Ellen Steinberg enjoys a homecoming at the Sex Workers Art Festival.

Annie Sprinkle, former prostitute, star of more than 150 X-rated feature films, now a performance artist who gives lectures and workshops on sexuality and is the subject of several academic monographs, is finally coming home to Tucson. This is where she got her start, 30 years ago, as the popcorn girl at what is now the Rialto Theater.

"It's very, very exciting to go back to my roots, and I feel like I'm coming back really triumphant," said Sprinkle from her San Francisco home, in anticipation of being the central attraction of this weekend's Sex Worker Arts Festival.

"I went on to have 31 years in sex, and I'm still going strong, and I'm returning with a Ph.D. in human sexuality as Dr. Sprinkle, and having become kind of a world renowned performance artist. I'm healthy. I'm alive. I didn't die of AIDS or end up a drug addict, so I'm going back and I feel really moved by that," she said, starting to sound a little sniffly. "I came out not only a survivor but an absolute winner, and I'm looking forward to making a pilgrimage to the places where it all started.

"I was a young hippie, and I moved out of my parents' home (in California) with a boyfriend to an artists' commune in Oracle. He was a lovely boyfriend, and I'd love to look him up and invite him to my show. I lost my virginity to him. Then I became wildly promiscuous; after six months in Tucson, I'd been with 50 men. In the hippie days, everyone was sleeping with everyone else. I even had sex with a lot of people I hitchhiked with. That sounds scary now, doesn't it?"

Sprinkle, who was then still known as Ellen Steinberg, got a job selling popcorn at what was then called the Cine Plaza Theater, which managed to show the Linda Lovelace vehicle Deep Throat for nearly eight months before the theater's owner and manager were hauled into U.S. District Court for transporting an obscene film (meaning they took delivery of a print).

"It was the first porn movie I ever saw, and it was wildly popular," Sprinkle recalled. "There were lines around the block; it was raking in the dough, 24 hours a day. I had no idea before that that people actually filmed sex. It left a very deep impression, no pun intended."

With the theater shut down, Sprinkle got a job as a receptionist at the North Star massage parlor. (Don't bother calling the North Star currently in the phone book; it's a pest control company.) By the end of the first day, Sprinkle was helping out with massages. "I worked there for three months before I realized I was doing prostitution, because I thought I was just a horny masseuse," she said.

Eventually, she was subpoenaed as a witness at the Cine Plaza trial, where she met two other government witnesses: Deep Throat star Lovelace and director Gerard Damiano. Sprinkle asked Damiano to teach her the technique used in the film, followed him back to New York and soon penetrated the porn industry.

Six years later, she'd taken up with the Dutch artist Willem DeRidder, who introduced her to ideas about performance and conceptual art. Sprinkle gradually made a transition from hard-core pornography to documentaries, stage work and books about, among other things, the pleasures, profits and politics of sex in performance. She's also become a Web mistress ( and a self-described New Age tantric high priestess, conducting workshops about sex and spirituality.

Her most notorious and popular stage show, Post Porn Modernist, included a segment called "Public Cervix Announcement," in which Sprinkle de-eroticized her private parts by whipping out a speculum and flashlight and displaying her cervix for audience inspection.

Defenders of morality, please note: Sprinkle will not be doing that during her Tucson appearance this Saturday, back at the good old Rialto. "I'll just do an intimate, informal show-and-tell evening," she said. "After showing my cervix to 40,000-plus people, I keep my legs shut now."

Just as it took Sprinkle some time to realize she was a prostitute in 1973, it took her a little while to realize she was no longer just a porn star in the 1980s, but an artist in the vanguard of the feminist pro-porn movement.

"Part of the difference between porn and art is the audience," she said. "In mainstream porn back then, it was all men who wanted to be turned on. One way I knew I was into something else was when the audience became men and women of all ages who wanted to be stimulated, but not necessarily sexually. They wanted to be moved in their minds, hearts and guts. It was more of a full-body experience. And my intention was different; porn is about fantasy, whereas art is about touching upon truths."

Sprinkle's Saturday appearance, with the Tucson drag kings Boys R Us, is just part of the third annual Sex Worker Arts Festival, organized by documentary filmmaker Juliana Piccillo, creator of the autobiographical I Was a Teenage Prostitute. Piccillo notes proudly that last year's festival drew the ire of conservatives ranging from Dr. Laura to Jim Weiers, the state Legislature's speaker of the house. CNN, Fox News and The Associated Press picked up the story.

"It was great, because the whole point of the festival is to give sex workers more visibility and to force people to think about assumptions they never examine about sex workers," said Piccillo. "We're doing entertainment and art in this festival, but we're also doing some community building, organizing sex workers and giving them a voice. They're a fragmentary, oppressed group of people."

Not oppressed by the work itself, she hastened to add. Aside from the exploitation of children, which Piccillo and her fellow sex professionals condemn, sex work is most often a matter of choice, she said, not to mention a billion-dollar industry that has, among other things, driven many of the technological innovations on the Internet.

"No matter where a person stands on sex work, for or against," said Piccillo, "it's indefensible to say sex workers shouldn't be able to gather and talk about their own lives, not only in terms of constitutional rights, but in light of the fact that they are creative and prurient fodder for so much commerce and art in this country. To expect them to be silent amidst the world trading on their stories, condemning and making assumptions about them, is simply wrong."

After last year's uproar over the University of Arizona's partial sponsorship of the festival, Piccillo has decided to strike out grantless this time. Even so, admission to many events is free.

Attractions include a reading of prostitute poetry ("ho'ems") at Biblio; a roundtable on publishing at Reader's Oasis featuring Sprinkle, Scarlot Harlot (Unrepentant Whore) and Photo Sex editor David Steinberg; new sex worker films from around the world at the Screening Room; the Scandelicious party with dancing, dining and dildos at the Kitty Klub; a slide show and talk by Steinberg at the Screening Room on explicit sex as fine art; a workshop on health care for sex workers at the Kitty Club; and, as a grand finale, The Hooker's Ball at Heart Five, with Chicago dominatrix Mistress Carmen Li and fetish dancer Tesha.

And, of course, Sprinkle's homecoming at the Rialto Saturday night. "I'm proud of all the work I've done since I was the popcorn girl there," she said. "I'm proud because I believe in the power and beauty of sex. I believe in pleasure through the body, and for me sex can be very spiritual and healing and nourishing and fun.

"As a feminist, I worship and adore women's bodies and women's spirit, and their sexuality is sacred to me. I spent 25 years as a porn queen, and I'm proud of that. And the best is yet to come, no pun intended."