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Annie Sprinkle
Photos from the Sprinkle SalonCourtesy of Annie Sprinkle

Lessons from Annie Sprinkle, the radical sex positive educator of 1980s NYC

For 14 years the Sprinkle Salon (dubbed the sex ed equivalent of Andy Warhol’s Factory) was New York’s underground centre for sexual empowerment

In mid-1980s New York, a resident in the apartment building of 90 Lexington Avenue knocked on the door of flat 11F and exclaimed “What are you doing in there? I know you’re having sex, but my god it sounds incredible! How do you do it?” Annie Sprinkle (sex positivity educator, porn star, sex worker, and above all prodigious sex artist) opened the door and told him about her apartment-cum-centre for sex activists, sex education, and filmmaking: the Sprinkle Salon, dubbed by the artist herself as the Andy Warhol Factory equivalent of sex art. “I was really into art and sexual politics”, explains Sprinkle, ”so the Sprinkle Salon was a reflection of my curiosity and creativity, just as the Factory was an extension of Warhol’s. There just weren't other places at the time where you could go to learn about sex and be freely sexually expressive, so we started my space.”

From 1980-94, the Sprinkle Salon was a spiritual and physical extension of Sprinkle’s identity. Her radicalism was translated into fetish, tattoo, and body modification parties, while her pledge to sexual positivity emulated in female empowerment sex classes like Sluts and Goddesses (where she used sexual costuming as a tool for women to explore their inner slut and goddess), and her role as a leader in the sex industry was equally translated into sex worker rights groups like PONY (Prostitutes Of New York) and porn support groups like Club 90. Above all, the Sprinkle Salon was a central point for New York’s underground sexual rebellion and a place to push the revolution into the rights of fetishists, porn stars, and sex workers. 

Below, Sprinkle takes us on a journey through the 14 year run of the Sprinkle Salon to give us life lessons on how to openly embrace and explore sex.


Annie Sprinkle: I set up a studio in the space by taking out my bed and installing a backdrop with either seamless paper, paint, or velvet. It was a bed and breakfast for a lot of people. There was one big bedroom with a beautiful view, and then I had a big bed in the living room. Mark Stephen, a pornstar, lived next door, and half a block away there was fetish photographer Eric Kroll, we shared a lot of the same models.

Every day was a new adventure and we made a lot of stuff, like photo shoots and films. At one point, a tattoo artist had a studio in my apartment where he would tattoo Johnny Winter and other rock stars. Tattooing, body art, and piercings were big back then and at that time in New York tattooing was illegal so there were a lot of illegal activities going on: for example, it was also an occasional brothel cause I had a couple of regular visitors that came to my apartment, one that I saw for 22 years. It was also a piercing salon run by a friend of mine who was the only woman piercer at the time. We had what would have been one of the first mix gender identity piercing-parties at the salon.


Annie Sprinkle: People thought because I was a pornstar, I couldn't possibly be an artist. I went to the school of visual art for my undergraduate degree and went to college in my late twenties – early thirties, so a little bit late because I did a lot of porn first. The school tried to get me to stop photographing my own life, but to me, this is all normal. It was all about the body and body pleasure and body politics, and art was about that. I also worked at the Hell Hole Hospital a block away which was a kinky brothel. I took pictures of my clients and started a documentary work about peep shows, and they tried to get rid of that. The irony is that now they have a class based on sex art. There is a history of pornographic art, and there were many other photographers, but I was unique. I was not just photographing people: we were the underground. As I said, prostitution was illegal. At the salon, we also had the first New York-based sex workers rights group. In the US the first sexual rights organisation was called COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), and each city had a different animal and acronym. So we were PONY (Prostitutes Of New York). We were meeting for a while at my place.

Another really important moment for me as an artist when I showed at Documenta 14 last year with Beth my wife. We've been collaborating together for 18 years, so everything I've done over the past eighteen years has been with Beth. That for me was the pinnacle... it was very symbolic for me because anyone would have thought a pornstar and a prostitute can't be an artist. Showing at Documenta was the ultimate proof that I was a prostitute, a pornstar, and an artist – totally unrepentant, by the way.

“Showing at Documenta was the ultimate proof that I was a prostitute, a pornstar, and an artist – totally unrepentant, by the way” – Annie Sprinkle


Annie Sprinkle: Sluts and Goddesses was a breakthrough project for me. It started off as a few women coming to the salon to try on my costumes, wigs, high heels, and fetish outfits and then I would take boudoir photos of them. It then soon developed into a workshop where about 15 to 20 women would come. I did the project with my friend Jwala and for the class I was Miss Kinky Pornstar Prostitute, and she was the spiritual Goddess Auntra Future. Together, we pollinated our knowledge and developed Sluts and Goddesses.

The project was really visual to see the women go through this transformation and explore their ‘slut’ side and then their ‘goddess’ side. We took those two archetypes and put them back to back, so first, we did sluts and I would take slutty, pornographic Polaroids that they could take home. Jwala did the ecstatic breathing and then at the end of the day or night (each class took about 12 hours), we'd ask what did you like better the slut or the goddess, which one did you resonate with, and what did you learn? A lot of the women found it very empowering to be the slut, whereas the sex workers found it very empowering to be the goddess. We did Sluts and Goddesses for about 10 years, all over the world. We made a film and a video-workshop out of it in 1999 that was played in museums all over the world, including the Guggenheim.


Annie Sprinkle: Sex is a mystery, like life itself, it's huge and multi-faceted, and some people think there's not much to learn – you put A into B and that's sex. And for some people, that's enough and that's okay. For others, there's a lot more than that, so we need sex education to be good lovers and to be sexually satisfied.

For me, my life’s work has really been about being a student, educating myself, educating others, and learning more. Sex is my passion. I still consider myself a feminist pornographer. But sex isn't everybody's thing, so I don't say do as I do if you're interested in archaeology, or being a cowboy, or a nurse. A lot of people are suffering or are uncomfortable with their sexuality and don't know what to do about it, and very commonly people are insecure about their sexual skills. But if you like sex, it can be an art form and a spiritual path. Whatever your passion is, follow your bliss. 

“If you like sex, it can be an art form and a spiritual path” – Annie Sprinkle


Annie Sprinkle: Club 90 was probably the most important thing in my life. It was a pornstar support group that we started. It all began from a baby shower I hosted for the pornstar Veronica Heart, who was probably the biggest 80s pornstar and one of the first to have a baby from that porn community, so it was very exciting when she was pregnant. It was the first time we had all gotten together just the women and it was really amazing. At the time I was wanting to get out of prostitution and maybe go to school, and Gloria Leonard, who was the editor of High Society (a very popular, big men's magazine) asked why don't we get together and have a support group because she came from the feminist world. So then we started to meet, we sent out an invitation saying and it started out with maybe 20 women, then it went to nine, and then, in the end, five of us really bonded. We continued to meet and still meet to this day, and that was the most personally valuable and important thing about the salon because these women became my best friends and we had each other's backs. Two have passed away. Veronica Heart and Veronica Vera and I still get together.


Annie Sprinkle: A lot of people are dead from that era, it's insane. When Aids was at the height of the epidemic, I held a meeting called Pornographers Promoting a Safer Sex and we met with a lot of porn directors and producers to talk about what we're going do about Aids. Sadly, it became pretty clear just from that one meeting that most of the porn industry wasn't going to take it seriously, because they were heterosexual. They didn't have a lot of people like us. It was a hard time because the fans didn't want to see the condoms.

“We as humans have a deep hunger for intimacy and love, so let there be pleasure on earth and let it begin with us...or me, I say, let it begin with me” – Annie Sprinkle 


Annie Sprinkle: Another thing about sex education is its potential for healing. I think one of the best ways to heal is if you're around people who celebrate sex because if you've been violated then it's hard to enjoy sex. Ecstatic breathing work, for example, works by breathing sexual energy into your body into a kind of energy orgasm relief. Sexual healing is a real thing, you can use sexual energy to know yourself and have deeper intimacy. We as humans have a deep hunger for intimacy and love, so let there be pleasure on earth and let it begin with us... or me, I say, let it begin with me. With pleasure people are free to surrender to ecstasy. There's a lot of fear around sex, and sex education but sex education helps with being human – it helps our human condition.


Annie Sprinkle: My work today is all about ecosexuality, and I've got a new film about water. Going back Don Herron’s shots of New York artists in the bathtub, I was amazed that I was the only one eroticising the water. Nobody else was interacting with the water like I was. For me, water has always been my lover, well one of my many lovers. I was really surprised, I mean the pictures are fascinating and everyone's personality comes out through the bathtub, but for me, it was a no-brainer – I had to straddle the water.

Annie Sprinkle's latest adventure is a book on ecosexuality titled The Explorer's Guide to Planet Orgasm: For Every Body. You can buy the book here