Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens: the complete interview

Vancouver's gay and lesbian biweekly, Xtra West, ran my interview with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens a couple of weeks ago. It looked great, and was a fun read; I've always been utterly happy with how Xtra West handles my articles, but there was a LOT of material that didn't make it into the paper, due to space restrictions. The full text of my interview with Annie and Beth (including a more expansive introduction) is offered below. Note: sorry, this isn't promoting any upcoming visits to Vancouver, I'm just stickin' it up while it's still more or less current!

Love, Peace, and Breasts: A Chat with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens

When last a feature on Annie Sprinkle ran in one of Vancouver’s alternative papers, fans of hers had cause to be worried: the positive-minded New Age sex guru, filmmaker, and PhD sexologist had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Though cancer of any form is never welcome, to those aware of her work, this may have seemed a singularly cruel fate: for years, the former pornstar has used her breasts as an asset and objet d’art. Sprinkle supplements her income with “tit prints” (produced by coating a fulsome boob in paint and pressing it to paper); she ended her last Vancouver appearance to hearty applause by unsheathing her breasts for the audience and making them dance to Strauss’ “Blue Danube” waltz (the “Bosom Ballet”). Those worried for Annie can breathe a sigh of relief – not only has the resilient Dr. Sprinkle had a lump successfully removed, without need for a mastectomy, she is in typically good spirits about the whole experience. This is in part due to the efforts of her primary caregiver, partner, and collaborator, Dr. Elizabeth Stephens.

Beth Stephens is described on Annie and Beth’s site,, as a “sexy dyke playboy,” and as a ” Professor of Art and of Digital Art/New Media... affiliated with the Department of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.” Her artwork, as described at, sounds brilliant and very funny – for example, The Academic/Porn Star Panty Collection, a series of bronzed (used) undergarments designed as a “homage and a wink to the bravery and chutzpah of porn stars and adventurous academics who are physically and intellectually stimulating, be it in the classroom or on the silver screen” (Annie’s panties are included in the series and can be bought through the shop at Together, Annie and Beth are currently touring Exposed: Experiments in Love, Sex, Death and Art. The description on the Love Art Lab site describes it as “a theater/performance art show about our relationship, exploring artificial insemination, breast cancer treatments, queer weddings, art experiments, aging, sexuality and more.” The piece is intended as “a response to the war, anti-gay marriage sentiment and the politics of breast cancer,” and will be coming to Toronto for Buddies in Bad Times, on June 19th (note: this interview is actually almost a year old, so that was LAST June...). Annie and Beth “invite everyone to a genuine celebration and critical public exploration of the deepest realms of romantic, sexual and familial love to bring about positive social change.”

Over the course of a three way phone conversation, Annie and Beth talked about their experiences overcoming cancer, and provided a bit of background on their current work. The two just held a “big fat queer wedding” in Calgary – the first legal marriage of the three they’ve undertaken thus far, thanks to Canada’s progressive legislation. It’s colour-coded as the Yellow Wedding, corresponding with the third chakra and a focus on “Courage and Power” (each year has a colour, a chakra, and a theme; 2005, the Red Wedding, focused on Security and Survival; the Orange Year, 2006, was themed around Sexuality and Creativity).

Allan: What was your impression of Annie when you first met her?

Beth: Oh, I thought she was just as hot as could be.

Annie: Aww!

Beth: My first impression was like, I got totally wet panties.

Annie: It was lust at first sight.

Allan: When did you meet?

Beth: When I first met Annie, she lived in New York City. I was in graduate school, and then we met again later in San Francisco. I moved to the west coast and then she moved to the west coast and we got together for a date out here.

Allan: Were you at all intimidated by Annie’s background?

Beth: No, I think it’s great that she slept with all those people, so that she’d have a lot of practice for me! They got her ready. Annie: Not too many lesbians could handle, y’know, their lover having had thousands of lovers –

Beth: But I just say, “Bring it on!”

Annie: – so it was very nice. She’s very open-minded. And very sex positive. Of course I’d have to marry someone sex-positive.

Beth: Well, you wouldn’t have to.

Annie: Thank god I married someone sex positive!

Allan: Beth, are you from New York originally?

Beth: No, I’m originally from West Virginia, which is a little redneck state in the Appalachian mountains.

Annie: She’s a rodeo girl.

Beth: I’m a hillbilly.

Annie: A very smart hillbilly.

Allan: You’re an academic, right?

Beth: Yeah, I’m the chair of the art department at UC Santa Cruz. That makes me not exactly an academic.

Allan: You’ve done graduate studies?

Beth: Well, we’ve both done graduate studies. In fact, Annie has a doctorate, and I don’t have a doctorate, but I am a professor – go figure! (laughs)

Annie: She has a Masters in fine arts from a very good university, from Rutgers.

Allan: I was actually confused by that when Annie spoke up here in Vancouver. It sounded like she said part of her doctorate was honorary...?

Annie: Oh, no – I got several credits for life experience, I might have said that. But no, I did a PhD dissertation, and everything. I went to the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. There’s only about three places where you can get a degree in human sexuality, and that’s one of the few. And it’s been around a long time... My dissertation was on “Providing Educational Opportunities for Sex Workers.” It was about, where do sex workers learn about their work, and if they want to learn more about their work, where do they go? And I developed a program to educate sex workers. It was a research study, and I developed an educational program that would be a four day intensive, called the Sweat Training. So I created a training...

Allan: Is anyone using it?

Annie: No, uh-huh. It would be fantastic. Maybe someday.

Allan: So right now, you’re making your living more or less as an artist, right Annie?

Annie: Yeah.

Allan: If I could ask, then, the issue of medical insurance - how did that work out with Annie’s brush with cancer?

Beth: Well, in the state of California, there are domestic partner laws, and my university is very – very -

Annie: Progressive.

Beth: Progressive, yeah. So we had health insurance.

Annie: Beth takes very good care of me.

Beth: That’s mutual. Annie takes very good care of me, too.

Annie: Aww! ... (To me): You’ve done your research, obviously.

Allan: Well, yeah. And I’ve been a fan of Annie’s for years, though I don’t know Beth’s work very well. Some of it sounds brilliant, like the bronzed panties...

Annie: It is a stunning piece. You should see how beautiful it is.

Allan: How do academics respond to it?

Beth: Well, of course, it depends on the academic. Some of the people who write about the most outrageous things wouldn’t be caught dead letting me bronze their panties, but, um, some academics, they just love it. I mean, it’s very titillating, and they really get off on it. I think academics aren’t used to being seen as sex objects, although some academics are. There are always the students who have the crushes on their teachers.

Annie: I find academics really hot.

Allan: You have a thing for, like, lawyers and straight types, right Annie?

Annie: Yeah, well – particularly academics.

Beth: This year.

Annie and Beth: (laughter).

Annie: I used to have a thing for lawyers, now its academics.

Allan: You’re obviously proud of your PhD – I mean, even your email address says Dr. Annie Sprinkle – but you’re making your living as an artist...

Annie: I also am a sexologist and a sex educator, and I actually use that email address because I was doing personal coaching – sex-life coaching – so I kind of wear a variety of hats.

Allan: If I can ask about finances, do you get royalties from your old porn stuff?

Annie: No. I own a few of the movies I produced, but of the old movies, no. But I do sell some porn movies on my website.

Allan: Those are the ones you actually have the rights to?

Annie: No, I buy them wholesale and sell them. But I get a good deal, so I still make money on them.

Beth: But we’re good Americans, so we’re really in debt. We’re working to get out of it.
Annie: We have two beautiful houses that Beth bought and re-did, and we’re hoping to buy another one.

Beth: Well, the bank has two beautiful houses that I’ve redone.

Annie: She’s very handy.

Beth: I figure if I can just buy one more house and fix it up and sell it, we’ll be doing okay.
Annie: But yeah, I’m actually in a business course right now, because I have spotless credit, but I have not been good at managing money.

Beth: But she’s been great at making money.

Annie: Good at making it, and even better at spending it... College gigs pay the best, probably, if you go by the day, but we love doing theatre. We have a piece called Exposed: Experiments in Love, Sex, Death and Art, and that’s really the work, I mean, that’s the hardcore heart of the Love Art Lab...

Beth: We also make visual art.

Annie: We’re great collaborators, and we’re very happy working together, but it would be great if there was more funding in the United States...

Annie and Beth (chiming in): For the arts.

Annie: And less for war.

Beth: We’ve actually worked internationally more than we have nationally. We’ve worked in Germany, we’ve had pieces in Russia, we’ve had pieces in France, and Austria...We’re going back to Austria.

Annie: We’ve worked more out of the country. They have better funding in Europe.

Beth: In Canada, too!

Allan: What was Calgary like?

Beth: We loved it. The people were so generous, and so enthusiastic about our wedding – we had a beautiful wedding, and all these artists, all these Calgary artists came and performed and did beautiful pieces.

Annie: We only knew four people, out of 250 people, at our wedding – but it was a big happy family. In fact, my Maid of Honour was Victoria Singh, who used to run the Western Front there in Vancouver. She was the curator of the Western Front.

Beth: And she was just extraordinarily lovely.

Allan: Tell me about the chakras and colour coding – how do they apply to this year?

Beth: Well, we’re going to forefront the colour yellow in our lives, and we’ll also really concentrate on projects that have to do with courage and power. So it’ll be a guiding theme for our work throughout the whole year.

Annie: Our wedding was yellow, so it’s called Yellow Wedding Three. It was part of the One Yellow Rabbit High Performance Rodeo in Calgary.

Allan: This sounds like LaMonte Young named it.

Annie and Beth: (giggle)

Beth: We did one of his pieces too!

Annie: We did a LaMonte Young piece?

Beth: Yeah, we did. “Zen for Head” was actually LaMonte Young, but Nam June Paik made it famous.

Allan: So...pieces centering on courage and power. What sort of things are you planning to do?

Annie: Get arrested.

Beth: Yeah.

Allan: Get arrested?

Beth: Well, we really use the Love Art Laboratory as a platform to speak out against things like the war. We make comments on a lot of the sort of newsworthy items that are happening around the world. We’re trying to counteract some of that stuff. So we’re hoping this year to be really courageous and to make a really big political statement at some point, which in the United States can get you arrested very easily.

Allan: Annie, I know you had trouble once with getting arrested some of your porn, when you were making a magazine with amputee pornstar Long Jean Silver. Beth, have you had problems with the law?

Beth: Well, not that I really want to talk about!

Allan, Annie and Beth: (laughter).

Beth: But thank you for asking!

Allan: Nothing in the context of political activism.

Beth: No.

Allan: Do you want to be more specific about what you’re planning?

Annie: We’re going to continue our theatre piece, Exposed: Experiments in Love, Sex, Death and Art.

Beth: We do have a three week engagement in New York in the spring.

Annie: We believe we’re living our lives as art, so it’s very organic. It’s like – whatever we go through in our life, we make into art.

Beth: So we’re not exactly sure what we’re going to do. We’ve just sort of set our intention.

Allan: On the topic of making life art, is there anything you hold back, or is everything made public?

Annie: We try to hold our bellies in, that’s about it.

Allan, Annie and Beth (laugh).

Annie: We’re all for people showing their bellies, but we hold ours in.

Beth: Well, we don’t hold ours in very well. But this being the year of power and courage, the power and courage chakra is located right about in the belly, right in the solar plexus.

Annie: Yeah, we’re gonna let our belly OUT.

Beth: Yeah, we’re gonna lead with our bellies this year.

Annie: So actually we might even show our bellies. That would be about the most courageous thing we could do! (Laughter).

Annie: We talked about riding the subway in New York topless, just because we can. It’s legal there.

Beth: Yeah.

Annie: You can be anywhere in public topless, because men can, so they made it equal.

Allan: Actually, there’s a woman in my hometown, Maple Ridge, who gets arrested again and again doing that. She’s portrayed in the media very unsympathetically – as an eccentric attention-seeker.

Beth: Is Maple Ridge in Canada?

Allan: Yeah. It’s this suburban burg – it’s rednecky. I forget her name...

Annie: Have you interviewed her?

Allan: No, I haven’t!

Annie: You should!

Allan: I might... In terms of the war – what’s the current political climate like there? It seems like Bush is –

Annie: He’s out of control, is the way we see it.

Beth: Yeah, but you know what, we live in California, and we live in Northern California, which is a very liberal, y’know, ‘bright spot’ in the country. I think the war is very complicated right now. We already have all these kids over there, and we’re getting ready to send, what, 21,000 more? I mean, it’s just like Vietnam - if the country no longer supports the war, but we keep sending these kids over there, then they’re just like little sheep to the slaughter. It’s sad. I mean, the United States is pretty much hated in the Middle East right now, except for the little warlords that Bush is smiling upon to give them power.

Allan: If I could ask, Annie, I know your background is Jewish, and I have no idea how that fits into your work...

Annie: Jewish blood, raised Unitarian. And then I became sort of Tantrist-Buddhist.

Allan: Do any feelings about Israel or the problems in the Middle East come into your work?

Annie: Well, I’m for peace and love, all the way round for all people. Wherever there’s war, I’d like to see more love, more peace. I just wish everyone everywhere could tone down the violence, no matter who you are, what country – it doesn’t matter what nationality or borders. I see one world with lots of really violent people, and y’know, just whoever’s being violent, stop it right now! (chuckles). The thing is, Beth and I wanted to do art to comment on the war, but we didn’t want to add to the violent imagery out there. We wanted to do something kind of – how did we describe it?

Beth: We wanted to put our energy into things that we were very attracted to, not to the things that – um -

Annie: Repulse us.

Beth: That repulse us. And so instead of protesting the war directly –

Annie: Or making some piece of art with blood and bombs and blown up cars, to try to show the violence of it –

Beth: We decided to make work about love. I mean, that’s really very simple. It’s a very simple strategy on our part. And people have responded. I mean, these weddings – who would think that anyone would want to go so see two middle-aged lesbian ladies putting on this sort of crazy wedding ceremony? But we sold out days before the wedding happened, and people really enjoyed being someplace that was just dedicated to love, y’know? And I think there’s a real need for that in the world right now. I think people are burned out, really, on all the violence, all the scandal, all the political muckracking.

Annie: A lot of negativity. And people want more hope. Y’know, I think there’s so many churches. And Hallmark! We’re offering an alternative to Hallmark cards and church.

Allan (laughing): We need that, very much... Um, if I could ask you about cancer, that’s another big theme in your work lately. Annie, you’re totally okay now?

Annie: Mm-hmm! I mean, I have both boobs, and I’m a year out of treatment now. And Beth helped me get through it together, ‘cos Beth took on the cancer – we took it on as a couple, and took it on as artists. So we made art out of our experience, so... I can look back and go, that was a worthwhile experience because of what we made, you know?

Allan: How sick did you get?

Annie: I was never, ever sick. I just got sick from the chemo and from the radiation.

Beth: She was very tired.

Annie: I was just Phase One, but the treatments definitely made you kind of sick, but the actual cancer, it was just a hard spot in my breast that I felt. It was never an issue really, but if you leave it there, you can grow.

Allan: What were the reactions on ward to your “Chemo-Fashion Show,” where you dressed up on ward in various funny costumes? Were other cancer patients seeing that happening?

Annie: Yeah. We had a wonderful doctor, and you go into this room – and it’s like a beauty parlour, with ladies sitting in chairs, attached to these IVs... They were very supportive, and we were pretty disruptive, doing this.

Beth: But I think that the patients liked it, even though, I mean – we heard some really sad stories, because there were people there that obviously were not going to be cured. But it wasn’t just about death and dying or being sick. We were really doing something else – were being creative.

Annie: It was about love. That room, where all the ladies were getting chemo, it was a very loving place, and so Beth and I were really inspired by that. We made what we called a “Love Infusion Center,” and we don’t have the pictures of this on our site – actually, there’s some pictures of a Love Infusion Center we did in our garage, the first one... So we made these places where people can go and sit down on a couch or a chair or a gynaecology table or whatever, and they can be attached to coloured liquids...

Beth: We actually had a laying on of hands at our last Love Infusion, when people would just stand around this one person and put their hands on them and just send them love.

Annie: We gotta get those pictures up on our website. They’re really wonderful... so we made these Love Infusion Centers, so everyone could get loved up, because everybody has something to heal, or some pain, or some sadness. It’s the human condition.

Beth: Everybody needs some love!

Annie: Everybody needs some love.

Allan: Speaking of that – I read about an elixir that was used. Were there actual, uh, chemicals involved in that?

Annie: It was more alchemy – we mixed fruit juices –

Beth: Transubstantiation. Speaking from a non-Jewish point of view here.

Allan: What did it mean to be Annie’s primary caregiver?

Annie: Well, working on a theatre piece!

Beth: Yeah, we started our theatre piece during the time when she was getting chemotherapy.

Allan: Exposed.

Beth: Yeah. So we were working on a theatre piece. I went to all of her medical treatments with her, and made sure that she was getting good care. And then while we were at the medical treatments, we were often documenting the medical treatments, so I was the primary photographer for all that. You know, we also had to have the costumes ready to go to the medical treatments, because every time we’d go, we’d dress in a different costume. And then, I don’t know... as much fun as we had, it was hard, also. I actually took a medical leave from school, and I just tried to take care of everything, so she didn’t have to worry about stuff.

Annie: And she helped out financially, so I didn’t have to work. But we did make a lot of art stuff...

Beth: Yeah, we really made a lot of work.

Annie: We made collages out of the radiation treatment plans, the computerized graphics to find out how much radiation to give. I got copies of those and we made collages. Beth: They’re for sale. You can buy them through the website...

Annie: We’re showing them in art galleries... we have one in France right now. When we get our new website up, there’ll be a shop.

Allan: And of course, Beth, you shaved your head to be in solidarity with Annie... Annie, did you need to shave your head, or were you just trying to anticipate what was going to happen?

Annie: Well, it’s always much nicer to shave your head than to have it every day falling out, because that’s really upsetting and unpleasant, whereas if you shave your head, it’s kind of a cleansing experience.

Beth: It’s proactive.

Allan: It’s a marvellously sensual thing to do.

Annie: Yeah. That’s funny, because we’re going back and forth if we should shave our heads again for Exposed.

Beth: There’s a very important part of the show that involves our heads being shaved, at the climax. That’s nice to hear you describe it as a deliciously sensual thing to do.

Annie: Maybe we should just tell people we shaved our heads because it’s erotic!
Beth: An erotic ritual.

Allan: It also does odd things with gendering. I think Elizabeth said somewhere that in Scotland, there was a piece where people were confused about your gender identities because you were both bald... You see more bald men than you see bald women.

Beth: Yes, usually.

Allan: I read somewhere that during the Cuddling piece (an event held during the Red Year, in which gallery visitors could cuddle with Sprinkle and Stephens under a red “security blanket,” to correspond with the year’s theme) there was a bit of a problem, a riot or something.

Beth: No, there was no violence. People just really wanted to cuddle us up. There was a traffic jam, but there was no violence. I think at the reception of our wedding in Calgary, they hired extra security, because they were a little bit afraid there was going to be a huge mass of people.

Annie: Protestors.

Beth: But so far we’ve never really encountered violence.

Annie: We’re lovers, not fighters.

Allan: Even in the States?Beth: Even in the States. Allan: Are there places where you don’t go?

Beth: We go anywhere. I mean, listen, I grew up in probably what is considered one of the most backwards parts of the United States. And I know the people that are in those places that in those places, and I love the people that are in those places, so I’m not afraid of the people that are in those places. I welcome bringing our point of view to people who don’t share it. We will take the Love Art Lab anywhere. I really mean that. I’d really welcome bringing our work somewhere our viewpoints are not shared.

Annie: With our weapons of mass seduction.

Beth: Yeah.

Allan: Okay, a couple of final questions. Annie, I saw on your website that you were giving your name as Annie M. Sprinkle. I don’t think I’ve seen the M before now. What’s the story behind that?

Annie: Have you ever seen the picture of the tombstone that says Annie M. Sprinkle? There’s a tombstone picture I’ve used in my work and my books and stuff, it’s of an actual Annie M. Sprinkle who died in 1872 or something, and a relative sent me a picture of it. I really have a myth about it, so I took her middle initial and I just say it stands for Mermaid. Because I’m really a Mermaid at heart – or I was in one of my last incarnations – meaning in one of my last nine lives.

Allan: The other thing – maybe the answer will be interesting, but it’s a bit weird: what happened to the tumour? There’s a photo of it on the site...

Beth: We sold it to the Museum of Modern Art in New York (laughs).

Allan: You’re kidding?

Beth: I’m kidding.
Annie: We should have saved it! No, actually, it goes into a tumour bank. All tumours are saved in tumour banks.

Allan: For, like, research purposes.

Beth: Yeah, they freeze them and kind of use them for research.

Annie: Yeah, they take little slivers...

Beth: Breast cancer is an absolute epidemic now. It’s in epidemic proportions.

Allan: How worried were you, Annie? Are you a worrier?

Annie: No. You know, it’s funny, because when I came out of all the cancer stuff, I really felt like I came out a winner. I came out ahead, somehow. And I had that same experience with porn. You know, like other people go into porn or prostitution, and, I mean, a lot of people do have bad experiences, but I always felt no matter what I came out ahead, somehow. So I think I just have that attitude. If you learn, you grow. If you learn, you win, so... I never thought I would die, but you never know, I never thought I’d get breast cancer... On the other hand, having breast cancer fits right in with the work I’d been doing, which is all about breasts. So if I had to get a disease, I’m really happy it was breast cancer!

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