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A Star Is Porn

Annie Sprinkle: Performance artist par X-cellence?

"I am a person who's totally devoted to the subject of sex," proclaims Annie Sprinkle, former prostitute, porn star and pinup model now turned performance artist, "just like a person who's totally devoted to archaeology or doctoring or music." She ain't kidding: Her one-woman autobiographical show, Post-Post Porn Modernist (coming to DiverseWorks Friday-Sunday, January 14-16), features something called "Bosom Ballet," in which her breasts get rhythm; "Public Cervix Announcement," complete with speculum and audience participation; "The Transformation Salon," a series of "before" slides of what appear to be unglamorous women who are made explicitly provocative "after"; and a ritual orgasm, an intimate rite of passage that serves as, yes, the festivity's climax.

Born 39 years ago as Ellen Steinberg, a shy, frumpy, nice Jewish girl reared in the San Fernando Valley by a liberal middle-class family that converted to Unitarianism, Sprinkle currently describes herself as a "bisexual lesbian." She's mainly attracted to transsexuals, hermaphrodites, transvestites, amputees, burn victims and the disabled, for they are "unique." Her show, she says in a voice that suggests she's your very best friend, is about opening up sexuality, using her path of "pornography and prostitution and kinky sex" to broaden our understanding. Sexual evolution, not revolution. Audience members will become, Sprinkle is confident, aware, not aroused. Empowered instead of blue.

"I love to talk about orgasms." Sincere and enthusiastic, she's making a video documentary on the subject. According to Sprinkle, there is more than penile and clitoral and vaginal climax. "If you really get in touch with the sexual energy moving through your body, if you really let this energy build and flow and move, then you can have what is called a full-body orgasm, which is this enormous wave of orgasm going throughout you from toe to finger to top of the head."

A student of Tantric and Taoist sex practices, Sprinkle says women (and men, praise the Lord) can achieve this heightened pleasure through breathing. Likening it to the "energy orgasm" dancers and athletes experience, she reveals that in her previous video she had a five-minute orgasm. "And the funny thing is that some people who saw it said, "Oh, that's fake," because they've never experienced anything like it.... So that's why I ended up making this new [video], because I realized how limited people's concept of orgasm is and sex in general."

If you're tempted to write off this veteran of some 200 skin flicks, consider the following: Her performance art has received favorable notices from the likes of ArtForum, and she's been interviewed in the highbrow magazine Drama Review as well as Angry Women, a coffeetable volume put out by counterculture publishing company Re/Search and featuring movers and shakers in the performing arts. She's an honors graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, and one of the videos she has written and produced, How to Be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps, was screened at the Whitney Museum. She founded Pornographers Promoting Safer Sex and is on the steering committees of Union Labia: Sex-Positive Feminists and Prostitutes of New York. Author of more than 300 articles for Penthouse, Hustler, Utne Reader and Oui, she has taught sex workshops and performed her show around the country and abroad. Maybe most noteworthy is that congressmen Dana R. Rohrabacher and Jesse Helms went after her a couple of years ago to ban the NEA's funding of "offensive" artwork.

Sprinkle postulates that there are three types of sex: junk sex, health sex and gourmet sex. "Like food, you can't always have a gourmet meal, nor would you want one for every meal. Think of that with sex, where you aren't always in a position to have the ideal." Although junk sex -- hot and heavy goings-on in back seats -- has its place, Sprinkle is more interested in talking about health sex: simply using sex as a healing tool. "They've scientifically proven that just thinking about sex strengthens your immune system.... And if you have a headache or menstrual cramps or even some emotional trauma, you can nourish your body with feelings of pleasure. It's a great painkiller."

It's also a moneymaker. Sprinkle still keeps her, um, hand in the oldest profession, servicing one particular john because, she says, "I happen to like this client and I've seen him for 19 years." Explaining the most recent trick between them, she laughs: "I needed a coat." Turning serious, Sprinkle elaborates: "I really love the combination of sex and money. It's very honest. It's like, hey, I can give you this wonderful experience. It's instant appreciation. It's giving something back. It's very nice."

For Sprinkle, a firm believer in safe sex who has repeatedly tested negative for HIV, prostitution has always been "nice," so much so that she says she had to be told she was in fact engaging in it when, at 18, she began having sex as a masseuse at a massage parlor. "It was in a little trailer in Tucson, Arizona, and everything was called "massage" or "client." You never heard the words "trick" or "whore" or anything.... So they paid for a massage and, you know, things would happen from there. And, you know, they gave you extra money. But if you only gave them a massage, that was okay. The main point that I make [in my show] is that it just seemed like good whole-hearted fun. The word "prostitution" seems so sleazy and at times dangerous. And that wasn't my experience. It was this nice trailer and nice people were there." Sex occurred, she says, because she wanted it to. "Obviously on some level I knew it was prostitution, but it just wasn't directly connecting with my picture of what prostitution was."

Sprinkle insists that she's never been exploited. "I always find it fascinating that inevitably, in every single interview I've ever done, they want to know about what horrible things happened to you when you're in the sex business. No one ever has said, "Well, tell us about some of your most wonderful sexual experiences" or "How did you grow from these experiences?" or "How many orgasms did you have?" You know what I mean?"

Where she falls in the subject-object spectrum isn't an issue to her. "I'm not a victim-type person. I have seen some women in the sex business who've had a hard time, but I was pretty balanced. I wasn't a drug addict. I, yeah, made some stupid mistakes, but I totally take any and all responsibility if I had any lousy experiences. But I think you can get lousy experiences in any job.... For the most part, I had a pretty good time and I was very interested in what I was doing. Sure, I would have liked to have been paid better and had better working conditions, you know, worked less hours or gotten royalties or had control over the final product, but I was never raped, I was never forced, I was never physically hurt, I never got any diseases. So actually, I think I came out of it a winner."

When reminded of the obvious -- that Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, as well as more mainstream feminists, might disagree -- Sprinkle is unfazed. "Well, I'm a feminist, and I think there are different kinds of feminists. There are the sex-positive ones, and there are the ones who are very sex-negative."

The word degradation, she insists, has not applied to her. "I think there are a lot of feminists who are busy, very busy, dealing with some of the problems our society has about sex, and that's a really great thing, you know, like [they're dealing with] rape and, in fact, exploitation of women and forced prostitution. But some of those feminists think that we have to stop sex in some way to stop the problems. That's like throwing the baby out with the bath water. See, to me, it's also a very feminist issue to talk about women's pleasure. There's nothing better than a woman who's totally sexually satisfied. She feels good, she's happy, she's strong, she's powerful. A woman who's truly orgasmic doesn't take shit from anybody."

To feminist detractors she asserts that they don't know what she does. "For one thing, they haven't seen it. They think they know. They have preconceived notions. They have total prejudice toward women who are very sexual, just like saying black people or Jewish people are all one way. It's like saying women who've had sex with 2,000 men have to be a certain way.... They just don't know. And so I have a lot of compassion and sympathy. And I have patience.... I met a woman who was with the Women Against Pornography. She was in it for a long time, going around the country talking about how she was trying to save women in the sex industry. And I met her at a funeral and she came over and we talked. It was clear she was absolutely miserable. She was totally unhappy. Her life was a mess and I was clearly strong and empowered and happy and content. But it was just like this cosmic joke. It was like she was out there trying to save me when she was the one who needed to be saved."

This makes me wonder if Sprinkle's motto, "Let there be pleasure on earth, and let it begin with me," is more serious than it sounds. "My responsibility to making a happier, more satisfyingly pleasure-filled world is to be as happy and pleasure-filled as I can. Rather than dwelling on the problems, I mean, we have to solve the problems, but we also need some role models. What does it look like to have hour-long orgasms? What's it look like to be sexually satisfied? What does it look like to love your work? People are all the same: They want this world to be a happier place to live. One way of doing that is to become happy, have more pleasure, take more time and consciously make an effort to feel you deserve pleasure."

Is there one question this entertaining-cum-educating woman of the world has never been asked, one that she always wanted to answer? "I guess I'd like to hear someone say, 'Would you say you have experienced intense amounts of ecstasy and been to incredible heights of orgasmic bliss?'"

Well? The answer isn't surprising. "Yes, I have, and I'm extremely grateful." What is surprising is that the hour-long telephone interview I thought was over wasn't. Annie Sprinkle called back 15 minutes later to add: "And I'd like other people to have that beautiful adventure as well." Actually, she had two things to add: She also reminded me that it would be great to tell everyone that cameras are welcome at the show.

Annie Sprinkle will perform Post-Post Porn Modernist Friday and Saturday, January 14 and 15 at 8 p.m., kicking off DiverseWorks's "All the Rage: Solo Women's Voices Series," which will run through February. Sprinkle will execute a for-women-only performance Sunday, January 16, at 8 p.m. All shows are at DiverseWorks, 1117 E. Freeway, two blocks north of UH-Downtown at N. Main and Naylor. Call 223-8346 for more information.

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