New York

Annie Sprinkle

Harmony Burlesque Theater

Annie Sprinkle, the self-described “feminist porn activist” and ex-porn star, seems to embrace a role many feminists have fought to undermine. With her coquettish manner, pretty smile, and very large breasts, Sprinkle presents herself as the complete sex object and clearly finds that role more empowering than demeaning. However, her performance of Post-Porn Modernist, 1989, at a lower-Manhattan burlesque theater made it clear that it was never simply the role that empowered her, but her own sexuality.

Sprinkle evaluated her years of work in the sex industry with some detachment and wit. She first appeared on stage in a prim schoolmarmish suit, holding a pointer while illustrating her accomplishments with statistical graphs. (In “Amount of Cock Sucked,” for example, she calculated that all the penises she had fellated, if laid end-to-end, would equal the height of the Empire State Building, without antennae.) One slide charted the disadvantages she’d encountered (“met some horrible people,” “hurt my parents,” etc.), but Sprinkle decided long ago that the profit and pleasure in her career outweighed the harm done. Matter-of-factly, she listed her various jobs: prostitute, stripper, porn writer, and star of 130 hardcore porn films, with brief stints as a dominatrix and as “The Queen of Golden Showers.” Now Sprinkle is a woman with a mission—to educate, and to “save sex” in an age of repression.

Her performance, however, emphasized the personal over the political. She added a new dimension to the concept of audience participation, leading us in exercising our pubic coccyseal muscles, saying, “As you learn about extended orgasms, you’re going to need them.” But much of her pro-sex message was less practical and more connected to an unspecified New Age spirituality. She called sex her “path to enlightenment” and said that, before making love, she evoked the spirits of “ancient Taoists” and others who’d healed the mind/ body split.

Sprinkle is a performer who has set out to hold nothing back. The show’s advertising even suggested, “Bring your own camera. All forms of exploitation are welcome.” Sprinkle masturbated on a bed at one side of the stage. She douched. She inserted a speculum and let spectators look at her cervix. Sprinkle went beyond nakedness, revealing so much of herself that it transcended eroticism to become something even more primal. However, she was probably at her most revealing early in the performance when she told us that her real name was Ellen Steinberg and that Annie Sprinkle was someone she’d invented. She pointed out their differences as she showed slides of both: “Ellen was shy, Annie was an exhibitionist,” and so on. Sprinkle (with business partner Veronica Vera) now runs what she calls a “Transformation Salon,” where she transforms other “Ellens” into “Annies,” with make-up, lingerie, and glamorous photography. She showed slides of these women as well—before and after they’d been given their sexy new personas.

These transformations—which connect to the way we perceive Sprinkle herself, to the ways in which men might see her differently than women do, and to notions of masquerade—helped form the central conundrum in the show: Can female sexuality ever be separated from representations of it?

—C. Carr