Before phrases like “sex positivity” & “kink” wormed their way into my vocabulary as a horned-up youth, Annie Sprinkle already embodied them in my mind as a sex-culture mascot. Like other retro fetish icons like Bettie Page & Dita Von Teese, Annie Sprinkle has seemingly always been around in the public eye as a cheerleader for fun, adventurous sex – reaching me before I was old enough to access pornography without parental surveillance. I don’t know if I first encountered her in a magazine interview or on a late-night broadcast of HBO’s Real Sex, but she’s definitely one of the first cultural ambassadors for kink & sex positivity that penetrated my sheltered suburban bubble. Long before I had seen a single frame of her golden age pornos, she symbolized the ways that pornography could be fun & feminist in the right circumstances, which helped shape the ways I think of the medium.
While the mainstream porno Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle is likely her biggest commercial success, I don’t think Sprinkle peaked as artist until a decade later, when she was making avant-garde video art instead of traditional hardcore. The cult VHS oddity Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop: How to be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps is a tongue-in-ass-cheek instructional video promoting kink & sex positivity, a wonderful document of the Annie Sprinkle ethos. Co-directed with a young Maria Beatty (who still makes artsy fetish videos like Ecstasy in Berlin, 1926) and scored by experimental electronic musician Pauline Oliveros, the video is ostensibly a taped version of Sprinkle’s sex-positivity workshops that she ran in early-90s NYC but is something much stranger & more cinematic than that documentation implies. In the video version of the workshop, Sprinkle lectures directly to the camera about the mystical slut/goddess binary. She promises to “awaken your inner slut” and “your inner goddess,” challenging cultural biases that a sexually enthused woman is somehow vulgar or immoral. She walks you through this spiritual slut awakening in front of surreal green screen video-art effects while arhythmic keyboard flourishes, marching drums, and slide whistles trigger a kind of D.I.Y. psychedelic hypnotism. Sprinkle declares that she wants the video to make sex “empowering, liberating, and healthy,” but in the process she also makes sex a bizarre psychotronic head-fuck.
While commercially marketed as a porno, the Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop plays more like experimental video art than it does like pure erotica. It’s telling that Sprinkle & Beatty tacked on a lengthy threesome scene at the end of the video as an afterthought, realizing late in production that their sex video didn’t have much actual sex in it. And even that scene concludes with Sprinkle experiencing a five-minute, unedited orgasm, lecturing about the different levels of orgasmic pleasure in voiceover while a digital clock counts every eternal second. Everything that precedes that mind-blowing climax lands somewhere between the high-art mysticism of Derek Jarman’s The Garden and the psychedelic sketch comedy of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. A kaleidoscope of vulvas undulates on the screen while Sprinkle instructs on how to find “your goddess spot” and makes cheeky puns about how genital piercings make you “holier.” Brief sex acts shared between her crew of “Transformation Facilitators” are transposed in front of backdrops that are usually reserved for karaoke screens. The video is often hot and always fun, but it’s less pornography than it is Dianetics for your clit.
As you’d likely expect, not all of Annie Sprinkle’s sex-positive politics have aged gracefully over the past three decades. The Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop has some major blind spots when it comes to cultural appropriation in particular, encouraging superficial Orientalist engagement with yoga & bindis as cultural costuming instead of genuine spiritual practices. In the audio commentary on my mid-2000s DVD copy of the film, Sprinkle shrugs off the insensitivity of these missteps, explaining that she didn’t even know what cultural appropriation was at the time of filming. However, she also recounts that those aspects of the workshop caused some of the video’s more radical performers to walk off-set in protest on the first day of filming, so those conversations were very much being had at the time whether or not she chose to listen. Still, I’d like to think that it’s worth squinting past Sprinkle’s political blind spots to appreciate her ambassadorship for good sex and good pornography. After all, she does have an entire section on her Wikipedia page titled “Contributions to Feminism,” which should be some implication of how important her messaging was at the time, short sights aside.
If there’s anything especially radical about the Sluts & Goddesses Video Workshop, it’s not necessarily in its erotic mysticism or in its video-art psychedelia. Annie Sprinkle’s most invigorating contribution to pornography is in her D.I.Y. punk ethos, encouraging her audience to have more playful sex and even to make their own pornography at home. It’s the same mobilizing energy that the Riot Grrrl movement brought to feminist bands & zines at the time, inciting women to make their own self-liberating art in defiance of the era’s cultural gatekeepers. Sprinkle’s version just happened to allow her to experience a continuous 5-minute orgasm in the process, which is a pretty sweet bonus if you can achieve it.