Photograph by Ira Grünberger / Connected Archives
Phallic cacti, flower petals drenched in dew, and horny captions about sinking erotically into the ground—that’s just a smattering of what you’ll find if you search for “ecosexuality” on Instagram. The hashtag hosts more than 3,400 posts from creators dotted around the globe. Sprinkled amongst the more risque offerings are recurring photos of a book with an arresting, sunflower yellow cover: Assuming The Ecosexual Position, coauthored by Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens.
In 2008, these San Francisco-based lovers, artists, and academics accidentally spawned a movement when they held their “Green Wedding To The Earth,” the fourth in a series of seven performance art weddings held between 2005 and 2011. These were annual extravaganzas, packed with art, burlesque, and poetry. At their climax, Sprinkle and Stephens wed a nonhuman entity; as well as the Earth, they married the Appalachian mountains, snow, and even the sea. At the powerful Green Wedding, hundreds of attendees gathered amongst the lush redwoods of Santa Cruz, where they were invited to join Sprinkle and Stephens in “taking vows to love, honor, and cherish the Earth.” Sprinkle beamed as she recounted the story, describing it as “paradigm shifting.”
Soon after the wedding, they started calling themselves “ecosexual”—which, at the time, was a niche dating app term used to describe a sexual attraction to nature, as well as a preference for dating other environmentalists. “It started as a joke,” Sprinkle said, “but then we decided to define it.”
The last 15 years have seen ecosexuality blossom into a global movement. Initially, the premise was straightforward: instead of depending on Earth like a Mother, extracting endlessly but offering nothing in return, we should nurture, care for, and cherish Earth like a lover. Ecosexuality offered a pleasure-centric framework for climate justice. Now, it’s multifaceted: It’s an academic discipline, a sexuality, and an environmental activism strategy.
Dr. Lauran Whitworth first heard of Sprinkle and Stephens in 2012 when a friend told them about “ecosexual nature hikes.” These guided tours through beautiful trails are filled with lusty language: Hikers are urged to caress branches, to sensually sniff plants, and to literally hug trees, a witty nod to climate activist stereotypes. Whitworth, who was studying at the time for a PhD in LGBTQ+ environmental ethics, was immediately captivated. They’ve since been a devoted follower of the movement.
Instead of depending on Earth like a Mother, extracting endlessly but offering nothing in return, we should nurture, care for, and cherish Earth like a lover.
One project that epitomizes ecosexuality and its pleasure-centric tactics, Whitworth said, is Goodbye Gauley Mountain, a documentary that Sprinkle and Stephens produced in 2013. The film brought the duo to Stephens’s home state of West Virginia, where mountaintop mining was threatening the local ecosystems. “It used to be this hotbed of union activity in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s,” Stephens explained, “but that got squashed by corporations. Now, it’s a very Republican state.” For the movie, they spoke to late environmentalist Larry Gibson, one of many local activists fighting mountaintop removal coal mining. “He left West Virginia to work in the automobile industry, and when he came back, the coal companies were offering millions of dollars for his land,” Stephens said. “He wouldn’t sell it, because he didn’t want it to be destroyed.”
To Whitworth, the film embodies ecosexuality’s ethos. “I think about scenes of Sprinkle and Stephens sunbathing in the river and the poignant interviews about what the mountains mean to them,” Whitworth explained. “I think of their collaborative performances, and the diverse groups of people who participate in and support them.”
The ecosexual movement is spreading coast to coast. This year, Sprinkle and Stephens held their annual Ecosex Symposium at Performance Space New York, marking the symposium’s first outing on the East Coast. They screened films shot around the world and featured speakers like visual artist Courtney Desiree Morris and Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw. At the free Sidewalk Ecosex Clinic, farmers and queer food co-op representatives lined up phallic fruits, combining information about safe sex (with vegetable-based demonstrations) with advocacy for access to fresh, organic food.
A unifying thread at the Ecosex Symposium and in the movement more broadly is its engagement with marginalized communities. Climate injustice is tied to broader injustice. It’s rooted in racism, colonialism and homophobia. Colonized countries remain the most heavily-impacted by the climate crisis, and they’re disproportionately starved of resources while bearing the environmental brunt of hypercapitalist consumption. LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be excluded from disaster relief efforts and to live in areas with higher rates of air pollution. Ecosexuality tackles these links head on.
Arguably, ecosexuality is also engaging more queer people in climate activism. At Pride parades, protestors dressed in colorful outfits and covered in glitter (biodegradable, of course) storm the streets, with placards reading COMPOSTING IS SO HOT and THE EARTH IS OUR LOVER. “We’re creating the LGBTQIAE movement,“ Stephens said laughing. “We’re adding the E for ecosexuality in there!”
“I’m convinced that fighting environmental pollution from a place of joy and desire will ultimately be more successful and enduring than telling people the world is about to end.”
The movement has always been rooted in pleasure, and this stems from Sprinkle’s background as a sex worker, artist, and activist dating back to the 1980s. Through AIDS education, radical performance art, and her “sex positivity salon,” for which she transformed her New York apartment into a destination for sex workers’ rights meetings, fetish parties and sex-ed sessions, Sprinkle made a splash in both the art and academic worlds. Ecosexuality continues this lineage. “My mantra is: ‘Let there be pleasure on Earth, and let it begin with me,’” she declared. “We’re having so much fun and spreading so much joy!”
Jenny Schlenzka, Executive Artistic Director of Performance Space New York, host of this year’s Ecosex Symposium, was drawn to Sprinkle and Stephens’ strategy of “wrapping the political and serious into fun and humor,” especially as environmental crises can “quickly become dystopian and depressive.” Focusing solely on the negative can be paralyzing—it can make it feel like there’s no point in trying. As Schlenzka summarized: “I’m convinced that fighting environmental pollution from a place of joy and desire will ultimately be more successful and enduring than telling people the world is about to end.”
It’s taken more than a decade, but ecosexuality is finally being taken seriously. “When we went to West Virginia for Goodbye Gauley Mountain, a lot of local activists thought we were giving them a bad name,” Stephens recalled. “They see a sex worker from California, and they thought nobody would listen to us.” Still, the duo forged on—and they maintained a sense of humor, even when tackling serious issues. In the 2017 documentary Water Makes Us Wet, a sea lion flaps wildly in response to Sprinkle’s question: “Is the plastic in the water making you sad?” It’s a movie about water pollution and environmental injustice, but it’s also about the sheer ecstasy of being enveloped by the cool, salty waters of the ocean.
Now, both Sprinkle and Stephens feel they’re at a tipping point, a landmark moment for ecosexuality. The Ecosex Symposium’s warm reception in New York affirmed their plans to take the movement out of its longtime base of San Francisco, and it proved that there’s a broader appetite for ecosexuality’s horny take on climate justice.
It’s not a conventional activist movement in any way. It’s often not rooted in campaigning for specific causes or fighting legislative battles. It’s a more holistic approach to climate justice, one rooted in creating new frameworks and uplifting marginalized communities in these vital discussions. “I think people are realizing that this evangelical approach to environmentalism isn’t working,” Stephens concluded. “It’s a movement run on guilt, one which says you’ll go to hell if you drive a car! It’s not a love-based movement, whereas ecosexuality really is.”