Sexual healer

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 (, 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.

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Annabelle Massey Helber

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