When Sex + Performance Came Together

When Sex + Performance Came Together

Keith Hennessy asks Annie Sprinkle Ten Questions about the Old Days

Image: Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens at the Vortex Theater, Austin. Photo by Errick Pederson.

This is an article reprinted from Dance Theatre Journal: Special Edition on Sex and Performancean academic but user friendly publication by the Laban Centre in London, which Tessa Wills co-edited with Doran George in 2013. We used the festival THIS IS WHAT I WANT as a lens through which to reveal the field of the intersection between radical sexual practice and radical performance practice in the Bay Area, and our work. Read the other articles here.

Keith Hennessy: I’ve been asked to write about the influence of underground sex cultures and sex work and Body Electric and other sexual healing activities in the 80s and 90s on contemporary dance and performance art. Can you help me with a reminder or a story or just a sentence about what you think might be important to report or not?

Annie Sprinkle: I’d love to ‘yesterbate’ with you Keith. Artist Kembra Pfahler made up that lovely term. Why start at the Eighties? For me it started in 1973, when I became the mistress of Gerard Damiano, the director of the sex film classic, Deep Throat. We met, hit it off, and then had a romantic rendezvous in San Francisco. He took me to see the dancer/stripper, singer, show- girl Carol Doda, perform at a nightclub on Broadway Street. She had a powerful stage presence, and these incredible torpedo silicon boobs. She had been arrested numerous times for dancing topless, which made her quite famous. Her show made a huge impact on me, in terms of her quality performance and her willingness to go to jail to show her breasts. I wanted to be her! Damiano and I also visited the Museum of Erotic Art, which the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality had put together, housed in a big old Victorian house. There I learned that porn could be art, and art could be porn - and in fact, it had been that way for centuries. My other big influences were the sex positive whore Xaviera Hollander, through her book Happy Hooker, and the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, through the movie Gypsy about her life, which I saw when I was twelve. I was a very shy teenage eighteen-year-old girl suddenly very interested in sex, art and performance – much to my own, and everyone else’s, surprise.

Right after that life-changing trip I moved to Manhattan to spend more time with Damiano. I lived in Manhattan for twenty two years. 1973 through 1995. I had two simultaneous careers; I worked in the mainstream sex industry, and in the art world doing art about my life in sex.

KH: You came to San Francisco a lot with your theatre work. How did that manifest?

AS: The Solo Mio Festival invited me, and produced many runs of my shows, which was a festival of all solo performances put together by Joegh Bullock, Marcia Crosby, Billy Talen, (now the amazing artist Reverend Billy,) and his then wife Kate Boyd. I was selling out four hundred seats at the beautiful Cowell Theater on the Bay, for two-week runs. My show was a hit. I was at the right place at the right time, when people wanted to learn about the behind the scenes of the sex industry. They were titillated by porn, sex work, and sex on stage. Bringing sex workers into art made it safe to explore. Solo Mio also brought in other performers who had been in the sex industry, like Spaulding Gray who had made a few sex films. Coyote and the sex worker rights movement certainly motivated me to do performance art. I had hoped that through performance art we could help decriminalise sex work – a cause near and dear to my heart. But I/we have failed.

KH: How was it you ended up doing a lot of shows in Europe?

AS: When I was twenty-four I met, and fell in love with. Willem De Ridder, who was the European Chairman of the Fluxus art movement. He also made artsy, hand designed, experimental sex magazines like Suck, Finger, Love, and Hate magazines. He taught me a lot about art. Fluxus is still my favourite art movement. Fluxus was/is pretty sex and body positive. I’d argue that making porn movies was a weird kind of performance art, a kind of dance. It was also a kind of political activism because if you got caught making porn, you would be arrested. Just like if you were making art nude. For example Charlotte Mormon getting arrested playing the cello topless.

Certainly all my early performance skills I acquired through doing sex work. I worked my way through college getting my bachelor’s degree in Fine Art from the School of Visual Arts by doing burlesque. But I wasn’t that great a dancer, so I would do skits and talk real dirty on stage. I made up for it with creativity. I did Nurse Sprinkle’s Sex Education Class and a sort of Jane Fonda aerobics skit, with lots of sexy strutting, props, costumes, floor work that was basically like masturbating, and improvised story telling. Richard Schechner, the head of performance studies at New York University brought his graduate students to Show World on 42nd street one day, and happened to catch my show. He put my show in the middle of his play, the Prometheus Project, at the Performing Garage in Soho – a hot bed of experimental theatre and dance. There was definitely bridging, straddling, cross pollinating, happening between performance art, theatre, stripping and pornography making.

KH: Which paid better?

AS: It was really nice that I was able to make more money doing performance art than I was making doing prostitution, or burlesque. In stripping I made around $3500 a week for five, twenty-minute shows a day. Doing my one-woman shows, like Post Porn Modernist and Herstory of Porn, I was making about $1000 a show, doing for four or five shows a week that were about 2 hours long. I was thrilled, to be making more money in art than sex industry work. It felt like a vindication of some sort.

KH: Some of us took sex education courses, and attended sex rituals that others developed. Did you?

AS: Yes, I did quite a few. Joseph Kramer‘s work and vision was huge for me. He was a Kinsey six – meaning very gay – yet but we became lovers. He had only had sex with a woman once before. We are still ‘sacred intimates’ today, and very close. When I took his ‘Tantric Group Rebirth’ evening, I had my first, very intense, full body breath/energy orgasm that went on intensely for quite some time. I was the only woman there with about forty gay men. We were all clothed, but we had been doing sort of Sufi dancing movements, with eye gazing and conscious rhythmic breathing for about three hours which Joe led. It was around 1986, in the height of the AIDS crisis.

The sex rituals and techniques I was learning totally inspired my Legend of the Ancient Sacred Prostitute sex magic ritual performance at the end of my show Post porn Modernist. Where I would do an invocation, use a vibrator and dildo to build, move and circulate my sexual energy with my audience, while they were all shaking rattles that had been handing out by the ushers. That performance was so intense for me. I learned so much. The point of it was to be in my truths of the moments, sexually and energetically, emotionally as much as possible, and still be on stage doing a ‘performance.’ It was a fascinating exploration. Basically I was masturbating on stage, but I never experienced it that way. It was more about building my sexual energy, letting go of my ego, surrendering to ecstasy, dropping into my body, and kind of leaving my body, all at the same time. It was more about feeling like a vessel for sexual energy. I did that for five years on the road to eighteen countries. Eventually it was time to hang up my vibrator, but wow, what an experience. It was certainly a kind of sexual dance, but it was raw, animalistic, messy. Sometimes I squirted fluids, occasionally I pooped, a few times I vomited. It was sweaty, messy. It evolved and changed a lot over the months and years I was doing it.

When Joseph Kramer wanted to expand his Body Electric School work to include women, he invited me to teach with him. We co-facilitated the first Female Genital Massage workshops at a weeklong gathering we called Cosmic Orgasm Awareness Week at Wildwood Retreat Center, in Northern California. Joe developed the ‘female genital massage’ on my plooch, with my feedback responding to his expert touch skills and sharing ideas with him. I was comfortable with my body, and intense sex rituals. I was willing to take risks and go for it. But in retrospect, I was not at all trained in massage, and I really wasn’t prepared to teach it! Many fabulous artists came to our workshops. However my lips are sealed as to whom!

KH: For some of us the overlap of sex and art practices, or these two communities, is a life-long project. For others of us, it was more of a phase or an intense period when 848 sex events, AIDS-influenced safer sex parties and sexual healings, Body Electric, Queen of Heaven, Radical Faeries, Black Leather Wings, and you, Annie Sprinkle, were collectively creating a more saturated sex/art scene than most of us experience in our daily lives today.

AS: The people in my scene included Carol Queen and Robert Lawrence, Black Leather wings people,

Photo: Julian Cash. Montage: Hoshi Hanna

Photo: Errick Pederson at the Vortex Theater, Austin

Carol Leigh aka Scarlot Harlot, lots of piercing community people like Jim Ward and Raelyn Gallina did piercing and scarification at my place when they came to town. I also had what was called the ‘tantra community’ there, like Kutira from Oceanic Tantra, Barbara Carrellas who went on to do Urban Tantra, Rajneesh disciples like Jwala taught us all about ‘sacred sex.’ We also shot porn there, and I did photography for all the sex magazines in my living room studio. There were dancers were around, like Diane Torr who developed the first Drag King Workshops at my place, strippers who were on the road, temple dancers, belly dancers, some modern dancers… Lots of dance world people moonlighted as strippers. Yeah, we really threw our bodies, hearts and souls into those events, scenes, practices, explorations… I was spending time with Fakir Musafar. We met in the flesh in about 1982. I was working as a pro dom and sub and was a fan of his photography. He came to New York (from San Francisco) to visit me several times, and stayed with me. I hosted some salon evenings where he did a slide show, or  a piercing party – what we think what was the first mixed gender piercing party on the east coast. It was a great time, with lots of artists, and sex workers, mixing it up, doing body art and sex.

My apartment at 90 Lexington Ave, at 27th street, #11F, was a place where many sex community folks, and sex artists from around the world came to stay. My place was a safe haven, free place to stay, and a supportive environment for sex worker artists, and folks could pretty much have sex openly – sometimes with me or my other guests. We were all influencing each other, figuring out how to do sexually explicit work in an art context. Lots of artists came through my place wanting to enter the sex industry, for the adventure, or to make some extra money for a project they were doing. Lots of academics came through too, sniffing around, and writing about our goings on. There was art, sex, activism, and academia. Many sex workers didn’t trust academics, but I have always loved academics. Documentary filmmakers and journalists came through, too. Everyone was helping everyone get their work out into the world.

KH: What was one of the most important events in your career as an artist?

AS: It helped my career a whole lot when the National Endowment for the Arts funding controversy in the late 1980s called attention to my show, Post Porn Modernist, as an example of theatre that should not be funded by taxpayers. Controversy is good for business, even if it does look like a personal attack. Thanks to Senator Jessie Helms for calling my show a ‘sewer of depravity’. That was so helpful. ‘A whore couldn’t possibly be an artist,’ was the gist.

KH: Who were the most important people?

AS: Artist Linda M. Montano has long been my performance mentor and good friend. She baptized me an artist when I went to her Summer Saint Camp for a week to study with her in the 80s. My porn star support group Club 90, which has been a group of five very tight friends, has lubricated me through life for over thirty years. It includes my best friend Veronica Vera who is a big love. She’s a writer and Dean of the Academy for Boys Who Want to Be Girls. Keith Hennessy, you are one of my top three favourite artists in the world, and have been hugely inspiring. Seeing your performances is profound for me, and your work is always a guiding force when I’m working on a performance. How do you do it?! Cosi Fani Tutti in England was an artist who worked as a pin-up model and claimed her work in adult entertainment was subliminal art – and it was! Love Diamonda Galas, who told me she worked as a transvestite prostitute in the meat-packing district. The Johns thought she was a ‘he-she.’ Karen Finley was important to me, and she had worked as a stripper, although she told me she really hated it. I’ve always loved Tim Miller’s work, lots of nudity and lots of heart together. Kate Bornstein… fabulous. With the exception of Linda Montano, pretty much all my favourite artists, and inspiriting people have been from the ‘sex world.’ And have been friends of mine. I’m so lucky.

KH: Where were the most important spaces?

AS: For me, PS122 and the Kitchen in Manhattan. Highways Performance Space in Los Angeles. Vortex Theater in Austin, Texas. They were my triangle. In Europe, Germany was my best country; Ufa Fabric in Berlin, Schmidt Theater in Hamburg. Le Kleine Comedie in Amsterdam. The Adelaide Theater Festival in Australia was really was good time for me. There were so many! I loved them all, because they were the theatres that were unafraid of sex. Many theatres wouldn’t dare have me. But those that did, we usually fell in love with each other. In burlesque, I went to Cleaveland’s New Era Berlesque a lot, the Mitchell Brothers in San Francisco, and the Harmony Burlesque in Manhattan because those were the sex places that were amenable to my weird performance art take on burlesque.

The Hell Fire Club in Manhattan was my weekend hangout from 1982-85. Before AIDS I was super inspired by Fist Fuckers of America, Golden Shower of America Club. I was one of only three women ever allowed into the Mineshaft. Had a lot of sex with the gay guys – quite a few were in theatre as actors and dancers on Broadway. They were my teachers. These men were huge inspirations, as an artist focused on body and sex stuff. When AIDS hit, most of those mentors died.

The 848 Community Space which you started Keith, was very inspiring in that it had a bent for ‘community.’ That word community wasn’t used so much in NYC. I Saw some great shows there and I was inspired how warm and welcoming and inclusive and talented the people were there. It wasn’t at all competitive. Sweetness.

Sex magazines were very important for me. In the late 70′s Peter Wolf, a sex mag editor, invited me and other sex workers to write and do photography. Peter Wolf gave whores and porn stars a voice. Before Peter, our centrefold captions and articles using our names were all written by men. Peter paid me $500 a day to be photographer and about $350 for an interview. He wanted our real stories. I did a hundreds of articles, as a writer and photographer for fifteen years. I got to hire a lot of my artist and sex worker friends to pose for me.

KH: When you reflect back on earlier decades, how is your approach to body, creativity, sexuality still resonating or not…?

EarthyImageHiResColor

Elizabeth Stevens and Annie Sprinkle. Photo: Julian Cash. Montage: Hoshi Hanna

AS: My personal sexual proclivities and habits have changed quite a lot. I am not that sexual with people outside of my relationship with my partner, Beth Stephens. We sometimes call ourselves ‘adventurous monogamists.’ However we’re not really monogamous at all, as we are now full-on ecosexuals. The Earth truly is our lover, and we are erotic with nature a lot. That is a paradigm shift of Universal proportions. Also, my body has changed a lot. Aging happens. I’m more sensitive, more heart-centred, my tissues are more delicate. I enjoy seeing young people going through many of the wonderful phases that I went through, and discover things I had discovered. In THIS IS WHAT I WANT, there were people performing who are ‘out’ sex workers; doing sex work in an art context, which was absolutely glorious. In fact, many of the artists in the show would be subject to arrest, for ‘selling sex.’ It makes the piece a politically defiant act. I’m delighted to see some great folks mixing sex work and art, like my friends Madison Young, Sadie Lune, Tessa Wills, TT Baum, Diana Pornoterrorista, Mariko Passion, and a few others.

When I found a partner that I really wanted to have a full on committed relationship with, and I was ready to give that a go. I’m loving it. Beth and I have been together twelve years, living and working together all the time. She’s an artist. These days we are focused on environmental activism, switching the metaphor from Earth as Mother to Earth as Lover. Trying to make environmental activism a little more sexy, fun and diverse. We have a new show we are about to premiere which is funded partly by the San Francisco Arts Commission. Yep, government funded! Amazingly I am still making a living from sex related performance. Some things have not changed at all. I love dressing up in wigs, and costumes, and putting on a show! And being in creative flow. Being on deadline. Making stuff happen. I’m very grateful that I don’t have to do it alone, that I can travel and collaborate with Beth. It sounds corny, but I love to share it all with Beth. She’s also a tenured professor, which gives us some security. I just adore her and we have so much fun together. She was also doing sex and gender related work before we got together.

Politically, spiritually, idealistically, artistically, not that much has changed. I still simply want to make the world a little more pleasure filled, sex positive, and compassionate place. Which is what motivated my career, now forty years long. I believe that the best is yet to come! OK, enough yesterbating, Keith. Lets get to work.

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens current work: www.sexecology.org

Annie Sprinkle’s older work: www.anniesprinkle.org

Republished with permission at http://tessawills.com/when-sex-performance-came-together/. Originally published in George, Doran, Hargreaves, Martin, Shaw, Thom and Wills, Tessa eds. Dance Theatre Journal 25.2. London: Laban, 2013. Print.

Leave a Reply

Tessa Wills is a live artist

and choreographer with a background in music. She is from England, trained in central Europe and now lives in San Francisco. Her work elevates flaws and wounds as portals, ways of staging humanity, and often integrates eroticism to charge the pieces, which happen primarily on stage and video. Aside from the relentless pull of desire, her current practice is inspired by Hermits and professional mourning.

Want more? Come say hi.

Have a story or a thought about Hermits? Contact Tessa

Contact Tessa





Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

Your Message

support cutting edge, experimental work

by donating or join her in a myriad of other ways

Sign up for Tessa's mailing list

She'll let you know when there are shows, events or article releases
* = required field