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Visual Arts

Subversive Sexology: A Conversation with Annie Sprinkle

Photo (partial) by © Julian Cash

With a pure heart and a heavy dose of body politic rebellion, Annie Sprinkle re-invents ecology in the age of eroticised digital culture.

For four decades, like a combination of goddess, earnest punk, and avant-garde theorist, Annie Sprinkle has been an iconic heroine of body politics in America, a stand-alone figure that exalts sex-positive feminism, subversive performance art, and unabashed advocacy for queer freedom and dignity. Her body of work, and her body, have been touched, debated, deconstructed, and analyzed from stiff upper lip academic halls to rank sleaze theaters. She has thrived throughout years of prostitution and blue movies, sex teach-ins and art happenings, and Ph. D. dissertations and breast cancer.

With her wife and longtime collaborator Beth Stephens, she is now forging the framework of Sexecology, a whole new bold, playful, and controversial eco-consciousness project. I caught up with her over email last month to probe her latest passion for upsetting norms and breaking new artistic grounds as a tireless, self-declared "multimedia whore".

* * *

A liberal feminist that liked your earlier work looked at your Ecosex Manifesto with me and described it as environmental/green kitsch. Since you've been described as the embodiment of postmodernism's roots in "irony, pastiche, and unapologetic ambiguity" (according to Gabrielle Cody in the intro to Hardcore from the Heart: The Pleasures, Profits and Politics of Sex in Performance, Continuum, 2001), do you risk people imagining Ecosex as simply another space of performance -- playfulness and wordplay that taps ecology and new age mantras, Earth First and academia -- at the expense of dire environmental issues?

Thanks for the honest feedback from your liberal feminist. It reminds me of when I started doing what I called “post porn” and deconstructed some of the mainstream porn I did. People would say “it's not erotic.” Of course it wasn’t. It was a commentary on erotic, on the pornographic. Not erotica or pornography.

Beth and I aim to make the environmental movement more sexy, fun, and diverse. To queer it up, add some humor, and experiment. It’s not that different than what I did with mainstream porn. I found porn a bit dry, if you will, and one-dimensional. So, I added some humor, fucked with it. But I was dead serious about it, really. Humor makes the medicine go down.

I love environmental activists, and the whole environmental movement and take the issues seriously, but never really feel like I fit in there. Where do the whores, drag queens, and butch girls fit in to the environmental movement? We will need all kinds of people, if we are to save our environment. And all kinds of ideas. We are switching the metaphor from Earth as mother, to Earth as lover. And it really works for a lot of people.

I felt very disconnected to nature, until I realized I could totally eroticise nature. That the Earth could be my lover. That connected me. If anything, we are also commenting on the sex positive and gay movements. We have a flag, a manifesto, ecosex symposiums, walks, pin ups, etc. Why does the environmental activist movement have to be so straight?

It reminds me of when I made the first F2M Transgender porn, and the F2M community on the west coast criticized me for it, saying, “We have to put our best foot forward.” That mean it was not OK to make porn with F2Ms who were wild and sexy. Now, today, there are several F2M porn stars who are super popular. So yes, we are having fun with environmental issues. Because so many environmental activists get burnt out and suffer enormously. Even give up their lives for the Earth. Bless them.

We want to seduce people to take care of the Earth from a place of desire, of play. Not drudgery.

When looking at your live-action art event Big Nudes Descending a Staircase, you seem to be referencing not simply the work of Duchamp and your own early experience with Fluxus-style performance, but also critiquing body image in the "Year of the Belly". As America, especially, considers large bodies as pathologies and militarizes fitness regimes, do you think performance art needs to address this?

Our weight fluctuates quite a bit, depending on traveling, stress levels, and phases we are in. When we got quite fat, we kept our clothes on for a while.

But then, when we arrived in France, and saw that beautiful staircase, we just had to strip naked and walk nude down those stairs. We got someone to video tape it. Then we blew the whole thing up and projected it on two huge walls in the art gallery. So its like two GIGANTIC naked women descending upon the viewers, with our footsteps super loud.

We felt like we had the perfect bodies for doing performance art. Of course, our culture is totally fat phobic. So, yes, if we are going to address/critique provocative topics, and address the negative body stereotypes, we have to take our clothes off. We also got naked in a theater piece we did, Dirty Sexecology; 25 Ways to Make Love with the Earth. We made love with each other in two piles of dirt. It was very dirty. I was 220 pounds, and Beth, who is short, was 190! We were able to overcome our own body image hang-ups for art, and with our political motivations.

We did end up thinning down, because the weight just didn’t feel comfortable and healthy at a certain point. It’s all good. We have the perfect bodies for performance art. For fashion modeling, not.

Hairotica is a very moving and powerful exploration of chemotherapy's aftermath, allegiance to lovers, and altered beauty – which you dub “scissorly love” and “cancer erotica”. Most of my female students shudder at the thought of shaving or losing their hair, years after Sinead O’Connor proved bald is beautiful. Does the work primarily focus on the fetish of baldness (or the beauty-regimes of hair maintenance), empowering erotica in the midst of debilitating illness, or love and fortitude?

I would say that it focuses on love, as Beth and I had committed to doing seven years of art about love. Making art projects out of cancer was great fun. We had a ball. It lubricated us through the experience so well. Breast cancer, chemo, radiation, it was all a breeze, because we made stuff out of it.

Of course, we had the luxury of making it fun because it was only phase two cancer. I’m sure it can be hellacious if it is worse. Our Hairotica also felt like a critique about what is sexy. To me, when my heart is touched, that’s sexy. As a prostitute, I didn’t go for the young hunk clients, but for the clients that touched my heart in some way—the differently-abled, the socially inept, the “ugly” and shy. That turned me on.

The Breast Cancer Collages, which relate back to Hairotica, merge the world of your pin-up past with the artifacts of the medical-industrial complex, like MRI scans. That vernacular layer, or conceptual re-framing, foregrounds the history of your body in very vulnerable, explicit ways. Gabrielle Cody once called you a “raconteuse whose body is her text” in Hardcore from the Heart as well, so do you consider it some of your most serious work -- body as text, ill and recovered/reborn?

I like mixing things up. Pairing things that don’t normally get paired. So, Beth and I mixed up the older woman, medicalized breast, with the young eroticized breast. I don’t think of it as serious work, but as taking a serious topic and having fun with it. Body as text?

Don’t know how to answer that one. The collages do tell a story. We also dressed up in costume during my eight chemo treatments and had the nurses and other patients take our photos. We made it into a chemo fashion show, which we perform. People really love it. People are surprised that we could laugh and play and not take cancer so seriously. Yes, it's serious, but why not have fun. My motto has always been to ‘eroticize everything.’ Even breast cancer.

Nina Hartley once told me she was a “Trojan Horse for queer culture.” When reviewing the arc of your career, from the pornographic films of the '70-'80s, which explore still taboo aspects of the pleasure industry, to the Love Art Lab Experiments, which explore queer courtship and weddings, insemination and disease, that phrase seems to capture your provocative traits as well. Do you see yourself as perhaps being a kind of Trojan Horse for these issues, able to fight bigotry, war, and cruelty in ways that disarm people due to your joy, popularity, and openness?

You are very thoughtful and generous. I basically share my life with others, in order to both learn and to teach. Ultimately its about learning. I put stuff out there, get people’s feedback, and take what I like and leave the rest.

I’m having fun with Facebook for this reason. It’s a great market research tool. I ask my Facebook friends questions, and they teach me a lot. Sometimes I teach them. Performance art is always a lesson for me, and people sometimes tell me they learned something. I don’t know if anything I do really does any good or really makes a difference, but it’s a nice way to live. I feel like I have a lot of purpose, trying to make the world a little more what I consider to be better.

I’ve had a great life. If I have opened people’s minds and hearts, that would be wonderful. However I don’t always feel joyous, popular and open. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t.

Do you think the arrested women at The Goddess Temple in Phoenix, Arizona, resemble Shannon Bell's concept in Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body (Indiana University Press, 1994) of "prostitutes as sexual healer, goddess, teacher, political activist, and feminist"?

YES!!! Absolutely. This definitely is an exciting turn of events in the prostitute’s rights movement, from my perspective. This raid definitely has created a lot of thought, conversations, divisions, and dramas with various communities. My feeling is that we need to support the ‘Goddesses’ all through this painful legal process, due to the fact that these are prostitution related charges. And the prostitution laws are so mean spirited, elitist… the government is the biggest pimp of all, they make so much money fining whores.

For the people arrested, this was with out a doubt their religious practice, and not prostitution. So they are avoiding contact with sex worker rights organizations. So, whores don’t want to support them. There are tantra people that don’t want to support the PGT (Phoenix Goddess Temple) workers because they feel that they weren’t really practicing tantra and are bringing bad publicity to their wholesome image. It's really shocking to me how so many in the tantra community were so whorephobic.

The goddesses don’t see themselves as whores. The whores see themselves as being looked down on by the religious ones and don’t want anything to do with the Goddesses. It’s ugly. From my perspective, it's bringing what has been hidden and unspoken (whorephobia) into the open, and is a very teachable moment.

The recent raids at the Phoenix Goddess Temple are very painful for a whole big community of people. This situation has really brought out the ways different people view sexual services, sacred sex.

It’s totally fascinating, and will make a terrific book, show and movie one day. I do hope that the charges will all get dropped soon. But the police did a six-month undercover investigation. They have a big investment in this case and want to prosecute the Goddesses. The prostitution charges are not really that big a deal. It’s the pimping and pandering and conspiracy charges that are the big problem.

Years ago I was arrested for “sodomy” and “conspiracy to commit sodomy”, for having sex with a woman with a stump leg. She used her stump leg to penetrate me. After about a year all charges were dropped, but only after a lot of drama and expense.

It's scary to have people take away your freedom, who think they know better. Especially when I don't know exactly what they were doing in the Phoenix Goddess Temple, or not. But I do know they weren't "prostitutes", in the classical sense. Their intentions were highly spiritual, from the heart, and all about making people feel loved. They really were educating people about 'sacred sensuality.'

I taught there one day and it was lovely. There were absolutely NO victims involved at the PGT before the bust. None. Except now there are victims-- the Goddesses who have ptsd from the police's terrifying and mean spirited raid, and the trauma of having their community and families torn apart.

Sodomy was defined as an “abominable detestable act against nature.” It felt nothing like that, I can assure you. It was pure love and beauty. After all, prostitution is legal in the USA, in parts of Nevada. It seems to work relatively fine there. I’m amazed prostitution hasn’t been decriminalized in the US, yet.

When I got into porn, if you got caught making it, you would definitely be arrested and charged. Now it’s all legal. But take it from me, an old porn star and whore, there isn’t much difference. Just because there is a camera doesn’t change the fact that people are having sex in exchange for money. Maybe some other reasons too, like fun, attention, creativity, even yes, art. Porn being a folk art.

After 28 years in sex related work, it never ceases to fascinate. There is always more to learn, there is always a mystery, always evolution. Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward…

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