When twentysomething Lisa Ling, new co-host of ABC-TV's popular talk show, The View, romped through Dallas last month promoting the show and purporting to be hip, she was still getting flack from assembled fans about a major faux pas she had made on a recent episode. In the program's "Know Your Vagina" segment, Ling couldn't identify the clitoris on a larger-than-life medical illustration of the female genitalia. Ling, hand-picked by Barbara Walters as the voice of a new generation of women, pointed to the urethra, admittedly another small, round bump on the labial landscape, but too far south to be the center of ecstasy.
Whether that voice is just naive or a reflection of collective Gen-X ignorance is of real concern to Annie Sprinkle, porn-queen-turned-feminist, self-appointed sex educator, and performance artist who is bringing her new Herstory of Porn: Reel to Real to the McKinney Avenue Contemporary's theater this week. Sprinkle's no gynecologist, but she's played one on stage. And unlike Ling, she can find -- and happily show you -- her clitoris with one or both hands. Sprinkle's infamous "Come look at my cervix" conclusion to her breakout "Post Porn Modernist" performance piece in the early 1990s set her up as a force to be reckoned with in avant-garde theater.
Speaking from her studio at Headlands Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Sprinkle has made it a personal crusade to demystify sexuality and enlighten the sexually challenged, and perhaps even prevent future anatomical blunders on daytime TV. "When I got into the sex field in 1973, women were expected not to like sex that much and no one was quite sure if women could have orgasms, much less where the G-spot was. I like to say women have, literally and figuratively, come a long way." She laughs. "But sometimes I wonder."
In a roundabout way, Sprinkle is partly responsible for the freedom that permits ABC's chatting heads to say words like "vagina" and "clitoris" on the air. For as long as Ling has been alive, Sprinkle has been conducting guerrilla warfare in America's "sexual revolution." She first brought her brand of big-busted titillation to the not-so-big screens (and sticky seats) of adult theaters, where she was featured in Double Exposure of Holly, Young Nurses in Love, and My Father Is Coming, among the 200-plus porn flicks she made throughout the 1970s. Sprinkle lived her own version of Boogie Nights, and as America's porn industry moved from back rooms to big business, she experienced a sense of stardom, which she says came by default. "Not too many girls would do what I would do back then," she says, rattling off a litany of taboos, including violent rape fantasies and sex with midgets and amputees.
Riding on her growing reputation, Sprinkle began performing in live sex shows in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and coined the term "New Era Burlesk" for a series of lurid stage revelries. Although she was making money and a name for herself, she grew burned-out, anxious, self-conscious, she says, like so many porn stars before her. Sprinkle became interested in New York's performance-art movement, auditing classes in the city's School of Visual Arts, where she would later return to give lectures to art students. Being uniquely qualified to explore sex in performance art, she began working on sexuality-centered solo performance pieces that would eventually play in theaters around the world. Her success as a performance artist brought her the kind of mainstream respect she had never known as a porn star. It also brought her a predictable amount of hostility from Sen. Jesse Helms during one of his NEA tirades. Both demonized and applauded, Sprinkle has made four HBO "Real Sex" specials, one of which, "Wild Cards," is currently airing. She's featured in her own comic book, has a Web site (www.heck.com), and has written a book subtitled My 25 Years as a Multimedia Whore.
Sprinkle's Herstory will be the first Dallas appearance for the woman who admits she's a study in contradictions. She'll take the MAC stage this weekend, fully clothed for a change, for four sure-to-be-controversial performances. She won't be showing her cervix, but she'll narrate a film diary that she's written herself with hands-off direction by Emilio Cubeiro. Herstory is her interactive, autobiographical monologue interspersed with film clips from her vast porn adventures. She sits on the stage as film vignettes flutter behind her, talking back to audience members who start to squirm as they watch a celluloid Sprinkle and her partner having sex while vomiting on one another. "Aw, c'mon," she says in a gently disarming, childlike way. "It's only pea soup, for goodness' sake."
How believable is it, this convoluted logic that Sprinkle spouts about working to stop violence against women, when the shadow of her porn-queen self is up on the screen, being gang-raped for God-knows-who's titillation? She seems absurdly innocent, with a soft, babyish voice, as she talks about her "Post Porn Modernist Manifesto," which celebrates sex as a life-giving force and denounces sexual censorship as "anti-art and inhuman." Sure, she's exploiting her own contradictions: She still believes in porn, but she wants better porn. She wants lots of sex, but safe sex. She's not self-conscious any more -- not even about her midlife body that she admits suffers from an extreme fondness for Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos. If there's inherent incongruity, she doesn't care. She makes perfect sense and no sense at all.
It's both Sprinkle's shock value and sincerity that sell out her performances. Her fearless, matter-of-fact acceptance of sexuality reduces even the most reticent members of her consistently diverse audiences to laughter, even to tears. That is, if they make it to intermission. "The first half can make some people very uncomfortable," she says, "because it's extreme and visceral. I tell them to breathe through it." In the second half of Herstory, there's a noticeable shift to a more holistic perspective. "It's about aging, the body, relationships between male and female, personal change and growth," Sprinkle says. "I think a lot of people will relate to my story, especially women, because a lot of us have gone through a similar evolution."
She stopped counting her own personal sexual encounters at 3,500, Sprinkle says. "I got into porn at 17, after a very short string of menial jobs, like hanging wallpaper and working on construction projects." Of course, she did have sex with most of the guys on the site. "I was wild. I was a young hippie in Tucson, Arizona." Her next job found her selling popcorn at a porn theater showing the classic Deep Throat. The theater was raided, and Sprinkle wound up in a courtroom testifying in the resulting obscenity trial. She met the film's director in court, and the rest, as she says, is "herstory."
"I really like sex, and I really like the creative part of film-making," she says. "But I never set out to be political."
"I'm not sure I agree with that," says Tim Johnson, producer for Kitchen Dog Theater, the MAC's resident troupe. Johnson's personal devotion to performance art got Sprinkle, and equally controversial writer-performer-gay activist Tim Miller, on stage in Dallas. "I think her work is inherently political. She's definitely challenging the preconceptions we have about sexuality, and that's a touchy issue." Like it or not, adds Johnson, in America's puritanical but sexually saturated society, anyone who celebrates sex becomes political. "Her goal is not to offend or shock, but she's about as controversial as you can get."
For more than a decade, Sprinkle has changed her own definition of the provocative performance. "What I do now is provocative in the sense that you'll probably leave the theater discussing it with your friends," she says. "I use porn to illustrate a whole personal evolution, but it's also very much a social evolution." Sprinkle apologizes for philosophizing before she says, "It's very funny, and you get free popcorn." She gets her audiences talking, and wherever she performs, she makes good copy. A review in The Village Voice said she gives new meaning to the term "revolutionary ardor." Playgirl called her a "porn star turned slut professor."
Johnson says Sprinkle is one of the few divas of performance art. As part of his programming strategy to bring more of an art form rarely found in Dallas to the MAC stage, he made it his mission to book her latest road show.
"I don't think people here know what to expect from performance art," he says. "I think they may expect bad personal narrative or something. My goal is to create an interest in performance by bringing in nationally recognized talent, and then expand into lesser-known, and maybe local, artists."
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Sprinkle says she's anxious to see how Dallas responds to her, but the MAC may be the last stop on the tour that tells of a lifelong journey from porn pioneer to sexual healer. "I'm on the road one or two weeks every month," she says, "so I may take a break. But I think for the rest of my life, I'll be exploring sexuality in the media."
Johnson has one more warning for prospective audience members: "If you think you're going to be offended, you shouldn't come. If you're not comfortable with sex, it's not the thing for you."
For the MAC run, Johnson says, the theater will be particularly sensitive to some of Sprinkle's biggest fans. The Thursday-night show is being billed as "Womyn's Night!" for women only (and men dressed as women). At the Sunday matinee, prostitutes, exotic dancers, and adult-video-store employees can get discount tickets.
Too bad Sprinkle isn't planning a discount night for "Famous Talk Show Hosts Who Don't Know Where The Clitoris Is." Certainly Lisa Ling could get a backstage pass.