We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?

Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn: Reel to Real

Bailiwick Arts Center, June 3-6

By Justin Hayford

“Sex is definitely the most interesting subject in the world,” declares Annie Sprinkle, porn star turned performance artist, in her new one-woman show, Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn: Reel to Real. That assertion seems unassailable, judging from the flood of talk shows, advice columns, how-to books, psychological treatises, music videos, scholarly articles, and perfume commercials devoted to the subject. But as Sprinkle makes unintentionally clear in her two-act, nearly two-hour guided tour through 25 years of her porn clips, sex as a subject is much more marketable than interesting.

We all know sex is used to peddle everything from chewing gum to automobiles. But as a “postporn feminist,” Sprinkle has used it to sell cultural radicalism through her own brand of performance activism. The last time I saw her in Chicago, several years ago at Lower Links, she taught a “sex-education class” topless, inviting audience members to feel her breasts, giving the stage to her transsexual lover, who stripped naked to show us his dual genitals. That night she and her disarming candor were selling sexual tolerance, and the overflow crowd was more than happy to buy.

But when it comes to peddling sex as pornographers do–and as Sprinkle does in this new show–the real product being sold is usually power. The pornographer gives his audience a simulated power over the unruly forces of sexuality. His performer shows you what you want to see, does what you want done, performs to your specifications. Whether this object of desire is enjoying himself or herself, or enjoying running the camera or editing the film, is beside the point. The urges that have been suspected of driving men mad for millennia are safely packaged and corralled. As Susan Griffin argues in Pornography and Silence, pornography is culture’s attempt to exact revenge on nature, exerting power over the forces before which we’re powerless. Power, not sex, is the most interesting subject in the world.

Yet questions about power rarely surface in Herstory of Porn. To her credit, Sprinkle is more interested in pleasure, one of our puritanical nation’s more problematic concepts, especially when it comes to women’s sexuality. Like a host of feminist thinkers, she’s out to reclaim women’s sexual desires from the patriarchal forces. And for her to stand before a giant film of herself getting fucked with a salami and tell us how good it felt is indeed a radical act–for in pornography, as in much of male-controlled culture, the personal gratification of women is suspect when not irrelevant. Sprinkle demands that we acknowledge her as a sexual agent rather than as someone merely acted upon. Even with her arm up some guy’s ass clear to the elbow, she lets us know she had a great time.

Sprinkle also delights in pointing out the absurdity of conscripting women into the role of sexual appendage, as a conventional pornographer would like. In the first clip of the night–an excerpt from her first film, the 1973 Teenage Deviants–the 18-year-old Sprinkle plays a skittish virgin opposite some doltish, paunchy guy. He unceremoniously unzips his pants and forces her head toward his crotch. “Isn’t this scene romantic?” Sprinkle coos. “You have to act like you don’t want it if you’re a virgin. And you always tell the guy he has a big dick no matter how small it is.”

Sprinkle continues in a similar vein for her first act, as the clips grow kinkier and kinkier. But whether she’s having sex with a dwarf, being fucked by an amputee’s stump, or vomiting on her partner, she lets us know two things: the films look cheap and perfunctory (“It’s not the sex that’s embarrassing–it’s the acting that’s embarrassing”), but the pleasure was real. Sprinkle will never say she was exploited, though she acknowledges that some of the movies are “kind of misogynist.” In the era of Oprah, Sprinkle’s unapologetic refusal to be victimized is refreshing.

But by the middle of the first act, Sprinkle has made her point. And like most pornography, after 20 minutes the show sinks into a rut. The clips may get more graphic, but the ideas stop coming. Once you’ve accepted her premise that pleasure in all forms should be respected, there’s not much left to do. Sex, it turns out, is one of the most boring subjects in the world, even if Sprinkle is never less than charming–though she’s so heavily miked that the intimacy she usually generates in performance is severely compromised.

She tries to steer the piece into new territory when she begins discussing her first forays into writing and directing her own movies, notably Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle from 1981. In this film, she explains, she enacted her own sexual fantasies. The clip she shows features her walking into a porn theater while one of her movies is playing and carousing with the guys in the seats. She portrayed herself as sexually assertive, she says, initiating rather than responding to sexual advances–even as she was capturing on film the same semiobjectifying fantasies of most porn films. Assertive or not, her image is meant to be consumed by men. Sprinkle’s supposed radicalism here is akin to the media’s assertion that Madonna, in her bullet-bra days, could traipse about fulfilling her audience’s misogynist fantasies because she was somehow “in control” of her image.

During the second act Sprinkle takes us through her “art porn” days (showing clips from films screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art), her education in Eastern tantric sex, and finally her stint making safer-sex and how-to videos for lesbians. In these beautifully shot clips, the “problems” of pornography seem to have been solved–if you consider those problems to be largely aesthetic. But in moving from the world of commercial pornography to the world of her own art projects, Sprinkle avoids any discussion of the thornier questions of pornography. On some level pornography, even in its most enlightened form, capitulates to the cultural imperative to codify and control human sexuality. In other words, in advocating her message of sexual freedom and autonomy, Sprinkle has chosen a medium that to some degree necessarily compromises that message. Acknowledging that would have given Herstory of Porn much greater depth.

But then Sprinkle may simply refuse to see pornography as problematic, much as I refuse to see homosexuality as an “issue.” What she sees is sexual pleasure captured on film; the political forces that create the need for certain pornographic images largely escape her notice. She’s out to open our eyes to the myriad forms of sexual expression available to us, and as an educator she’s a success. But as a provocateur, this time around she falls short.