at Club Lower Links

October 20

Annie Sprinkle’s Sex Education Class was the first performance I’ve seen stopped–but not because Sprinkle’s work was “obscene.” Sprinkle, a self-described “postporn modernist,” talks about and shows us things that the far right wing would find morally abhorrent and the far left might find pretty darn distasteful as well. But the police came because someone in the audience fell and hit his head. And when the police arrived to help the accident victim, members of the Club Lower Links staff hurriedly urged the seminude Sprinkle and her totally nude partner, Les Nichols, to cover up. Suddenly the show was dirty, and Lower Links had to hide it from the cops. This appalling act of self-censorship was more disturbing than anything Sprinkle could have done.

Sprinkle’s work is not meant to disturb–just the opposite. She isn’t trying to shock or to be vulgar. She wants to entertain, and she’s successful at this, making her audience comfortable as she talks about and shows us things that would normally make most of us pointedly uncomfortable. She simply wants to talk about sex, in a nonconfrontational, relaxed, and good-humored way. She wants to take the discussion of sex out of the usual narrow confines of “acceptable discourse” and look at it in all of its complexity, diversity, and mystery.

The tension between the strictness of society’s sexual norms and the fluidity of sexual realities forms the core of the piece, a tension that Sprinkle exploits with great humor and insight. She is Nurse Sprinkle for the evening, in an overly tight nurse’s uniform that’s judiciously unzipped. We are the “boys and girls,” about to receive the education we probably should have gotten when we were boys and girls. She shows us a slide of a blackboard upon which is written “Society’s idea of how a woman’s sex life should look.” Below that is a simple time line on which the stages of youthful virginity, monogamous marriage, sexually useless postmenopause, and death are clearly labeled. Then she shows us another blackboard labeled “Women’s sex lives in reality,” below which are drawn a series of multicolored lines twisting and scrawling and intertwining. The “diagram” is utter chaos.

Unlike most of us, who worry about classifying our sexuality or hiding fetishes from one another, Sprinkle revels in sexual anarchy. No expression of sexuality is given preference over another, for as she repeatedly reminds us in her wonderful mockery of oversimplification, “We each have to follow our own path.” She shows us a series of slides chronicling her various sexual liaisons, from “straight” sex to orgies to bondage to fisting. She shows us a picture of her and a man horribly scarred by fire over most of his body. “He appealed to my alien-from-outer-space fantasy,” she shyly admits.

Sprinkle, who seems uninterested in drawing lines for herself, almost forces us to examine where we draw our own. Certain images elicited a squeamish response from nearly everyone–for instance, a penis pinned half a dozen times to a wooden board. Sprinkle seems to allow for such responses, saying, “Are we doing OK, boys and girls?” But there is no bravado or haughtiness in her, no sense that she wants to show off her superior tolerance, her ability to stomach these things. Rather she seems to genuinely want to share these images with us, to ease us into a greater understanding of the “many sexual personalities” we harbor.

The most successful part of the evening comes when she brings on Nichols, whom she describes as a female-to-male transsexual hermaphrodite. Nichols strips for us, revealing not only several dozen tattoos covering his torso but also the last vestiges of his surgically removed breasts (“A botched job,” he says), his clitoris and vagina, and his surgically constructed penis complete with removable prosthetic erection insert. Though my first response, I’m ashamed to say, was to look away, Nichols was so comfortable with his body and with being naked in front of a group that I was quickly put at ease. In this setting, Nichols is not a freak but rather “a new breed,” as Sprinkle says, a champion of sexual freedom and versatility.

Sprinkle does not use Nichols as a kind of cheap sidekick but allows him to take center stage as he fields questions from the audience. Nichols comes across as a charming, surprisingly shy, and at times deeply insightful person. Asked whether he’s treated differently as a man than a woman, he said, “Now, when I don’t understand something, I get an explanation.”

Everything about Sex Education Class is candid and honest, though Sprinkle’s artificial classroom provides a necessary displacement. Like Karen Finley’s recent We Keep Our Victims Ready–which is so honest as to be devastating–Sprinkle’s work is upsetting insofar as it is accurate. It points out the things that we don’t talk about, pretend not to even think about. It shows us how embarrassed we are about our bodies, especially during a section in which Sprinkle asks for two volunteers to come up and feel her breasts. It shows us how narrow-minded we can be, as when she shows us a “porno” picture of a woman seen earlier in a shot that showed her in her “normal” role as a housewife on a farm in Iowa.

Sprinkle, aware of the volatility of her work, graciously takes great care of her audience. The delicate balance she was maintaining (at times tipped by a brusque question from an audience member) was brutally toppled when she was suddenly asked to put her clothes on and stop her piece. Of course the person who fell needed help, and the piece should have been stopped for that; but what were the people at Lower Links so afraid the police might see? There’s full nudity onstage at every “legitimate” theater in town. And I would lay even money there was a plainclothes cop in the audience anyway. While I applaud Lower Links’ effort to combat censorship–they’re presenting a series of works this month that some have deemed obscene–I hope that they will examine the haste with which they knuckled under to the prevailing political climate. They are rightfully proud to present Annie Sprinkle, and should sooner ask a cop to take his uniform off than ask her to put hers back on.