For over a quarter of a century, Annie Sprinkle has explored sexuality in all of it’s most glorious (and inglorious) forms. From her beginnings as an evolving, sexually curious starlet in pornographic films to her growth as a groundbreaking performance artist, she has shared what she has learned through filmmaking, writing, photography, artwork, teaching workshops, and performing. A sex-work pioneer, an AIDS educator, and out “metamorphosexual“, Annie Sprinkle was one of the first women to inspire the term “sex positive feminist“. Her unique work has achieved international praise, and evoked heated controversy, both in the underground art world and the mainstream cultural scene. She has been hailed as a truly “feminist revolutionary” by the likes of social philosopher Camille Paglia and artist Lydia Lunch. Considered a role model for a new generation of feminists, she challenges old conceptions and established role models of sexuality. She has been the subject of a number of serious studies on performance art, the subject of several Ph. D dissertations, and has been written about, assessed, praised and applauded in publications far too many to list here.
Beginning at the age of 18, hippie Annie started her journey into the forays of alternative culture when she landed a job at the Plaza Cinema in Tucson, Arizona. Selling popcorn while Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat played at the theatre, she found herself subpoenaed to appear in court as witness for the prosecution of an obscenity trial. Moving on to working in a “massage parlor” seemed a natural development in her career plan, and she worked as there for two months before she actually realized she was working in the world’s oldest profession as a prostitute. As critic Gabrielle Cody so aptly wrote, “Her identity as whore began as a performance.” Indeed, the history of theater has its beginnings with prostitution – be it in the western Greek tragedy or the roots of the Kabuki. That Annie Sprinkle would evolve her talent from pornography to performance would seem to be a natural occurrence. However Sprinkle continued to work as a prostitute off and on for twenty years, and she has always been proud of her “public service” in that field.
In 1973, Annie Sprinkle moved to New York and began her career in the field of hard-core pornographic films. First as an on-set assistant, then soon after as an “actress” at Kirt Studios. Starring in over 150 loops and 50 porn films, she quickly rose to become the 2nd best-selling video star of 1981 in the United States for her film “Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle“. The film was innovative for its time, as it showed the women as sexual aggressors, focused on the female orgasm, and Annie spoke directly into the camera to the viewers from the heart. It also garnered much attention from scholars of sex, academic artists and filmmakers, who saw the film as a new form of pornography–one that transcended the limitations of the genre. It introduced issues such as female ejaculation, sexual roles, the power of pleasure, and the power of men in the sexual act. In the film, she also transgresses the figure of the porn star/whore by showing her past, from her birth name of Ellen Steinberg (as child, sister, daughter) to the sexual icon of Annie Sprinkle. Life and art are deliberately blurred.
While not condemning pornography’s portrayal of sexual fantasy, she nonetheless has spoken of the industry’s negative aspects freely, yet while also underlining the empowering aspects of it. Those looking for an apologia either pro or con will not find them from Annie Sprinkle. She has spoken of her time in the industry as “a learning experience: learning what I do and don’t want to do, how to say No, learning what I like and what I don’t like. …I think that if I was a victim, in a sense I was just as responsible as the victimizer – that sounds harsh, but whenever that happened I’m sure I created a lot of it. So I take responsibility for any exploitation that occurred.” After realizing that the heterosexual porn industry did not address the issue of AIDS in the early 1980´s, and seeing that many of her friends and some fellow performers were stricken by this illness, she worked to engage the industry into activism by creating safe-sex video messages and to initiate the use of condoms. Her work and pleas fell on deaf ears, and she left the world of mainstream pornography shortly thereafter.
In 1978 she was introduced to Willem DeRidder, who was influential in her development as a self-realized artist, teaching her about publishing, performance, and conceptual art. They lived together as lovers for two years in Italy and Holland. Influenced also by the Dada and Fluxus artists she realized that her own work in pornography created the foundation that she, at heart, was an artist and could develop a special and unique vision. Her work for the sex industry began to take on conceptual themes: the Sprinkle Report (a newsletter devoted to “piss art”), and her mail-order “Golden Shower Ritual Kits” were not only appealing to sexual fetishists, but began to receive the attention of other artists and art collectors. Her early stage performances were in strip clubs, where she was hired as a feature performer. She called her acts Strip Speak, and playfully questioned her male audience while turning the concept of voyeurism on its head. Her performance work intentionally confronted the myths and conceptions of not only women’s sexuality, but male sexuality as well, crossing the boundaries of sexual categorization and revealing Annie Sprinkle as politicized prostitute, conceptual artist hooker, and subversive thinker.
Deep Inside Porn Stars was another performance piece, which was born from a support group for porn stars, called Club 90, which originated at Annie’s salon. In January 1984 Carnival Knowledge, a feminist performance group, approached Sprinkle and her sister porn stars Veronica Vera, Candida Royalle, Gloria Leonard, Veronica Hart, Sue Nero and Kelly Nichols to be part of The Second Coming performance series at the Franklin Furnace. On stage, in a replica of Annie Sprinkle’s living room, the Club 90 women underlined the differences between the performer’s public personas and real lives, as they removed their porn star costumes and replaced them with their street clothing. As Annie served tea and cookies, the audience was reminded that these women had worked in the sex industry, yet were mothers, daughters, wives and women with concerns and compassion, and as such, destroy the myths and conceptions the audience has about sex workers, and women in stereotypical roles. Annie Sprinkle fell in love with the “art audience” and resolved to do more work in and around the art world.
In 1985, she was invited to perform her Nurse Sprinkle’s Sex Education burlesque show for Richard Schechner’s NYU-sponsored Prometheus Project. As he wrote, “at each increment of sexual opportunity, Sprinkle interviews the spectator asking him to describe what he sees, or how he feels. This automatically distances the action from its own sexual possibilities – making it anti-porn or a send up of porn”. Annie Sprinkle was now firmly established in the legitimate performance art world, however outrageous or unconventional her vision was presented in. Her work from then on began to be reviewed by the leading arts journals, as well as in mainstream media and cultural digests.
In 1988, Sprinkle and her bosom buddy Veronica Vera attended artist Linda Montano’s Summer Saint Camp at the Art/Life Institute in Kingston, New York, where she underwent a sort of epiphany. Linda became Annie’s mentor and role model. Their friendship and collaboration led to many performances over the course of fifteen years, and to various sexuality workshops, namely Sacred Sexand Metamorphosex. Her numerous experimental film docudramas from this period reflect her shift from porn to art in such films as Linda/Les & Annie: The First Female-to-Male Transsexual Love Story, and the Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop, an all women film which resulted in Annie being welcomed into the lesbian community.
With Post-Porn Modernist (1989-95), Annie Sprinkle secured her place among contemporary artists creating confrontative, destructionist, and very humorous presentations on the body and self. A one-woman show, featuring a series of vignettes tracing Annie’s life story from the days of shy Ellen Steinberg, through her Early years as porn starlet, to the burlesque years, to her healing work as New Age Tantric High priestess. In the most discussed sequence, the infamous Public Cervix Announcement, Sprinkle was featured onstage with her legs spread, inviting the audience to view her cervix with the aid of a speculum and a flashlight. She shamelessly presented her vagina in all its glory, personalized and not as an object of pleasure, but as an area of empowering beauty and mystery. Sprinkle’s show climaxed with a “sex magic masturbation ritual”, where she invoked the legend of the ancient sacred prostitute. It was this part of the performance which received so much public notoriety, resulting in a near-riot in the United States Senate among conservative American Republican senators, debating if the government should fund controversial art or not. First directed by Emilio Cubeiro and later by Willem DeRidder, the show has been presented at The Kitchen (NYC), LeKliene Comedie (Amsterdam), Royalty Theater (Adelaide Festival ’96, Australia) Schmidt Theater (Hamburg), Buddies in Bad Times (Toronto), Highways (L.A.), Diverseworks (Houston), and many more fine theaters internationally.
Her current theater piece, Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn, also directed by Emilio Cubeiro, features clips of her work from her beginnings as a porn starlet to her work as an artist. Throughout the show, she interacts with not only the films on screen, but with her own personalities and roles in her various conceptions, and the audience’s relationship to these characterizations and their own sexualities. It deconstructs myths surrounding sex, pornography, film, art, and the self, in what the San Francisco Weekly wrote, “Fasten your seatbelts: you’re in for a bumpy ride through the minefields of your own sexual prejudices. Sprinkle’s fearless, joyful acceptance of sexuality in all its forms runs headlong into some of our most profound anxieties.” The show has toured America and Europe and has not only received many threats of censorship by the authorities, but the highest praise by art critics and audiences spanning a wide range of age groups and social backgrounds. In many cities, the ensuing media attention and protest against her by anti-porn feminists and religious conservatives are considered part of the performance piece. The made for video version of the show is available on VHS, and has been shown in many prestigious film festivals around the world.
In February of 2002, Annie Sprinkle received her Ph. D. in Human Sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, in San Francisco. She is now a certified sexologist,and the first porn star in history to earn a Ph.D. Her dissertation topic was “Providing Educational Opportunities For Adult Industry Workers“. Sprinkle has been a pivotal player in the sex workers rights movement for years, has worked to help make sex workers happier and healthier and to fight ‘ho-phobia, social stigmas and prejudice. She is currently on the board of the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco, a free full-service health care clinic for sex workers.
Sprinkle has been a popular guest lecturer at numerous colleges and universities. She is the author of several books, including “Hardcore from the Heart: The Pleasures, Profits and Politics of Sex in Performance” (2001, Continuum Press) which won the Firecracker Alternative Books Award, and “Post-Porn Modernist: My 25 Years as a Multi-media Whore” (1998, Cleis Press) which has become a cult classic. Her photographs and articles have been published in hundreds of publications of all kinds.
Currently Annie Sprinkle enjoys working with people one-on-one, offering a range of “personal services”. People contact her through her web site. Counselor, coach, mentor, sex educator, tarot reader, and more. People are healed and inspired by her compassion and wisdom.
In her professional work as sex worker, photographer/model, author, publisher, director and producer, college lecturer, sex-oriented performance artist, and sex worker activist, she has been recognized for her intelligent, approachable and humorous artwork that has gained a loving and very appreciative audience. It is through her natural and compassionate expression of sometimes difficult and neglected subjects, that Annie Sprinkle’s message of self-acceptance and self-empowerment has been so widely received. Provocative and profound at times, her work has always sought to communicate without preaching, and as such, for those who are receptive to it, find Annie Sprinkle’s work so deeply moving. As Art and Culture Magazine recently wrote of her:
A post-porn modernist and a pro-porn optimist, Sprinkle is, of course, not as naive as she sounds. However, she does seem unconscious about how incredibly radical her vision is. Her feminism is not about victimhood: she completely transcends expectations of what she herself should be and also of what is supposed to be sexy. …Her exuberant honesty reveals cultural repression for the sick and twisted thing it is. To hear her talk wistfully about a sexy amputee lover, or to see her video of unconventional-looking women rolling around in orgasmic ecstasy, is shocking. But shock leads to the realization of one’s own sense of prejudice. Annie Sprinkle is such a strong personality that she bestirs in her audience a sense of embarrassment — not for her, but for the impotent prudery of the dominant culture.
January 2003 Written by Tom Garretson