Post-Porn Priestess of Pleasure: Annie Sprinkle Takes a Sex-Positive Position

Former porn-star, now artist and educator, Annie Sprinkle’s real specialty is the public display of a positive attitude toward sex.

Amy Green1 July 1999

Former porn-star, now artist and educator, Annie Sprinkle is named to match her old signature display as the Queen of Pissing, Anywhere, Anytime. But her real specialty is the public display of a positive attitude toward sex. The old idea of the “hooker with the heart of gold” may be revealed in this lady.

Annie is like a living museum, where visitors receive a special sex-ed course on the history of sex in post-war America, presented with good cheer, humor and the wisdom of experience.

Dividing her career into two major categories, “porn” and “post-porn,” Annie calls herself a “post-porn modernist.” The extremes of her life mirror North American society’s own extremes. From the demure democracy of the fifties, to the goofy and naive free love of the sixties and the crass hedonism of the seventies, down to the outspoken anarchical exhibitionism of the eighties and the glossy spiritual searching and sexual “healing” of today, all are manifested in Annie’s sexual career. Her new video, “Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn: Reel to Real,” and one-woman show of the same name, are interactive tours of these extremes.

The morning after her three-night, sold-out run of “Herstory of Porn in Boston,” I sat with Annie in the airport as she ate cereal with milk before her flight home to San Francisco. The show drew a mostly intellectual-looking crowd, not your typical porn-house audience (whatever that is), and Annie Sprinkle doesn’t look like your typical porn star (whatever that is). In fact, she looks very ordinary, dark hair, medium height, sweater, slacks, a little bit shy. Talking politely with her breakfast partners, Annie is soft and rather wholesome, with a little lilt in her voice like Gracie Allen’s.

Just an ordinary girl, but one who played in more than 200 porn films and, at certain points in her career, made a point of having sexual encounters with anybody. Handicapped, gay, straight, bi, transsexual, dwarfs, fat, thin, male, female, you name it, she joyfully had sex with them.

“At that time, I think I was very open and, in a way, able to love anybody,” she says. “Even in my ‘raunchy’ phase, that is what I wanted. I wanted people to ‘accept their raunchiness,’ or something.”

In the early eighties, she worked as a professional dominatrix and was a regular fixture at New York’s infamous Hellfire Club, which during its heyday, in the last breath before AIDS hit, was the gathering place for every fetishist and kinky leather and latex bound sexual exhibition imaginable. Despite her previous success as a mainstream porn star, Annie’s activities had become too gross even for porn, and she was ostracized by many in the industry for her extreme behavior.

It’s Annie’s humor that allows her audiences to experience the dark and sometimes frightening aspects of sex and sex-culture. European audiences especially love her wacky willingness, and covet her paintings called tit-prints. During intermissions, she poses with audience members for her famous Polaroid tit-on-the-head snap shots that people can then use for greeting cards.

Annie’s job is to guide people through the dark side. “I think humor makes the medicine go down,” she says. “Sex is a very difficult subject for a lot of people, and it is scary. Laughing relieves tension and makes it all more fun and pleasant to look at. I think many people take sex far too seriously, so it’s good to have a laugh about it.”

Annie’s “Herstory of Porn” show is a funny, and sometimes sad, romp through her 25-year career in porn, a career that parallels the sexual evolution of her generation. “I think it’s a fairly typical evolution,” she observes. “People start from the bottom, from lower, more basic sexual awareness, and work up to a more communicative, sexually-aware, spiritually-aware way of being.”

This lady has done it all and seen it all, and her message has remained markedly simple from the beginning: sex is a good thing. And she means it.

What she means by “lower, more basic sexual awareness,” in terms of her porn career, is the evolution from the raunchy, simplistic, “Boogie Nights” standard porn of the early seventies, to the widely-varied and more sophisticated porn available today.

“I see the porn culture as having definitely matured and become more balanced,” she says. “There are even a handful of very spiritual people making porn, now. The world of pornography has enormous potential.”

Annie was one of the first to push the envelope of porn when she broke ranks with the male-dominated industry and wrote, directed and starred in her own porn film. “Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle” was the number-two grossing sex film of 1982.

“Women were expected to be ‘good girls’ and not to like sex all that much,” she explains. “In my movie, I was the one who wanted sex, and the men better watch out. Most male directors never gave actresses the time to have real orgasms. Lots of people at the time didn’t even believe that women actually had orgasms.” Annie not only has real orgasms in the film, they’re multiple.

What characterized “Deep Inside” was Annie’s willingness to interact with the audience in a forthright and gentle manner, which she continues today in her live shows, where she delivers one-liners like a seasoned standup comic.

“In that movie I involved the viewer in an interactive way by talking directly into the camera,” she says. In the film, she sort of coaxes the viewer along, saying, “Hi, I’m Annie. Would you like to come inside?” She continues the verbal hand-holding as she enters a porn theater where one of her flicks is playing, and then proceeds to get it on with various members of the audience, after politely asking them if they want to.

The film was feminist by the standards of its time, with a light touch. She made a feminist statement without really intending to, she was just being herself.

“I don’t want to assault people,” she explains. “I’m not trying to clobber people over the head. I’m just trying to shake them loose a little bit, gently.”

Enthusiasm about sex guides Annie. Fear, ignorance about, and problems with sex arise from cultural guilt and negativity, she says. “Basically, we are a sort of sex-negative culture, pleasure-negative culture. For instance, the words we use for people who are into sex are ‘nymphomaniac,’ ‘hedonist,’ ‘pleasure-seeker.’ They all have kind of negative connotations. While the words that are used for people who suffer are ‘martyrs’ and ‘saints.’

“Most of our monuments are for war heroes or military people who have suffered. There are no monuments for people who have had ecstatic, blissful, pleasure-filled lives. Our culture does not generally honor pleasure.”

Annie Sprinkle did not grow up in the abusive or broken home that one might imagine a prostitute or porn-star to come from. She grew up as gentle, shy Ellen Steinberg, born in 1954 as the eldest of four children in a wholesome and supportive family in Philadelphia.

“There was nothing in my childhood that would have led anyone, including myself, to believe that when I grew up, sex would become my obsession,” she writes in her new book, Post-Porn Modernist.

“My parents were very open-minded, liberal Democrats, intellectual, Universalist Unitarians,” she says. She attributes her stability to her good upbringing, and her fascination with sex to the fact that she really, really enjoyed sex from the time she lost her virginity on. She describes the day that she “happily gave up her virginity” at age seventeen: “I couldn’t stop smiling. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. When you think you have found something that is great, you want to let people know about it.”

A few months later, Annie took off to enjoy all of the pleasures that communal living and free love had to offer. “I was your average sixties teenage hippie girl,” she says, “wanting peace, love, freedom and adventure.” By the age of eighteen, she had had sex with 52 different guys, and kept a journal chronicling the details of each of her sexual adventures. By nineteen, she was a working sex-professional and a budding porn starlet.

If you look at photographs of Annie from childhood through her career in porn, the expression remains the same throughout, a fresh-faced, bright-eyed smile, a look of what appears to be genuine enthusiasm, and a kind of openness.

“For me, sex, making love, has always been my most spiritual experience. I have had my most spiritual feelings here, my feelings of connectedness to god, or the divine,” she explains. “The moments of orgasm are the most pleasurable moments that most people will ever know. There are many different kinds of ecstatic moments, but not too many people have better moments than those moments during orgasm.

“Some of us have been lucky enough to study with spiritual teachers, and have spiritual moments of realization through meditation and other practices, great heart orgasm, or whatever. But for the average person, orgasm is about the closest thing to this. I am not a spiritual expert, but I do know that.”

In her early thirties, Annie put herself through art school with her burlesque shows and prostitution earnings, but the study of the fine arts only reconfirmed sex and the erotic as her favorite topic of study. “I realized it wasn’t a passing phase. To me, it is the most interesting and important subject there is,” she says.

As she became more accomplished as a photographer, she naturally became a pornographer in her own right. “That’s where the fun is, in terms of pornography, actually being able to film real people,” she explains. “Pornography has been going on since cave painting, and everyone knows the Vatican has a huge collection of pornography. All of the great artists have painted pornography, but to actually depict real people has only been possible since Daguerre revealed the secrets of photography, and the next day there were nudes! The very next day there was some guy selling nudes. That’s a historical fact.”

The advent of performance art entered Annie into her “post porn” embodiment, making her a favorite of the avant-garde art world and a feminist icon. In the mid-eighties, her now-famous performance art piece entitled “Public Cervix Announcement” was a target for right-wing politicians fighting National Endowment for the Arts funding. In this, Annie’s signature act, she inserts a speculum and invites the audience to line-up and take turns viewing her cervix by flashlight. Despite headlines like “Porno Star Puts On Disgusting X-Rated Live Shows & Your Taxes Pay for It!” (National Enquirer), Annie’s show played around the globe, and she estimates that a good 25,000 people have examined her cervix.

In her “Post-Porn” embodiment, Annie has been a sex-educator, activist, journalist and advocate for spirituality. Through lectures, workshops, and visual and performance art, Annie has conveyed some basic beliefs that she summarizes in “Annie’s Sex Guidelines for the Nineties”:

Step 1: Honor your sexuality and realize its incredible value.
Step 2: Do not judge yourself or others.
Step 3: Get rid of any last vestiges of sexual guilt and feelings that you don’t deserve pleasure.
Step 4: Realize that abstinence can be dangerous to your health.
Step 5: Accept the fact that we are living in the AIDS era.
Step 6: Redefine and expand your concept of sex.
Step 7: Learn to consciously feel energy.
Step 8: Realize that sex is like food.
Step 9: Learn about breathing.
Step 10: Take care of your body.
Step 11: Visualize a satisfying future for your sex life and the sex lives of future generations.
Step 12: Make time for enjoying sex.
Step 13: Make love to the earth and sky and all things.

Through all of the facets of her career, this view of sex as essentially positive has remained Annie’s continuity. This does not mean that she went unharmed and happy all of the time. She was abused; she saw many friends die of AIDS and murdered in the line of work. For the last eight years she has been with women lovers exclusively. She jokes when asked why. “Well, ya know, I was with about 2,000 men. So it was just time for a change.”

In one statistic from her wacky scrapbook of a book, Post-Porn Modernist, Annie estimates that the number of penises she sucked equals the height of the Empire State Building. (That’s 3,000 men x 6 inches =1,500 feet of penises. Empire State Building = 1,475 feet.)

She still likes men though. “I was with some fabulous guys, fantastic guys. I was also with a lot of disrespectful, unappreciative and impolite men, but I always tried to be forgiving and compassionate. My father was a very, very compassionate person. I realize how much about compassion I learned from him.”

As she sits eating her cereal and milk, the humility of the woman is plain. She knows she has good intentions, but she also admits that porn is just a job, too. Like many people nowadays, Annie would like to live a more spiritual life, and she tries, but also makes no big claims at it.

“I have had phases where I felt very spiritual, but right now I don’t feel particularly spiritually-connected. I’ve made films, and that is what I do, but I have not made the perfect film. Actually, they are all just clumsy attempts at trying to make a spiritual film. That’s ultimately my goal, to make a film that really inspires people to experience a deeper kind of love. Sometimes it seems that there are so many lofty motivations, and other times it is just plugging-away, trying to make a living.”

Annie certainly is “plugging-away.” In addition to touring her show and releasing the video, she is finishing a sparkly underwater erotic fantasy film in which she plays a mermaid who passes the torch of sacred wisdom on to another younger mermaid. There are whimsical shots of dolphins swimming and a female jellyfish.

She also has a brand new video coming out, a minimalist film put to the sound of breath and meditation bells. Called “Zen Pussy,” it’s a cinematic exploration of vulvas in extreme close-up. “I hope it isn’t offensive to any Zen Buddhists,” she says.