D o you actually get paid to do this?”
I’d just lectured 400 San Francisco State undergrads on “A Brief History of American Cinematic Pornography.” Not your typical ivory-tower fare. The first half focused on stag movies shot from 1900 through the 1960s. Projected snippets of triple-X San Francisco films produced in the 1970s anchored the second half, highlighted by that timeless classic Make Mine Milk . You may recall that MMM stars a meaty, lactating lass whose postdubbed comments range from the “far-out” whimsical to the engagingly obscene. Milky’s playmates include a near comatose male drunkard and his exquisitely plain-Jane girlfriend. Jane’s sexual gyrations visually define the word “raunch.” She sure could act.
And yes, SF State paid me to do this. The university’s human sexuality studies program gifted me with a whopping $50 honorarium to present a century of cinematic smut. It wasn’t the first time, either.
My lecture had succeeded in providing naptime for scores of knowledge-satiated students. I could hear them snoring. Still, as those lights came up, I clearly saw hundreds of other students—hormone-saturated, slack-jawed and staring at me like zombies straining to keep their meal down. That first questioner no doubt voiced what many who had managed to remain conscious puzzled. He actually gets paid for this?
That’s when it hit me.
Could it be that the 21st-century student no longer finds bulbous men in leisure suits or hippie chicks sporting furry armpits and fat pimply butts sexually enticing? Odd, but demonstrably true. Following this scientific line of inquiry to its logical conclusion, I finally had to ask myself: Just where was my narrowly gauged expertise taking me in life?
I resolved to pose this question to that person best equipped to provide me a knowledgeably honest answer. Should my life purpose require recalibration, then this adviser needed to be thoroughly familiar with my field of research. Beyond that, however, he or she would need also to be in touch with the entirety of our species’ sociosexual activities. In other words, it was incumbent upon me to seek the advice of a truly enlightened sexual being. But just who in the world is such an evolved master?
Fortunately, I knew. I resolved to seek council from the one truly transcendent sexpert I’d ever met, someone once actually described as our national sexual treasure. I chose Ellen Steinberg.
If Ellen Steinberg doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps her other name does: Annie Sprinkle. If you’ve never heard of Annie Sprinkle, then your life, too, may be entirely devoid of meaning. Annie’s one of the most recognized and celebrated actresses in the history of American pornography. Annie is legend not only for her carnal enthusiasms, but also for her gender-bending, sex ed and gooey-edge performance art. She’s a humorist, postporn modernist, multimedia artist, lecturer, feminist fetishist, tantric instructor, published author, professional photographer and—whew!—one hell of a utopian entrepreneur. She’s also a really nice person.
Now, I’m no New Ager, but sometimes harmonic convergence just plain runs amok. The very moment I realized that she was the one human being qualified to analyze my entirely pathetic existence, my phone rang. It was Annie Sprinkle.
I set to pleading for her help in resolving my life crisis from that first hello, but Annie cut me short. She doesn’t like people wasting her time. Annie was calling to offer me a short-term business arrangement.
I was flat broke as usual. Annie intuited this and had conjured up a solution. Being the all-embracing Earth Mother type, Annie extended her offer to my equally indigent motor-mouth buddy, Mike. Would we like to assist her for a few days? For pay?
Mike was a lip-smackin’, hipper-than-thou trendster, the type who asks really embarrassing questions specifically to embarrass. Mike’s specialty was hardware. Earrings, tongue rings and, yes, one enormous silver rod running straight through the head of his—well, you know. Moreover, Mike’s singular life goal was to become a video porn producer.
Annie hired us to help throw out her porn. Not all of it. Not the goofy, primordial porn, but tens of thousands of artsy-hot photo sheets and slides, most of which were so dignified they could well have been published in Playboy, Penthouse or the porno version of Better Homes & Gardens Annie had photographed hundreds of models over what I understood to be years, if not decades. But she was pressed for space, and the time had come to sort and pitch. We must have dumped a good half-ton of Annie’s stuff. You can only imagine how hard that was.
Annie’s art studio was then in a former Army barracks, part of the Headlands Center for the Arts. She had festooned her studio with erotic art, racks of custom lingerie and frolicsome costumery amid a jumble of New Age, feminist and multi-uni-duo-sexual devices. There were books, mags and playtime construction materials. While an adult amusement park to the eyes, the room was one damn cold place in the El Niño dead of a North Bay winter.
A nnie, my friend Mike and I met when we were all enrolled in the same doctoral program at San Francisco’s Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. It had long ago been nicknamed Hot Tub U. Mike and I naturally enough called it Fuck U.
Founded some three decades ago by a couple of Methodist ministers, together with Alfred Kinsey’s closest colleague and co-author Wardell B. Pomeroy, this private institute offers a range of masters and doctoral programs. (It is, however, somewhat fuzzy about its national accreditation.)
The institute claims to own the world’s largest collection of pornography. I’ll say this for sure: There is one mighty awesome load of old 16mm films at IASHS. And I should know—for two years, I was the school’s 16mm feature-film archivist.
I first visited the institute hoping to write a cockamamie story for whatever magazine would buy it. During my sit-down with institute president Ted McIllvenna, media came up as a topic. He told me about vast holdings of films and video, not only housed onsite but also piled up in numerous warehouses. When I mentioned my film and television school background and years in Hollywood, he asked if I’d like to enroll in the institute’s Ph.D. program as an intern archiving films in exchange for tuition. I’d also give the occasional lecture on what I’d uncovered. Back home, I explained this proposition to my not-yet-wife. She enthusiastically encouraged me to grab the offer. I guess she didn’t know what we were getting into.
Why would the Institute would want these materials catalogued? Think of any library with AV materials. In order to locate those materials they must be ordered, particularly if comprehensive studies may be done using the materials. This enhances the stature of any library’s holdings.
But mostly I think Ted wanted them catalogued so the films could be digitized and re-released as historical wanker tapes. There’d long been talk about the institute working together with one of the nation’s most notorious old porn operators in creating a series of sex museums. The first was to be built adjoining one of his strip joints in Vegas. Class all the way. Copies of these “heritage series” films would of course be available for sale on-site for~ serious historians flocking to the museum to take home with them. In brown paper bags, no doubt.
Unlike Hollywood or conventional indie releases, these films were not copyrighted. They were sold outright to theaters as quickly as possible so as to out-race dupe pirates who’d soon be circulating the very same films at discount prices. Years later, with the 16mm adult-film industry spent-dead, some of these ex&–theater owners realized that fat tax write-offs could be had by gifting decaying celluloid to nonprofit groups. But what sort of nonprofit collects musty old porn? The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, for one, and Fuck U, too.
T he next morning we were back in Annie’s studio, pitching out porn like no tomorrow. Mike had already launched into the day’s inquisition. Annie responded to Mike with even better than she got, while I blubbered flustered nonsense. I did endeavor to place my “life’s direction” question to the fore, but Mike steamrolled my every attempt with comic ferocity.
Occasionally, the rains would break. We’d seize upon these interludes to hike down sand dunes to the ocean, stretching our legs and breaking from our pornographic monotony. Even while Pacific winds whipped through us, Mike continued peppering us with questions.
Back in her studio, Annie generously hooked both Mike and me up with all kinds of folks she figured could help us grow our careers. Additionally, she spent phone time booking her performances, gabbing with old friends and cooking up exciting new projects. By the end of the week, our work for Annie was finished.
T he last time I saw Mike, he proudly toured me through his new porn studio, a closet-sized bedroom atop a bookstore in the Tenderloin. I figure by now, after these few years, he’s either a big-time porn producer or the lead interrogator at Gitmo.
Annie’s still accumulating fame, if not fortune. She received her Ph.D. months before I had to leave the institute in order to make some semi-real money. Unlike these two dynamos, I never sensed where I fit into the sexology cosmos. I had no psychology or psychiatry degree, so therapy was out. Porn production hadn’t the allure for me that it did for Mike, and my age precluded university tenure, had I chosen to teach.
I never did ask Annie what archiving seminal porn films meant to my life, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect that she could tell me. But I got a story out of it, a friend in Annie Sprinkle—and I learned how to ask lots and lots of questions.
To learn more about Annie Sprinkle, go to [ http://www.anniesprinkle.org ]www.anniesprinkle.org