THE LAST WORD ON SEX
A chat between
Quentin Crisp and Annie Sprinkle
by Robert Faires
Talk is cheap, so they say. But try talking about a subject that society deems improper, and doing so openly, in a public forum. Then you'll likely find that talk can be exceedingly expensive, costing you friendships, respect, community, employment, your well-being, perhaps even your life. No, talk isn't always cheap, and that's why it's worth giving an ear to those people who have blazed their way into history by talking about the things that society deemed unmentionable.
By happy chance, two such trailblazers of chat are making their way to Austin this month: Annie Sprinkle, the former actress in pornographic films who has become a popular performance artist, author, and sex educator; and Quentin Crisp, the author and wit whose 35 years as an art school model served as the basis for his classic memoir The Naked Civil Servant. Both are traveling the bookstore circuit, she with her newly published Annie Sprinkle: Post-Porn Modernist (Cleis Press), he with his 1997 collection Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (Alyson Books), and when they aren't busy autographing copies of these tomes, they're on stages, doing what they do so well: talking about themselves. ALL about themselves.
It is their extreme openness about all aspects of their lives that has made the discourse by Crisp and Sprinkle famous and infamous. What career Crisp can be said to havehe generally claims none, preferring to describe himself as a freeloader and dilettantehas come from his frank discussion of his life and lifestyle, specifically his homosexuality. When Crisp rose to prominence in the late Sixties with the publication of The Naked Civil Servant, naming the love that dare not speak its name was not smiled upon in his native land. Crisp suffered serious criticism from his countrymen, and it eventually led to his forsaking England for a home in the United States. He has made his residence on New York City's Lower East Side since 1980. In the case of Sprinkle, there was most definitely a career, but it was not one even a society as sex-obsessed as America's would tolerate; porn star was the equivalent of pariah to most Americans. But when she decided to talk about her experiences and to take this country's sexual sensibility to another level, Sprinkle would not be silenced. She withstood holy fire from moralists throughout the land and continued to talk freely about her career, her body, the sex industry, and sexual practices. She continues to talk today, as evidenced by her newest performance piece, Annie Sprinkle's Herstory of Porn: Reel to Reel, a look back at her quarter century in sexually explicit films, complete with clips and her frequently hilarious commentary.
These two fearless conversationalists are performing at Planet Theatre within a week of each other. The idea that they were going to be here almost on top of each other (now there's an image for you) sparked in me an image of the two of them sitting together and having a genial chat. It wouldn't let me be, so we tried to set one up. Scheduling conflicts didn't allow for the two to be in the same physical space, but the modern miracle of teleconferencing allowed us to connect their disembodied voices for a brief time and record what they had to say. As might have been expected, the conversation was far-rangingjumping from sexual attitudes to American vs. English audiences to email to the millennium changeand full of surprises. At the time the conversation was arranged, I didn't know that Sprinkle and Crisp had actually shared each other's company once before ("At a place in SoHo," recalled Sprinkle, to which Crisp replied, "Oh yes. A man called Maximilian was there. I remember that.") or that Sprinkle considers Crisp an inspiration for her own work. Throughout their brief conversation, it felt to me as if some force had meant them to connect again.
One caveat about the print version of this dialogue: It does neither speaker justice. Print does not allow one to hear the gentilitya softness bordering on the shyin Sprinkle's voice or the deliciously elongated and impossibly precise diction of Quentin Crisp. (Additional reasons, as if you needed them, to see and hear these speakers in person.) Allow me to suggest that you keep these qualities in mind as you read; it may make their chat even more satisfying and, as befits the subjects, revealing.
AUSTIN CHRONICLE: Both of you are so open about all aspects of your lives. Is that something either of you has found difficult at all?
QUENTIN CRISP: No, I find the opposite difficult. I find concealment difficult. I find it much easier to say what I really mean. And whether the audience finds it more difficult, I don't know.
ANNIE SPRINKLE: I also find it really, really difficult to hide things or lie about things. I don't know how people manage to have secret affairs and things like that. Telling the truth is really easy; lying is really hard and I always get caught.
AC: Isn't there a line about that? "The hard thing about lying is keeping all the stories straight."
CRISP: That's right. You have to remember what you've said. I talk so much, I could never remember everything I've said.
SPRINKLE: Also, when you're doing a performance, if you ever get the feeling that you're being a little bit phony or not totally in the moment, not telling the truth, it's a horrible feeling. You feel good when you're being really honest and open.
CRISP: I think audiences prefer it. They prefer to know that you mean what you say.
SPRINKLE: Quentin's a real pioneer in that area.
AC: I think of you both as pioneers, in that you both have crossed boundaries that parts of society weren't interested in crossing when you did.
CRISP: Well, I don't really think of myself as a pioneer. I was stuck with the way I was. If I'd tried to disguise myself, people would have said, "Who does heoh, I beg your pardon, who does SHE think she is?" Which is a bad thing. So I was myself. I've really only done what I was born to do.
SPRINKLE: In terms of sexually explicit material, I think I have pioneered new genres. And being part of a sexual revolution, definitely, and being in the front lines, I guess that's pioneering. But I've also been a bit of a settler. I think of Quentin as paving the way and I come in after. There were certainly people before who were the true pioneers.
AC: I'd like to pick your brains about American attitudes toward sex. Are Americans afraid of sex?
CRISP: I think Americans talk about sex all the time. The English never talk about sex. Or money. Those two subjects are never mentioned. I was on Dr. Westheimer's show, and she said, "And now we have Mr. Crisp, who has opinions about everything. What do you think about sex?" And I said, "It's a mistake."
AC:Americans do talk about it a lot, but there's also this sense of it as this forbidden thing. We want to talk about it, but we don't want to be too close to it.
CRISP: Well, Americans are Puritans.
AC: We've never gotten away from that, have we?
SPRINKLE: I think Americans have a bit more immaturity about sex than Europeans, but they also have more enthusiasm. And Americans are also so interested in freedom, and sexuality certainly has a relationship to freedom. . . . and of course, power . . . and of course, commerce.
AC: Quentin, you commented on the English not talking about sex or money. I don't know that Americans would have much of anything to talk about if we couldn't talk about money or sex.
CRISP: You see, that's the trouble. Sex is now so important, because everyone thinks about it but can't do or say anything about it. It would all drift into the landscape if we could think about it and talk about it.
SPRINKLE: I'm curious, Quentin, how you manage to be going out on the road at your age. I'm 43 and I find it takes so much energy and it's quite exhausting.
CRISP: I shall be 90 on Christmas Day of this year. The other day, someone said to me, "You decided to come to America when most people decide to go into a nursing home." And I did. I got here in 1972.
But it is a nursing home. I've never worked in all the 18 years that I've lived in New York. Isn't that wonderful?
SPRINKLE: That's because you're so lucky that you're you.
CRISP: I rely on the kindness of strangers.
SPRINKLE: You were just born fabulous.
AC: Another thing the two of you share is a distinct sense of style. I don't think either of you could ever be mistaken for anyone but who you are. You both have your own style that you radiate so vividly.
CRISP: When you know who you are, you can do it, you can be it, you can be seen to be yourself. That's the point. You first have to find who you are. Then, you have to be it like mad.
AC: Was it a difficult process discovering who you were, who you are?
CRISP: Not really. A bit more difficult in England, since you were regarded as being self-obsessed. In England, that is a great mistake. Here, you're allowed to be self-obsessed.
SPRINKLE: It's encouraged. Getting into sex was the last thing in the world I expected, being that I was such an excruciatingly shy, insecure child. But once I crossed that bridge into the world of sexuality, everything opened up, so to speak. It was just a surprise more than anything . . . I don't know, I think I'm just incredibly lucky. It's paid off to be myself, to be doing work specifically related to my own experience. Nice work if you can get it.
AC: Is there a strong sense that your personal experiences connect to your audiences? Is it more than just people listening to your stories but sort of feeling a connection to you?
CRISP: I think in America audiences want you to succeed. Ingrid Bergman said that. You must go on the stage knowing that they want you to succeed. In England, they lean back with their arms folded and they say, "We've paid a hell of a lot for these seats. I hope you're going to do something, not just muck about."
SPRINKLE: This show that I'm doing here in the United States, I couldn't even do in England. It wouldn't be allowed. So we have more freedom here, in terms of sexuality. But my audienceseverybody can relate to the archetypes that I explore. Everybody has a sexuality, so I do think that the work that I'm doing relates to everybody. Everybody has an inner porn star.
AC: Don't audiences ask you questions?
CRISP: In the second half of my show, they write down their questions, in case they're afraid to be identified, and then they can say anything. And they know that I will never be shocked, never laugh, or never tell other people, and that makes it possible for them to say anything. You see, nobody is boring who will tell the truth about himself.
SPRINKLE: I think Quentin is so charismatic and charming and yummy that people are excited just being in his presence.
AC: This is kind of an off-the-track question: Quentin, do you have plans for ringing in the new millennium?
CRISP: I really take no notice of things like that. Public holidays I ignore. I think it's because people who are by nature happy have no need of festivity. So I don't jump about in a paper hat or any of that stuff.
AC: Is all the hoopla that people are making about the date just much ado about nothing?
CRISP: I think it's absolute nonsense. I can't think why it's serious. But I don't understand modern machinery. I don't understand the Internet. I've been put on Internet, which I don't understand, and I don't have a demon machine, but I know someone who does, and I said to him, "Do I have any e-mail letters?" repeating the words parrot-fashion because I've no idea what they mean, and he said, "About 200." And I said, "Well, I can't answer them all. I'll write my letter to the world." Like Emily Dickinson. And that's all I do. I communicate with the world.
SPRINKLE: I like ritual a lot, and ritualizing, new beginnings and endings, so I think it's nice to have an evening to mark the new millennium.
CRISP: I think it will be like the next thousand years, only worse.
SPRINKLE: Really? Don't you think it was a fabulous thousand years?
CRISP: Yes, I've lived through nearly a hundred of them, and it's been very wonderful. I can't say it's progress, but it's been change.
SPRINKLE: Well, you've certainly helped make the world a freer, sexier, more fun place.
CRISP: I don't know what to expect the next hundred years to be like. I've no idea.
SPRINKLE: I think things are getting better and better. Certainly for women.
CRISP: Of course, in my lifetime, the great change is that women have decided to be people.
SPRINKLE: Did you see that horrible Time magazine article, "Is Feminism Dead?"
CRISP: Oh no.
SPRINKLE: It was really stupid. I think feminism is having a huge impact on the world. I think it's making things a lot better. For men as well as women.
AC: Annie, you've been to Texas. Quentin never has. Do you have any advice for him coming down to the Lone Star State?
SPRINKLE: I was surprised by how aware and in touch people there were. I expected it to be more like in some of the movies, you know. But Austin has a great population of artists and interesting, aware people. Bonnie Cullum, the woman who keeps the VORTEX [Repertory Company and Planet Theatre] going is brave, and it's not easy for her. Being a nonprofit and having controversial edgy artists there. I hope that people, if they don't come to my show or Quentin's show, I hope they just come to some show there, just to help her stay afloat because she's certainly making Austin an more interesting place. Quentin, Bonnie is a really great lady. You're really going to like her.
CRISP: I've been to Texas before. Yes, I've been to San Antonio. When I told the audience I knew it was the birthplace of Joan Crawford, they burst into applause.
AC: You know how to win a crowd.
SPRINKLE: I think it's nice that Texas will have us.
CRISP: That's wonderful, yes.
SPRINKLE: And you go to San Diego a week after I go, right?
CRISP: Oh yes. I love San Diego. It's quite mysterious. All the coast of California is always shaking or burning or sliding or flooded, but San Diego is always a calm, cool summer. All the year round. A wonderful place.
SPRINKLE: I saw your book in the bookstore. How is your book doing?
CRISP: That does quite well because I'm now sold into slavery to an English policeman who runs a firm called Authors on Tour. So I sign books at various places for him. And I've discovered a phenomenon: books with crumbs in them. You see, bookshops in England are very solemn places, very quiet. And reading is a scholarly profession. But in America, every bookstore has a cafe, and you say, "My feet are killing me. Let's go in here and have a bagel or a cup of coffee. And while you're eating them, I'll read to you." That makes reading into a pleasurable, a lighthearted occupation. [This] is also [true for] the profession of writing. You no longer have to write literature; you can write any old thing and people will read it.
SPRINKLE: I'm really excited because my book just came out, and I'm doing signings. I was just at Borders in Santa Monica, and I believe you were there.
CRISP: That's right, yes, I went to Borders.
SPRINKLE: You see, we travel the same circles now. I would love to show you my book. Books are so much nicer than reading on computer, so I don't think they'll ever go out of style. Do you, Quentin?
CRISP: Well, I went to the great librarians' convention in Chicago, and when I was going up onto the platform to speak, the man who got me there said, "Try not to say that books are a mistake."
SPRINKLE: And did you?
CRISP: I said, "I've been forbidden to say books are a mistake." But I don't read books now. I wait for it all to be on television.
SPRINKLE: I just saw you in a movie. You're all over the place.
CRISP: Yes, if you want not to be in a movie, you have to keep moving. For if you stand still for a moment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, someone comes up and says, "Would you like to be in our movie?" I try never to say no to anything, but I've now discovered the alternative to "no." You say, "I am not worthy." And that's the nice edition of "no." "No" is unkind, but "I am not worthy" is nice.
SPRINKLE: You're so polite.
CRISP: Well, I try to be because I feel I have to give something back to America. If I, who am only English, am allowed to live in America, what do I give in return? I can't endow a hospital or build a wing onto a hospital, anything like that. So I can only give my infinite availability.
SPRINKLE: Boy, England must be really sorry that you're gone.
CRISP: Well, I come back again from time to time.
SPRINKLE: I wish they'd let me go there.
CRISP: They didn't like me in England. They were glad to see me go. Now I think they regret it.
SPRINKLE: Well, maybe they'll have me one day.
CRISP: The whole world will be one soon, and then it won't matter.
This interview by Robert Faires first appeared in the Austin Chronicle, volume 17, issue 44, on July 10, 1998. Used by permission.