The first of four interviews by David Henry Sterry with some of the contributing writers from his current anthology, Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks: Professionals and Clients Writing About Each Other. Click here to read “Admit You’ve Paid For It: The Savage Honesty of David Henry Sterry,” in which Rumpus sex columnist Antonia Crane flips the script and interviews Sterry.
Annie M. Sprinkle spent her “wonder years” age 18-40 in Manhattan, then returned to California where she has been based for the past twelve years. Sprinkle earned a BA at School of Visual Arts then became the first porn star to earn a Ph.D. (IASHS). She has been an activist in sex worker rights for forty years, founded Occupy Bernal, and is currently a passionate environmental activist pioneering the ecosex movement. A former prostitute and “porn legend,” she has proudly had sex with over 3500 people. She has also written and done photography for most every ‘80s-‘90s sex magazine as well as many non-sex publications like Newsweek and the New York Times, and has published five books with Tarcher/Penguin, Continuum, and Cleis Press. Annie Sprinkle’s guiltiest pleasure is reading the National Enquirer every week. For the past ten years she has collaborated with her life partner, artist Elizabeth Stephens. Visit Anniesprinkle.org, loveartlab.org, and her new site, sexecology.org.
The Rumpus: Are there any correlations between your career in sex and your career as an artist?
Annie M. Sprinkle: Being a whore was great preparation for being an artist. Beth Stephens, my partner and collaborator, and I just did a live art piece in a Brooklyn gallery—Grace Exhibition Space. Our work is exploring the earth as lover, instead of earth as mother. So we built a bed frame and poured fifty-five big bags of fresh dirt into it. We took off our clothes and got into the bed of dirt. Then we invited our audience to take off their clothes and join us. On one hand, it’s very different than been a prostitute. But then again it’s not. We were paid to get in bed with total strangers, naked. In a sense we are turning art patrons into johns and jills. It’s fun to play in these realms. I think that in some ways, we are all whores, johns and jills.
Rumpus: Why do you think there’s such a stigma about buying and selling sex?
Sprinkle: It’s a pity that there’s such a negative connotation about paying for sex. There are very few out johns in the world. I really respect those few. Fred Cherry, who passed away, Hugh Loebner, and Charlie Sheen are the only out johns I can think of, after all these years. They are very brave. No one wants to admit they pay for sex. Yet millions of people do, one way or another. Being a john is actually far more stigmatized than being a sex worker.
Rumpus: Do you think being a sex worker would make it easier to pay for sex?
Sprinkle: I heard about a recent study where some researcher did a survey and discovered that people who have been prostitutes are ten times more willing to be johns than the average person. So, if you’ve been paid for sex you understand the value of that experience on some level.
Rumpus: Were your johns generally respectful of you?
Sprinkle: My johns adored and worshipped me, therefore they empowered me. When I was 18, 19, and 20, I had a poor self-image and needed attention. It’s hard for people who haven’t been prostitutes to imagine, but I think it’s often true. There can be a very symbiotic relationship happening.
Rumpus: Did you ever have orgasms with clients?
Sprinkle: Sure, I had orgasms with clients, even though it was kind of a taboo at that time to admit it. Women weren’t supposed to enjoy sex that much! Today whores are much more open about enjoying the sex. I usually kissed my clients if they wanted to kiss. I thought it was just way too weird to say “no kissing allowed,” That to me was uncomfortable. Blow jobs are okay, but kissing clients is still a taboo. I liked having orgasms with clients and that was kind of a taboo at that time, but I never paid attention to that. A lot of women I worked with didn’t respect their clients. I had some clients who didn’t respect me, but still you somehow made it work. One guy, he had a lot of money and he was pretty disrespectful, he kept trying to have anal sex with me and I didn’t want to have anal sex with him and he just seemed to really want to provoke me and make me angry and manipulative. And then I felt like ugh this guy really needs love. Gee, I’ll model love for him, I thought. I’ll kill him with kindness. I don’t know if my strategy had any effect or not. Perhaps it was simply my way of coping with a challenging situation, and I needed to pay my bills. Other women might have kicked him in the balls and thrown him out. But then whores have the ability to put up with behaviors other women would never manage to put up with. That’s why we deserve to be generously compensated. Some men can be very rude. On the other hand, some clients are absolute angels. One john always brought me a gift every time he came to see me. He brought me a pearl necklace, a ring, a bra or something. But eventually, as much as I really loved all the gifts, he fell in love with me, and he tried to weasel his way into my life. It was too much and I sort of had to ‘break up with him.” Yes, whores do sometimes break up with their johns. He was pretty devastated. He was in love and that was not okay. That was uncomfortable for me. I’m sure he soon found another whore to buy gifts for. A lot of women I worked with really didn’t respect their clients. I respected my clients, as I tend to see the intrinsic, unique worth of every person. I was raised Unitarian by humanist parents. I think the whore-client relationship is very influenced by our childhoods, our parents, what we bring to the table as it were. I had many clients who didn’t respect me, probably because of how they were raised. We’re all the walking wounded. But still, magically, somehow you made it all work. It was still a win-win situation even when it was all screwy and convoluted. We are all complex creatures.
Rumpus: Who was your favorite john?
Sprinkle: I didn’t call them “johns” but clients. So I had this client I’ll call Samuel. Not his real name. I saw him steadily for twenty years, usually twice a month. Over twenty years you really get to know someone. When I met him originally, he had three little kids, then they started growing up, getting married, then they’d have their drugs and alcohol problems, then they got divorced. . . Whenever we would get together I’d ask him, “How are things? How are the kids?” He was someone that I wouldn’t have been having sex with had he not been paying me. But I cared about him deeply and genuinely wanted to know about how his life was going. When his business took a turn for the worse, I lowered my price for him. Looking back I’d have to say it was definitely a type of long-term relationship. The only reason it ended was because I moved out of New York. He was a great guy. He owned camera stores. I met him when I was 18. We split up when I was 38. He saw me grow up too. He was a client, and also a friend. Such things are more common than people might think. This arrangement was not so different than many American relationships. That’s why the laws against prostitution have got to go. They are totally unfair and mean.
Rumpus: Have you ever paid for sex?
Sprinkle: There have been times where I have definitely felt like I was a john. As a pin-up photographer for ten years, when I was photographing men and women, to be honest, sometimes I felt like I was a john, especially when I was shooting guys because they—you know—they had to have big erections in the photos. So they would jerk off for me for hours sometimes, and then I’d pay them. I sometimes felt like a “dirty old man” and a “voyeur.” Because they were younger than I was, and I’d pay them, and they were working it. But that was okay. I didn’t mind being a john!
Rumpus: So, how has this experience changed your idea of the john/jill-providor relationship?
Sprinkle: I’m interested in the idea of expanding the idea of what a john is, or a jill. I also did a masturbation ritual which is called “The Legend of the Ancient Secret Prostitute” in a theater piece called: “Post Porn Modernist.” I was just fresh out of prostitution, so it was just an extension of that. Now that work is studied in many universities. In my theater pieces, I would do “Tits on the Head”—Polaroid photos for $10 on the stage. There would be a line of folks paying me $10 for their turn. It was public prostitution. I turned my whole audience into johns. But because it was in a theater context, an art context, it was socially acceptable.
First photograph © by Annie Sprinkle.
Second photograph © by Julian Cash.
This interview appears in prose form in Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks: Professionals and Clients Writing About Each Other (Soft Skull Press).