LIFE ADVICE: Annie Sprinkle by Stoya
Icon Annie Sprinkle on higher education.
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Annie Sprinkle has taken time out of her day to speak with me over a recorded phone line, on the subject of career transitions. I’m personally interested in this topic, think her insight might be useful to other sex workers who are considering going to university later in life or aspiring towards art, and I know her perspective will also be interesting for laypeople.
I want to preface everything with a disclaimer from Annie that got cut for length: “Sometimes these things are a little hard to talk about, because I don't want to speak for everybody—for all sex workers. Sex workers today face different challenges than I did. And I had a lot of privilege that others don’t have. So I don't speak for them, I can only share my own experience.” Remember, it’s unfair to expect any single sex worker to speak for or represent all of us.
Annie: I always have loved learning. My parents were both teachers—so I've always grown up valuing education. I think that we can change our lives through education, by both teaching and learning. I think that whatever we do, we both teach and learn. If you went into academia, you'd be teaching alongside learning. We all teach and learn. And to me, that's what life is kind of about, what art is about or, even porn is about. Then hopefully you can use what you learn to open new doors. Doors you didn’t even know were there. Or doors that might be closed to you without education.
Stoya: I’m curious about what ways your experience in sex work was an asset as you started moving into other fields.
Annie: Well, I picked up a lot of great information and skills in sex work. For 22 years,I did many kinds of sex work. In porn I learned about lighting, shooting film and later video, I learned marketing, publicity, editing, photography, editing, directing, doing script continuity, special effects… all kinds of film related things.. Working on sex magazines I learned how to write articles, do layout, do graphic design, photography… As a dominatrix and occasional sub I learned a lot about kink and human sexuality. In prostitution I gathered a lot of people skills. I learned so much, I didn't even realize how much I had learned! So when I started college full time after about 10 years in mainstream sex work, I had a lot of experience under my belt. I went to School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan and majored in fine art with a focus on photography. I had already worked as a professional photographer for several years shooting for sex magazines, but also I had learned a lot about photography by posing for dozens of sex magazines. Still, because it’s sex, we undervalue our knowledge. So I had some imposter syndrome, like I’m not really a photographer, or an artist, or I’m not really a student! I’m a porn star.
How did I grow into those roles? Or add those hats or, you know, take off an older hat? Changing personas can be challenging, so I went to my first therapist, Linda Hirsch for a few years She was Candida Royalle’s therapist. A LOT of the New York City porn stars went to Lidna Hirsch. And she would see us with a sliding scale, so if we were making money in the business we paid her full rate. And if we were transitioning out, she would see us for very little money. She lived in the East Village, and had a huge impact on a lot of us, because being in an industry that's kind of out side the norm—at least it was then. In the 70s and 80s you could get arrested for making porn for example. So Linda took me shopping for student clothes. I didn't even know what to wear. I was like how do I not look like a slut because I loved slut clothes and that's all I had—tight mini dresses with lots of cleavage. I didn't really fit in. So she took me shopping for jeans, which was really sweet. That was the only time I saw her outside of her little apartment, but I only wore jeans a few times. I've never worn them since. I'm just not a blue jeans girl. But the jeans were symbolic of trying to change and it being hard.
And as we change, we have to recreate ourselves in some new image. Most whores have at least seven lives. They change. Some people are very content to live their whole lives as a professional porn star, which is great—like Vanessa Del Rio. She has a private life where she did bodybuilding and other things. But she's always stayed in the porn industry, and made a living from her porn fan clubs. Same with Nina Hartley. She's been in the porn industry. so, so long and she does 101 things in there. They both do it very But other porn stars want to get out completely. I have seen porn stars transition into a wide variety of things. Kay Parker became a spiritual healer, Hyapatia Lee teaches Native Spirit, Kelly Nichols became a make up artist, Siobhan Hunter became a brain surgeon. Veronica Hart just renovated a huge house in Los Angeles…
There are so many ways to learn new stuff. Some are better fits than others. Each option has its pluses and minuses. Universities and colleges can be wonderful, and transformative, but are not necessarily the best place to learn what you want to learn. You can do an apprenticeship you can learn on the job. You can do it your way—you can self be self-taught. You can have a mentor. Academia is just one option. If you want to get out of mainstream sex work, but stay in sexuality work, you can learn something like Bondassage (bondassage.com) or Sexological Bodywork (sexologicalbodywork.com). Barbara Carrellas’s Urban Tantra Professional Training is fantastic for experienced sex professionals in transition. These are all strong communities of great like-minded folks that will welcome you. If you don’t have money, ask for a scholarship or work trade. If there’s a will there’s a way.
Stoya: I was wondering, because I've heard so much about The Sprinkle Salon that you had in your apartment when you lived in New York, where sex workers, academics and activists of all kinds gathered and mixed and did projects together. . I imagine university involves a similar mixing of perspectives. How did the two compare and, did you bring people from university to those?
Annie: Well, I had an apartment at 90 Lexington, at 27th Street. It was just a big one bedroom, with a kitchen and a big pretty big dining room on the 11th floor. , I loved sharing my place. So I would invite friends or people passing through town to do a talk. Like Mistress Antoinette , who brought fetish rubber clothing in early in the days of latex and PVC and we all dressed up and had a party. Fakir Musafar did incredible lectures about what he called “body play” followed by a piercing party—the first mixed gender piercing party on the east coast as far as anyone can ascertain. F2M groups met there. Prostitutes of New York had some meetings there…. We made an AIDS healing circle newsletter there… Academics would just find their way to my place, because there were a lot of exciting things happening there.
Stoya: So you went to SVA…
Annie: When I graduated from School of Visual Arts, I felt like through the learning I did, I really had become an artist and photographer. I also made what I call post porn films, where I started doing my own brand of experimental porn. I was living in Manhattan—22 years—and then things sort of started turning sour there for me. And I had a business partner turned out to be sociopathic. And the Hellfire Club where I hung out a lot got really awful and weird. The BDSM world there had a moment of real negativity, even murders that were happening. And I was like, I've got to get out of here.
Annie sketches out her move to East Hampton, then a return to California, and the experience of losing the houseboat she was living on in Sausalito, when her house sitter accidentally burnt the place down with most everything she owned in it As part of getting back on her feet, she invested in further education.
Annie: After the houseboat fire, people were very supportive. It actually felt liberating, like I could create a whole new life. I thought about what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn more about sexuality. I’d heard of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality and had met many people who'd gone there. So, I thought, well, let me go there. So I called my long time friend and confidant, Joseph Kramer, to see if he wanted to go, too. He owned the Body Electric School of Massage, and taught erotic massage workshops. He’s my soul mate. So he and I went together to learn more about human sexuality in the world.
So that education opened my eyes to more than just my own sexuality. Up until then, I was pretty obsessed with making work about my own personal adventures. But at the Institute I learned about the history of sex research, about statistics, sex in indigenous areas, sex surrogacy, about sex addiction theories which have been debunked. I learned a lot from a lot of speakers which opened my mind to a whole world bigger than me. After two and a half years, I earned a PhD. As far as anyone can ascertain, I was the first porn star to get a PhD. Sharon Mitchell got one right after me. I was on her committee.
I learned how to do research, like quantitative studies for example. So I did one. My PhD was called Providing Educational Opportunities for Sex Workers. I surveyed one hundred sex workers. I asked them, if theywanted to stay in the sex business, what more would they want to learn about? What kind of continuing education would be most desired and useful?Then did a focus group with sex workers, about how to advertise continuing education that would appeal to sex owrkers. It was fun. They mostly wanted to learn about money management, and weren’t interested in learning safer sex for example because they knew that already.
I really am really passionate about education. The Institute for the Advanced Study of Sexuality was accredited in California, not nationally. It was kind of was a rebel school. It wasn't like going to Stanford or NYU, which opens different doors. Those kind of academic institutions are more rigorous in general. The University of California or even some of the city colleges hold more weight if you want a teaching job for example. But for what I wanted and needed the Institute was just perfect. Betty Dodson got her PhD there. There were some really good teachers, I'm glad I went. It was time consuming and I read a lot and learned a lot and went to classes. But it wasn't like a, you know, an intense four year program where you have to defend your PhD in front of like a whole bunch of high powered scholars. I did have to defend my PhD dissertation but it wasn’t that tough. People think that you have to have a Master's get a PhD, but you actually don’t. Some people jump right to the PhD. In some institutions, you might even be able to get some credit for life experience in the sex industry. It does happen.
Not knowing what you want to do next can be hard. Once you figure it out, you can go for it. Of course learning can be expensive, you know, you don't want to go into a lot college debt. I did the PhD as fast as I could because I was paying quite a bit of money to go. There are definitely ways to work the system if you don’ have the money for college. Some community and Junior colleges can be excellent for learning what you want to learn, without debt.
Stoya: I think what you said the other day about going and taking some classes is a really good idea.
Annie: You are in Manhattan where there are great night classes. You can go to NYU, Colombia, and others. Or to all kinds of schools of all kinds One great thing about academia or any learning institution is the people that you meet. What college you choose go to matters because it’s of the people you will meet there. Sometimes professors, or students can become lifelong supporters or collaborators or part of your community. One big benefit of college is the community that can come with it
Just because someone has done sex work, or is doing it, doesn't mean they won't be a great student. I’ve known women who went to college administrators and said, “I'm from the sex industry, and you need my voice!” This works well especially if you're doing women's studies, sexuality studies or becoming a therapist. My advice is don’t go anywhere that won’t accept who you are and have been. With the Internet, its hard to hide anyways, so be yourself. Go to places where you're going to feel welcome and supported by the administrators. If you are embarrassed about your past you had better do some therapy, or heavy duty rituals or art projects or whatever it takes to feel strong and to gather your self esteem, Because you are entering another world when you enter a classroom. How you feel about the work you've done is so important, as you change and evolve and add new hats, and maybe shed an old skin. But you just might want to keep that old hat and skin and use them to your advantage.