ANNIE SPRINKLE HAS NEVER WANTED TO JUST MAKE porn. Early on, she recognized the double-edged effect of sex, its ass-backwards tendency to both empower and objectify women, and women's corresponding discomfort with the disruptive art of seduction. An "excruciatingly shy girl," Sprinkle entered into unwitting prostitution six months after losing her virginity at age 17, and worked in a massage parlor where she "ended up" having sex with her clients. In her autobiography, Annie Sprinkle, Post-Porn Modernist, she says, "The job was so much fun and I liked it so much that I couldn't imagine it was prostitution. In my naïveté I just thought of myself as a horny masseuse.... When it finally did occur to me that I was a hooker, and I got over the initial shock, I enjoyed the idea."

It took Sprinkle even longer to realize she was an artist. Not until she had attended workshops with other performance artists did she begin labeling her porn and burlesque as art. She liked sex, and she could affect other people's outlook on it in a positive way by displaying her own ease with exhibitionism. "I vowed then and there," she says, "to do performances that make people laugh, feel good, get excited... I would work on my negative experiences in private and if I did turn them into public performances, I would make them enjoyable to my audience."

For all but a lucky few, sex on its own is rarely art. Sprinkle's performance pieces are careful never to merely cater to our ideas of burlesque or pornography. They rise above exploitation by delving into collective fears or prejudice, by confronting us with all of our embarrassment, hangups, and self-consciousness. One of her most (in)famous performances, titled Public Cervix Announcement, invited audience members to come on stage and examine her cervix, a process that simultaneously demystified one aspect of female sexuality and also, in her words, gave those who desired it "more pussy than they'd ever want."

Sprinkle's in-your-face tactics end up being more shocking than money shots because, rather than titillate, she wants to educate. Criticized for both her slapstick humor (SM director Mary Magdalene Serra has said, "Historically, women could only be sexual if they were funny. But I think such humor dilutes impact.") and her preachy practicality, Sprinkle nonetheless has brought audiences to tears. In Annie Sprinkle's Herstory of Porn: Reel to Real, Sprinkle wants you to take your sexuality into your own hands. Her goal is to encourage homemade porn, to bring the sex industry back to grass-roots back lots.

"The objective of Herstory of Porn is to do interesting, provocative, experimental theater," Sprinkle said during a recent phone interview. "There's so much bad porn out there, it would be nice to make better porn. I think ultimately it has the potential to make our society mature sexually. Pornography is very much like a mirror, and it reflects our society and how people feel about sexuality. We could stand to mature a little bit!" Sprinkle thinks women should take charge of their own images as sexual beings. "Women could use some new inspiration," she says. "Making porn isn't for everyone, but for people who are interested in being creative and making movies and exploring sexuality it can give insight into ourselves as sexual beings."

As far as her humor goes, Sprinkle says, "I think if you're going for eroticism, laughing definitely is not erotic, but this is not an erotic show. I use humor to make the medicine go down. And a good laugh is like a good orgasm, rare and therapeutic. Being too serious can dilute impact, too, or create other problems. Saying humor dilutes impact is like saying Lily Tomlin is diluted. There are certain comedians that push buttons, that make a big impact. I hope I'm one."

In a city like Seattle, where '70s-era porn draws nightly crowds at the Egyptian, Sprinkle's stuff may not seem as provocative as it once did (although it still riles the feminists). And even the title of her new performance piece has an air of denouement, a post-summing up. Sprinkle describes the Herstory as "Not real history, but my herstory. I start out playing myself when I was 18 and I interact with the clips. For instance, there's a movie scene where I'm masturbating and I go up to the screen and help out." By anthologizing different eras and styles of porn, Herstory lays bare its evolution and artistic potential. "People think if you've seen one porno you've seen them all, but that's not the case. People don't have to like porn to see the show. They'll see things they've never seen before."

Does Sprinkle think that porn is becoming more mainstream and acceptable? "Oh," she says, "there's still a lot of prejudice against people who work in the porn movement. I hope that Herstory can educate people, make people talk and think about sexuality. I sort of see it as civil rights work. It's porn, it's art, it's self-help. The best compliment, though, is always tears. Sometimes, on a really good day, there are people who are moved to tears, which to me is the most beautiful thing. There's a lot of sadness in the show. For certain people it can push certain buttons. Some people are shocked by certain things. But I think people like to be shocked."

The power to shock becomes, for Sprinkle, the power to open up. For someone who began life as Ellen Steinberg, shy child, Annie Sprinkle has come a long way.

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