It's a sunny day in Athens, Greece. In the city's Freedom Park, birds are chirping, young couples eat sandwiches on blankets, and in the middle of it all, a large white banner reads, "Free Sidewalk Sex Clinic." Beneath it sits a panel of experts, including writer and actress Veronica Vera, Curator and Trans Love Artist Erik Noulette, and LGBTQI+ activist George Kounanis. The Free Sidewalk Sex Clinic, a piece of performative action by artists and sex educators Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, is meant to provide complementary and spontaneous sex education throughout the world. The clinic experts specialize in a variety of subjects like cross dressing, female ejaculation, and something called ecosexuality, a combination of environmental activism and art which Stephens and Sprinkle have spent much of the past 15 years developing to encourage more fun and diversity in the environmental movement. For this iteration of the clinic, they were invited to Greece by international arts festival Documenta 14, which runs this year in Athens from April 8 to July 16.
"Sex advice, especially in the US, is all about saying no, safe sex, rape culture. And there's not a lot of positive sex education," sex positivity pioneer Sprinkle tells Creators. "So hopefully the clinics make it fun. People don't realize they can just talk about sex if they want to. Having a public display, that we're just sitting there talking about sex, it makes a statement."
The orchestration of the project itself is site-specific. Before descending on a city, Sprinkle and Stephens, who married in 2007 but first began working together in the early 90s through Outrageous Desire, a queer art show Stephens was curating. To reach out to the community to compile their panel of experts, the duo sends out a letter stating their intention—to offer free sex advice—and welcome anyone who has something to teach about sex, such as sex workers, sex therapists, and artists doing work about sex. While both artists have PhDs, Sprinkle in human sexuality and Stephens in performance art, they don't want the experts on their panel to be confined to the traditional academic definitions of an educator. "We welcome anyone who has something to teach about sex," explains Sprinkle. In some locations, the project can be viewed as more controversial, making it harder for the duo to recruit collaborators. In the Athenian rendition, for instance, they were only able to find two local collaborators and had to invite the rest of the panel from elsewhere. "Somebody was saying to us, 'Nothing like this ever happens in Greece.' And I guess it's conservative there, it's religious, it was right around Easter. But people really enjoyed it, and appreciated it, and we had a range of people come visit us," Stephens says.
Given that the piece can be controversial, Sprinkle and Stephens try to be sensitive to their location and possible cultural impact. For instance, the clinic was originally organized by Documenta 14 to take place in Athens' red light district, and while it is possible to legally register as a sex worker in Greece, registration requirements and stigmatization mean that few do, turning instead to illicit prostitution unaffiliated with licensed brothels. The day before the piece was meant to occur, the pair visited the area to get a feel for their surroundings and ultimately decided the placement would be inappropriate. "We went to that street the day before, and felt like it would be completely wrong—an invasion of privacy. Also arrogant to offer free sex advice in the red light district. It wouldn't have enhanced that street for us to be there. We would have been intruders," says Sprinkle, who herself spent over 20 years doing various forms of sex work including prostitution and pornography.
While the piece is overtly political, inviting the discussion topics some would deem unseemly, it is also a melting pot of art and activism, placing a premium on fun. It provides Sprinkle, Stephens, and the experts a platform to offer advice can bring people pleasure and ease anxiety. "Our belief is that whatever you want to do is fine, as long as it's consensual and nobody gets hurt or abused. So we never are judgmental. And I think people need a non-judgmental space, because we're so surrounded by institutions and the media telling us what's right and what's wrong," explains Stephens.
As for what piece of advice these seasoned sex experts wish they had received when they were younger, Stephens says she wishes someone would have dispelled the myth that there's a right or wrong way to have sex. Sprinkle says someone ought to have encouraged her to buy a good vibrator.
Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens' newest book The Explorer's Guide to Planet Orgasm: for every body is available for purchase here.