sexually explicit things to look at. It’s about sex. It’s very difficult to do anything that’s really about sex that has no sex in it. Sex is an issue for everyone, whether they’re celibate, or promiscuous. It’s very under explored. My job in life is to explore it and make things about what I find.
I’ve noticed that your performances have started to gravitate toward more spiritual subject matter, away from the raunchy, transgressive sex you focused on in your past performances. Why are you interested in spiritual sex?
It’s a new fetish. The more I’ve learned about sex, the more I find how much we can learn. We’re really just in kindergarten when it comes to sex. There’s much higher levels and more spiritual levels to sex than most of us know. Slowly, I’ve been learning more about these and I find it deeply fulfilling and satisfying to have that kind of sex. It’s my favorite subj ect to talk about actually. More sacred sex, more spiritual sex, more healing sex. When you’re cooking you can make basic meals, you learn certain skills, but after a while, you want to learn gourmet cooking, so you go take a class, you practice and get more experimental. I’m at that point where I’m learning more about gourmet sex.
What’s involved in spiritual sex?
Basically with spiritual sex you need a lot more time to get to the higher states. It’s lifelong training; everything you do is toward that. For example, exercise. I go swimming, and it’s with the awareness that this keeps my sexual energy up. Or I try to eat a certain way, as best I can, knowing that that effects my sexual energy. It’s constantly keeping the energy up and flowing. At a certain point you find a partner or a group, or even alone. I would prepare everything very beautifully, take the phone off the hook, lock the door, take 10-12 hours to do this. To get to those really altered states you have to go very slowly and keep building and building and building. You have to go into total relaxation, into really emptying, going into nothingness, and really combining your energy with your partner or partners, or elements like the city, the country, the sky, the earth. You go past your body, you become spiritual. You use your body, and you use your sexuality to go beyond your body. It becomes a kind of transcendental, mystical, cosmic, ecstatic, blissful, (I hate to use the word religious), deeply connected to the oneness of everything type feeling. Anyone can do it, and it’s not the only way. People get to that state in many different ways.
If people were interested in learning how to do this, how would they start? By taking some workshops, Tantric or Taoist. There are techniques. Tantra is a science, if you do a certain type of breathing with a partner, it’s going to cause a certain effect: If you lay with their toes on your third eye and your toes on their third eye, and you lay in that position for a half an hour, and imagine a circle of energy going around, you’re going to get a certain feeling. With that kind of thing you’re dealing more with subtle energies. I’m finding that’s where I’m at because I’ve been dealing more with the physical and the more wild, frenetic kind of energy. These more spiritual states are quite often a more subtle, meditative use of the sexual energy.
The culminating scene of both “Annie Sprinkle Post Porn Modernist” and “Post, Post Porn Modernist” is a sampling of spiritual sex. You wear a sheer ceremonial robe; you light candles for your friends who have died of AIDS; and then you start deep breathing and masturbation. The audience shakes handmade rattles they’ve been given and actually cheer you on to orgasm. What is happening to you as you perform? Do you actually achieve orgasm? Do you go into a trance? On a good day, not always. But I definitely go into an altered state, I definitely change where I’m at.
That scene’s kind of amazing because I’ve felt such a wide variety of things. I’ve done that ritual, and I’ve felt silly and embarrassed, and I’ve done it and felt like the most powerful woman on earth. I’ve done it where I’ve had incredible clitoral orgasms, and I’ve done it where I haven’t felt anything in my clit, and I’ve felt everything in my head, in my third eye, or everything in my heart. It’s a total experiment. I know also for the audience, it’s a kind of mirror, and it makes them feel a huge array of emotions. Some might be totally uncomfortable and embarrassed and freaked out, and some might feel ecstatic.
Some women have spontaneous orgasms, and they come back and they’re vibrating with energy, and they don’t know what happened to them. It’s always different. Sometimes the energy’s not there, and I’ve learned how to accept that. It could have to do with the audience. It could have to do with my sleep, my energy, my exercising, with the fear of the audience or the judgment of the audience, or the amount of the sexual energy that they have or how much they shake rattles. I evoke Tantric spirits and spirits of friends who’ve died of AIDS, and it could have to do with that. It could have to do with the position of the planets; it could have to do with something that’s going to happen in the future or something that happened 1,000 years ago. It sounds weird, but basically what happens is I go into kind of a primal, primitive, animalistic state, and I become a blob of primordial flesh – on a good day.
How do the spaces you perform in, for example, porn theater, performance space, or off-Broadway house, effect or change your performance?
Each theater attracts a different kind of person. My best audience is the very hip, sexually sophisticated crowd: Hookers, gays, lesbians, people who deal with their sexuality a lot. I was just in Toronto, Canada at a gay and lesbian theater, and I said I didn’t want any mainstream publicity because they always sensationalize everything. I just got underground press, so only the hippest of the hip came, and it was the best, most satisfying audience.
Whereas, in England there was a conference on censorship, and one night the whole conference came to see me. That was perhaps the worst audience. They just sat there judging me. One woman in the conference stood up and said the next day, “Well, I really felt battered by your performance.” I just burst out crying. Just the thought that this woman was sitting in the audience feeling battered by me was unbearable. Here I am giving everything I’ve got out of love, out of wanting to help and make people feel better, and this woman says she feels battered.
Someone could feel battered if, say, they’re really antipom, antiprostitution or sex-negative or scared of sex or even if they’re sexually sophisticated, but religious. What they come in [to the performance] with is going to affect everything.
Now that performance artist Linda Montano has baptized you an artist, and you work primarily in the art world, do you in any way regret your past or see it as something that needs to be forgotten or atoned for?
No. Definitely not. I see it as an evolution – what was good for me then, is not good for me now, and what’s good for me now wouldn’t have been, I wouldn’t have been ready for then.
In Seattle, I was at the Center for Contemporary Art, and it was right next door to a porn peep show place. Every day l walked by l thought, I’m so glad I’m going into the building that’s the art space, than the building that’s the peep show. I feel like art is the one place where I’m much more understood. Now, when I was 19,1 would have rather gone into the peep show place. I would have found it more interesting and found the art space too intimidating, I needed to go into the peep show place for many years. It was good for me. But at a certain point, it stopped being good for me, and I was just really happy that I didn’t have to go in there. I just couldn’t deal with playing that role that I was being paid to play.
But in many ways, graduating into the art world and making performances and videos about sex, you have become even more of a target in the conservative art war than when you performed sex acts on stage. California Representative Dana Rohrbacher (R-Orange County) once circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter through Congress questioning the use of tax dollars for obscene art, and the American Family Association bought two full page ads in USA Today protesting your “Post Porn Modernist” show as the last straw in the public funds for art battle, even though you were never awarded NEA or New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) money.
In pornography and prostitution there was just as much censorship and risk of arrest. Every day I went to work at the whorehouse, I could have been arrested for doing my job, a very needed, very important job.
In Cleveland, I worked in this place called the New Era Burlesque. Of all the places in the whole country, that was the raunchiest, I was totally wild. This place, there were police there watching, I mean it was protective. They paid off the police or whatever they did so they were saved.
But then when l went to the Cleveland Performance Art Festival, there were police who came to tell me what I could and couldn’t do. They wouldn’t allow me to put my tits on people’s heads, which I do at intermission.
They also objected to the speculum that you use in “Public Cervix Announcement?”
Yes. I wasn’t allowed to [insert the speculum and ask the audience to view her cervix]. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to take off my underwear.
I don’t mind. I’m used to this. It’s weird that people in art are so appalled. Artists think they’re above censorship. Jesus, that’s not fair. Just because you’re more artistically inclined, doesn’t mean you should have any more freedom than a prostitute on the street, in my mind. It’s a fact of life. I object that I can be arrested if I give a blow job. I object to that, but that’s a fact, and I’m working on changing that. It’s the same thing in art. If I go to a certain city and police come and say I can’t do something, I can’t do it. I’m not going to jump up and down and say, “Wait, I’m an artist; I’m above this.” For me, that feels like snobbery. I’ve just been dealing with it for 20 years and censorship is a daily occurrence. There’s a pendulum between censorship and freedom that swings back and forth, and you’ve got to ride it. So I take my freedoms, and when I go a little too far, according to some other people, they take some away. I step back a little bit, and then try it again. I’m always taking more and more freedom and progressing along. However, there are other people in the world who think differently than I do, but that’s just life. I have to deal with other people and their thoughts and ideas. I think that they have a right to theirs just as I have a right to mine.
Don’t you have the right to perform your show unaltered, though?
That’s like saying if you’re a streetwalker, can’t you sue the government for arresting you. The fact is, putting my tits on people’s heads for a polaroid photo is an act of prostitution. They’re paying five dollars. I don’t say this, but that’s what it is. I’m selling my body. It’s a lot of fun, and people get a big kick out of it, and they think it feels good. If the police come and say, you can’t do that there (although I think that’s ridiculous and absurd), the fact is the police have the guns, they have the jail cells, and they have the power to stop me from doing that. I’ve been in jail. It’s scary. I don’t want to do it again.
Some people refuse to see past your background and take you seriously as an artist. How do you respond?
I know Karen [Finley] is really mad at me that I don’t see myself as more of an artist. I still see myself as more of a prostitute than an artist. I’m very aligned with the problems and the values of prostitution. I very much feel connected with that, much more than I do feeling like an artist that shouldn’t be censored. I’m also more in line with being a pornographer than an artist. I make sexually explicit materials that some people would consider pornography. I think it’s a work of art. My new video [“The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop or How To Be A Sex Goddess In 101 Easy Steps”] is definitely a work of art. It probably wouldn’t sell to your usual porn fan. They wouldn’t get it; they wouldn’t like it. My audience is an art audience. However, I feel like I am more concerned with the censorship of pornography than the censorship of art.
How do you answer antiporn feminists like Andrea Dworkin who say that pornography is only about violence toward women and promotes women’s subjugation?
I’m glad that there are Andrea Dworkins. She’s out there, and she’s addressing the violence and the pain and the suffering and the exploitation of women, and I think that there is all that. There’s a lot of violence toward women; there’s a lot of exploitation.
I, on the other hand, am talking about all the pleasure that you’re missing out on; I want women to love their bodies more and enjoy their sexuality more. I want to talk about pleasure, where she’s talking about pain. I don’t think that censorship is the answer, but they do, so I have to try and look at things through their eyes. If you’ve been raped and abused and hate men and hate sex, you’re going to have a different perspective than if you’ve had that kind of cosmic ecstasy and spiritual oneness through sexuality. I’ve never been raped; I’ve had lots of ecstatic pleasure; I’ve had lots of lousy, horrible sexual experiences, which I talk about in the “100 Blowjobs” scene, but I just see the world differently than them. I’d love to get together with them and have a little chat. (Performed in both “Annie Sprinkle Post Porn Modernist” and “Post, Post Porn Modernist,” in “100 Blowjobs,” Sprinkle addresses the seamy side of the sex industry. As Sprinkle ardently sucks assorted dildos mounted on a board, this segment is overlaid with a sound montage of pleasured moans and grunts accompanied by screams and caustic shouts of “Bitch!” “Whore!” The more the unseen men complain, the louder they shout, the faster Sprinkle licks and sucks until she seems drained of energy.)
I did meet one woman who was in Women Against Pornography. She used to give slide shows about how bad pornography was. I met her at a funeral, and we got to talking and she came over to my house, we sipped tea, and I put a tape recorder on and we had a chat. We spent an evening together talking, comparing notes. She’d never met anybody in pornography before. It was so clear that I was so much happier and more together than she was. She was living with her mother; she had no love life; she hadn’t had sex in four years; she didn’t have a job; she was full of rage and anger and hate; and she was really physically ill. She caught me on a good day. I was happy, I had a nice apartment. I’d been having good sex, and everything seemed great in my life in comparison. It was interesting for both of us to see that. She worked in rape crisis centers all her life. I think that’s a very important job, but you’re going to get a certain perspective of sex and men if you work in a rape crisis center all your life. But that’s why I think it’s important that there are all kinds of people. Someone’s got to work in the rape crisis center. Someone’s got to talk about the pain and exploitation and abuse. And I think someone has to talk about the pleasure and the ecstasy. We’re a pleasure negative society.
How have your attitudes toward sex changed over the years?
I talk about in performance how when my lovers started dying [of AIDS], at first there was a lot of fear about death. But I learned a lot about sex because of AIDS. It’s more about the whole body – heart, mind, spirit, energy. It’s more about using energy and not so much about the cock and the pussy, which is what everyone thinks sex is. So definitely I would say because of AIDS I learned a whole lot more about sex. In terms of sex, it’s been a gift.
AIDS has also given me a certain kind of urgency. In terms of sex being loving and beautiful and wonderful, it’s suddenly become dangerous, life threatening; and homosexuality has become this horrible, plague-producing thing. My job seems more important. There seems to be more of an urgency to keep reminding people that sex is good for you, that sex can be a very positive, healthy, important thing. If s not our sexuality that causes AIDS; it’s a virus, and we have to really separate the two.
I have nothing against celibacy or abstinence if that’s what you choose. It’s why you are choosing it is the question. If you’re suppressing sexual feelings because you’re afraid of AIDS, then that’s not going to be healthy.
Norine Dworkin is a freelance writer living in New York City.