We’re changing the metaphor from “Earth as Mother” to “Earth as Lover.”
---Elizabeth Stephens, Artist, Ecosexual, Professor
We aim to make the environmental movement more sexy, fun and diverse.
----Annie Sprinkle, Ph.D., Artist, Ecosexual, Sexologist
“Who wants to fuck a tree?” An attendee at the San Francisco Dyke March asked when she saw Beth Stephens’ and Annie Sprinkle’s flower and vine-laden signs, “Ecosexuals,” which we marched under this past sunny Saturday in the Mission district. Most novices to the idea were less dismissive. Many curious young queer people came up to Annie and Beth and asked, eyes full of curiosity, “What’s an ecosexual?” Many more seasoned folks knew Beth and Annie well. Beth Stephens is a Professor of Art at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-founder with Annie of the Love Art Laboratory. Annie Sprinkle is Beth’s artistic collaborator and her wife. Annie is especially legend as a former famous porn star—the first porn star to earn a Ph.D.—a former sex worker, a sex-positive feminist, sexologist, and sex worker rights’ and health activist. Annie’s activist work, her intellectual work, and her art humanizes folks in the sex industry, and across a spectrum of sexual identities and practices. Many adoring fans gushed to Annie about how much they adore her and how important her work has been for them. Many wanted to have their photos taken with her on those crowded joyous streets of San Francisco. The most touching were the young queer women and trans men, so out, so effusive, clearly so happy to be who they are or are becoming, and to be amidst many other dykes and their allies.
I am also not an ecosexual. Yet I carried a sign, an ally too in that regard. When Beth Stephens first told me about ecosexuality it did not resonate with me. Earth as lover? But I keep coming back to the concept after meeting Beth 18 months ago when she enrolled in my UC Berkeley graduate seminar on feminist and indigenous approaches to science, technology, and environment. Beth and I have lots to talk about. We both come from economically and geographically marginal backgrounds, from places and peoples with rich cultures, lands, and resources, thus the exploitation of our peoples and lands. I come from a South Dakota reservation and Beth from the coal mining country of West Virginia. We both ended up in Northern California eco-feminist academic worlds. I liked Beth from the beginning, and trusted that she had something to teach me as well.
Ecosexuality Challenges Dominant Notions of Sex and Nature
This blog post is my first attempt to begin to theorize what ecosexual thinking might mean for me and for the broader intellectual worlds in which I work: indigenous, environmental, and science studies. How can ecosexual thinking be in conversation with indigenous and feminist critiques colonial and chauvinistically scientistic approaches to articulating and studying this thing we call “nature” and its close relatives, “environment” and “race”? What does ecosexual theory offer the world, especially as our institutions of governance and higher learning try to find new ways to solve environmental problems (in addition to continuing to create them), but too often at the expense of those who are less powerful. As an indigenous and feminist scholar of science studies, I continue to search for voices that can provide more inclusive alternatives to the less democratic knowledge practices espoused by nature’s self-appointed spokespersons, the overwhelmingly white, male, heteronormative scientific establishment that mistakenly equates its own historically-specific norms and knowledges with neutrality and universal truth. The dyke march and my first encounters with ecosexuality this past year, it turns out, constitute a pivotal intellectual moment of growth for me. I am learning that queer sexuality and politics—acknowledging and helping love and desire flourish beyond rigidly enforced heterosexuality—not only helps us re-make our human relationships. It provides us tools for living better with the planet.
Beth and Annie refuse to relegate sexuality or sexual identities—like nature—to discrete and essential categories, to something that is only primal or instinctual, to be spoken of in whispers (sexuality), or different (nature), something outside of the cultural dynamism of everyday life, something outside of art. In their own way, Annie and Beth refuse the nature/culture divide. They work to bring into view what we have been told should be kept separate, managed, alternately exploited and violated, or saved and kept pure. In addition to the idea that they are simply found-in-nature categories, this is what “sex” and “nature” have in common. This is what draws me to Beth and Annie’s ecosexual thinking. With the rise of scientific authority and management approaches, both sex and nature have been rendered as discrete, coherent, troublesome, yet manageable objects. Both sex and nature are at the heart of struggles involving ideas of purity and contamination, life and death, but which only scientifically trained experts or rational subjects (read historically white, Western men) are seen as fit to name, manage, and to set the terms of legitimate encounter.
Annie’s and Beth’s art and activism disrupts these dominant ideas. Sexual practices and identities do and should be allowed to take multiple, shifting forms over time as our needs for different kinds of intimacies change. Thus the transformation of Beth and Annie from queer to also ecosexual. Practices and identities are fluid. This is good, something to be open about and celebrated. Likewise, we are in nature. Nature is us. We have close intimate everyday relations with nonhumans, and they do not always accord with the dominant, heteronormative, scientistic view of things. Sex is both nature and culture, both instinct and art. As Annie told my surprised undergraduates at UC Berkeley this past spring when she passed around a flower in full bloom for them to smell: “You put your nose in to smell that flower’s sex organ. You just had sex with that flower.” The seemingly mundane can be revelatory.
As ecosexuals, Sprinkle and Stephens have married various entities of Earth, Sky, Moon, and Sea but they began by marrying each other. Part of their collaborative performance art has been over the past seven years to “orchestrate one or more interactive performance art weddings …then display the ephemera in art galleries.” Their wedding years each incorporate the colors and themes of the chakras. From 2005-2011, they did a red, orange, yellow, green (earth), blue (sky), purple (moon), and white (snow) wedding, one color for each year. Photos of their colorful, choreographed weddings involving lots of community participation can be viewed on their Web site, LoveArt Laboratory.
Yet another Web site features a photo of Sprinkle and Stephens tongue kissing tree bark. And another, the two of them kissing while placing their hands on a rock: “three way kiss with a rock hard rock,” Annie comments on her Facebook page. Giggle. They playfully talk about lying on their backs and gazing at clouds, “having cloudgasms,” or giving “grassalingus.” Now, I don’t get turned on by clouds, or tree bark, or rocks. (I once dead-ended into the tight, closed end of a tunnel inside a rock hard mountain while caving in Colorado and had the realization that this great, old being did not need me poking around inside its body.) On the other hand, some of my UC Berkeley students probably do get turned on by trees if they open up their minds to think about it that way.
But Beth and Annie’s work causes me to get theoretically excited. When I intensely start talking theory, Beth reminds me, “You know this is supposed to be fun, right? We don’t take it (ecosexual performance) too seriously.” Yet it is part of the art that is at the center of their lives. And if Annie and Beth’s agenda is to bring some light heartedness, joy, and fun to what they see as a sanctimonious and dour environmental movement that turns off potentially sympathetic folks, that is serious business, is it not? In my work, I want to diversify who does science, question the divide between science and traditional knowledge, question who gets to name the world and narrate its problems, and who gets to decide how best to solve them. Similarly, Beth and Annie want to diversify the environmental movement, its actors, discourses, and strategies for change. I also increasingly embrace laughter as a response to the absurdly hateful politics of our time. Laughter sustains me when anger wears me down and feels unproductive.
In a slightly different way than an academic strand of queer theory—queer ecologies—intends it, Beth and Annie are both queering the environmental movement and greening queer culture. Like ecosexual thinking, “queer ecologies” (see Mortimer-Sandilands’ and Erickson’s 2010 edited volume by that title) disrupts the nature/culture boundary and it seeks to undermine the heteronormative biases that inform environmental sciences and discourses. Heteronormative bias naturalizes heterosexual relations in nature while ignoring or making deviant queer or same sex relations. But for Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, queering doesn’t just mean bringing LGBTQI folks into the mix. Beth and Annie are also involved in activism against mountain top removal in Beth’s home state of West Virginia. Their film, still in production, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, foregrounds the lives disrupted and the work of resistance of a very diverse group of people in the West Virginia hills who fight this particularly violent treatment of the earth. The film spotlights oppositional local folks and transplants, people whose critical voices the state and coal mining companies render as marginal and therefore illegitimate. Legitimating marginal voices, queering discourses, is something Stephens and Sprinkle do in both their environmental activism and in Sprinkle’s sex worker activism.
Bringing Indigenous and Ecosexual Stories Carefully into Conversation
Sprinkle and Stephens, because of the artistic and sex positive feminist work that they do, emphasize what we think of as sexual relations when they talk about being intimate with trees, rocks, the sea, clouds, mountains. Their ideas of social relations are grounded in their specific historical and cultural backgrounds and detailed in their “herstories” on their SexEcology Web site:
Growing up in the mountains alongside the Kanawha River, the winter, spring, summer and fall nurtured this young ecosexual from the start. The fragrance of the mountains’ forests and waters permeated my every waking and sleeping moment. My body was tuned to the cycle of budding leaves turning to dark green fully unfurled then slowly dying in oranges, reds and yellows and finally cold winter browns dropping off to rot in the emptiness that reveals the naked mountains. Even in their nakedness the mountains were laced with rhododendron, mountain laurel, dogwood, redbuds, magnolias, wild azaleas, hickory, oak, sycamore and sassafras...Hunting salamanders for fish bait in the fresh water creek running down off the mountain and into Daniel Boone’s Bathtub, forming swirls underneath Suicide Rock, then passing below route 60, to empty into the slow, caramel green of the Kanawha, made for some of the dreamiest moments of my childhood.----Beth Stephens
When I knew that I was an ecosexual I was nine. My dad discovered Yosemite and he fell in love. In retrospect, my dad must have been an ecosexual too. Our family visited Yosemite several times a year. That’s when it started, between me, and the redwood trees. I liked them BIG. And they were HUGE! Big, round, hard, but soft, redwood trees. Gentle giants. I loved the scent of the trunk, like vanilla mixed with soil. I have a strong memory of coming across a redwood that had fallen over from a storm. I walked around and peeked at its freshly exposed roots. So soft, so sensuous, so sexy! I had to touch them.--Annie Sprinkle
Another example of an ecosexual experience offered by Annie in her Herstory involves not touching her desired—a “big, erect” saguaro cactus in the Arizona desert, but an exchange of sexual energy nonetheless. Annie explains: “There was no touching of the cactus for obvious reasons, but I swear, that cactus and I exchanged our sexual energies.” This is another playful example that stretches not only who we see our human selves as in intimate relationship with, but it stretches the “sexual” experience into one that transcends matter and physical stimulation. It disrupts that spirit/matter binary that is so locked into our modern scientistic view of the world, a binary that is not so prevalent in indigenous ontologies.
Which leads me to a disclaimer: There are occasional references in ecosex literature to Native American knowledges in ways that are what I would classify as “New Age,” and I would advise caution around the appropriation of Native American knowledges and motifs to the ecosexual ceremonial and artistic repertoire. In plain language: Be cautious when a person calls themself a “shaman” and charges money for their services. Medicine people tend to work within a gift economy. And like many U.S. Americans, I do not see that they are especially open to foregrounding the role of sexuality in their work. Or if you do hang out with the shaman type, you should know that they probably do not have much standing among the very indigenous peoples they identify with. There are no easy, literal translations between indigenous ontologies and ecosexuality, at least among the indigenous people I run with. Rather, there are careful conversations with much careful thought to be had.
That said, in the North American indigenous traditions I have encountered, humans speak of having social relations with nonhumans. Our stories sometimes feature what we today would call sexual relations between humans and nonhumans, thus creating, for example, hybrid human-bear persons. But those relations don’t seem to be cohered into something, i.e. “sexuality” as we know it in Western modernity. Close physical relations do not seem so severed in these stories from other types of social relations. Our traditional stories also portray nonhuman persons in ways that to not adhere to another meaningful modern category, the “animal.” Our stories are complex and not romantic. They feature relationships in which human and nonhuman persons, and nonhuman persons between themselves, harass and trick one another; save one another from injury or death; prey upon, kill, and sometimes eat one another; or collaborate with one another. Speaking as a Dakota, and as I read in stories now documented rather than passed down orally, our peoples avoided the hierarchical nature/culture and animal/human split that has done so much damage. In Dakota thinking, nonhuman persons were both worthy of becoming family and they were worthy adversaries. But our ancestors did not view themselves as the owners of nonhumans, nor as gods who could see, study, name, control, and save everything.
I teach my students to recognize those pervasive boundaries and hardened categories that structure our minds, our College of Natural Resources, and our world today—boundaries between nature and culture and all of the subset binaries within that: animal/human, black/white, woman/man, heterosexual/homosexual, traditional knowledge/science, or society/science. These binaries go hand-in-hand with hierarchy—with the notion that some humans are god-like, capable of gazing on the world from above, from outside of nature, of apprehending it in the one true, universal way. This view facilitated human domination of Earth. It is naïve for those of us in the natural and social sciences to think this same view can save the planet.
To return to Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, they may use ecosexual language and imagery that sounds to many of us like it is rooted only in San Francisco queer or New Age cultures. I hope I’ve shown you that their language also reflects a more expansive history—oops, herstory—than that. There are also foundational and shared principles in what they do and in more mainstream (if that’s possible) feminist and indigenous critiques of scientific and nature discourses. There is also a possibility for conversation with the ideas of my cultural forebears, and what I do in my scholarship and teaching as a 21st century Dakota and indigenous intellectual. This is what makes me a new ally to ecosexuality in the same way that I have long been an ally of queer people and their work.
This is my first venture into thinking through ecosexuality and the relationship of its underlying principles to indigenous thought and feminist science studies. This is an exercise which will perturb some and excite others to continue the conversation. It is a work in progress. I thank you for your patience, and I welcome the feedback of my fellow thinkers from the multiple fields in which I work, both inside and outside the academy.
ADDENDUM: JULY 19, 2012
During the two weeks that followed the original June 29, 2012 post above, an intense discussion occurred on the Facebook page of an indigenous studies scholarly association in which I am active. One person in particular took issue with the post, and focused his critique on Annie Sprinkle. The critic is a non-academic, a self-described Cherokee nationalist, not a spokesperson for the Cherokee Nation, but a citizen of that tribal nation. He is a spokesperson for the cause of protecting Cherokee identity from those who make claims to be Cherokee absent official citizenship or documentable genealogy. Over the course of two weeks he directed several charges at Annie, particularly related to ecosexuality and its potential overlap with New Age practices that, as noted in the original post, many Native Americans see as appropriating and misrepresenting our cultures and spiritualities. This is an important point that deserves further attention in the dialogue between non-indigenous ecosexuals and Native Americans. (We don’t really know whether some indigenous folks might also identify as “ecosexual.”) But it also became clear as the Facebook conversation unfolded that the Cherokee nationalist, himself gay identified, was critical of other non-heteronormative sexual practices. It also became clear, and he admitted, that he didn’t really read my blog post. The convergence of his particular critiques, which I will outline and respond to below (with help from Annie Sprinkle who kindly sent me e-mail responses that she has given me permission to quote from) is a good reflection of one particular response among the diverse and visceral kinds of responses that topics related to sexuality elicit in our society. As I write above, the relatively recent cultural coherence of disparate practices and physical characteristics into this thing called "sex" or "sexuality," like "nature," has produced dichotomies between what is considered civilized and less evolved or animalistic, and what is considered normal and good versus what is considered deviant and bad. Such category-making enables wholesale dismissal of Annie Sprinkle and her sexual politics by the Cherokee critic. In our broader society it enables violence against those who are deemed sexually deviant. Not previously having been a scholar of sexuality, I still recognize the similarity with the way binaries are created between what is nature and what is not nature, and the implicit assumptions that make a category subject to violence without conscience. I was a little unprepared, however, for the ire I incurred in writing about the connections as an intellectual exploration.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. The Cherokee nationalist was also deeply critical of academia and our practices. His charges were pretty standard fare. I/we are elitists who use inaccessible language. My response: Every field from genetics, to the law, to car mechanics, to medicine, to finance, to hairdressing and yes, even tribal enrollment, has its technical language that is not immediately accessible to novices. It takes work to talk to one another in a world of increasing specialization. This blog is for me, one way of engaging in that work. I wish the Cherokee nationalist had approached it in this way.
I should note that scholars who frequent the indigenous studies Facebook page weighed in on the conversation. Some of them also expressed concern over any New Age appropriation that could potentially occur in the ecosex community. But they also challenged the non-academic Cherokee nationalist on his language that eventually exhibited condemnation of certain women, lesbians, ecosexuals and others. We have nearly four hundred members on that page. Less than ten of us (all from the U.S. and Canada) engaged in this conversation. I do know others followed the conversation closely from private e-mails I received from them.
The Criticisms and Responses
1. False claims to Cherokee identity. The Cherokee nationalist's first charge was that Annie Sprinkle once claimed to be Cherokee. Her response to that charge was unequivocal: that she "never ever" said she was Cherokee, the charge is "erroneous." She offered that perhaps the Cherokee nationalist is thinking of someone else, perhaps Hyapatia Lee, another former porn star who publicly identifies as one-quarter Cherokee. Annie explains that she is of Jewish descent. Furthermore, I responded to the Cherokee nationalist that if a person falsely claims to be Cherokee due to the complex racial politics that lead too many Americans to claim Native American identity absent demonstrable genealogical or political links, I would reject that claim. But I would not wholesale discredit her contributions to a conversation about which she knows something.
2. Ecosex associations with New Age appropriators of Native American cultures? The second concern of the Cherokee nationalist was Annie Sprinkle's professional encounters with Harley SwiftDeer Reagan (HSR from here on out), who the Cherokee nationalist also accuses of identifying inappropriately as Cherokee, and of appropriating Native American cultural motifs through New Age practices. Indeed, HSR, I think it safe to say, from the view of most tribal citizens, seems a bit off. Many--not only the Cherokee nationalist--would characterize his claims as fraudulent. On his Web page, harley-swiftdeer-reagan.com, he seems to identify as "Metis," however, and not Cherokee. Perhaps he has changed his identification. The Cherokee Nation is known to officially challenge claimants to Cherokee identity who cannot prove that lineage. HSR currently writes that he is "a founder of the Deer Tribe Metis Medicine Society." It is no less troublesome in its politics to claim to be Metis absent political affiliation with a Metis community. Like many people in our dominant racialized society, HSR seems to conflate the Metis category with a "mixed-blood" race category, having nowhere in sight the notion that Metis communities, as they exist in Canada for example, constitute peoples or nations. In addition, his Web page bio reflects a hodgepodge of cultural claims. To my eyes, he looks like a classic New Age appropriator of Native American cultural motifs.
HSR says nothing on his personal Web page about his work as a sex educator, which is the work through which Annie has engaged him. Annie writes: “I wrote about a workshop I did with Harley Swiftdeer, for Penthouse Magazine. Penthouse paid for my trip...and for the workshop. I wrote about many workshops and events for many sex magazines. I only did the one workshop with Harley. It was at that workshop that I learned the most important technique about sex of any ever…. the Fire breath Orgasm (he calls it that--although all sex positive cultures have some version of ecstatic breathing to energy orgasm). This said, the fact that I took one workshop with him and wrote about it didn't make me a disciple. Or even great 'supporter.' … I do know that Harley is very controversial. …He's teaching sexuality in very explicit ways… I don't know about the quality of his native teachings/rituals, but as a sex educator, he's pretty brave and powerful...His teaching of the fire breath orgasm changed my entire take on human sexuality. From being about the body, to being about energy flowing into and around and through the body.” Annie Sprinkle writes about HSR as a skilled sex educator. And she does have expertise in that area while most of us in indigenous studies do not. HSR's own shoring up of his authority with reference to tribal traditions should be for us the crux of the problem, rather than Sprinkle's engagement with his sexual teachings. Still a word of caution is in order.
Non-native people should be careful attributing Native American authenticity to folks when they have no basis for really judging that. (I see Sprinkle as being careful in this way in her conversation with us.) And ecosexual practitioners within that will want to be careful. The vast majority of people have very limited knowledge about indigenous histories and sovereignty. Highlighting those histories and authorities is a chief role of scholars in Native American and indigenous studies fields. Knowledge that indigenous peoples constitute nations and citizenries within our legal frameworks and not simply monolithic racial groups is lost on most people who believe we should be able to self identify however we choose. But citizenship is granted by tribal, Metis, and First Nations' governments. Beyond citizenship, tribal communities recognize their own, although not always with love. That’s “community.” A purely individual right or choice to self-identify as something is insufficient in our indigenous world. We're on heavily mined terrain here so we must be delicate in our steps. But let me say indelicately that HSR looks clearly to be a fraud on the tribal identity front. This was basically the critique of all of the indigenous studies scholars (not all of whom identify as indigenous by the way) and not only the Cherokee nationalist, in that Facebook conversation. I think it is safe to say that we in indigenous studies and out there in Indian Country would be happier if he'd drop the mystical Native American motifs in his teaching of sex techniques.
As for any personal charges that she is engaging herself in New Age appropriation, Annie Sprinkle explains that as far as religion goes, she was raised Unitarian. Today, she notes, she "can be partly agnostic" and also enjoys and believes in parts of all religions. She asks, "is this new age?” She further explains in a moving statement that "when AIDS hit like a huge tidal wave of death and illness and pain and I lost many friends and loved ones, I was searching for ways to cope and definitely explored lots of new age healing modalities. I also explored various cultures and how they coped and prevailed. I was very interested in "tantra". I would admit that I've been guilty of some appropriation. However, when I did so, before I was (slightly) more educated, I saw it not as appropriation, but as honoring of other cultures. …I'd be very interested in hearing your take on New Age. Always open to learning more and seeing things from different perspectives.”
That “honoring” inclination is something that we in indigenous studies have criticized in supporters of Native American sports team mascots who often assert that by clinging to characters such as the infamous "Chief Illiniwek" at the University of Illinois, they are honoring us. We in Indian Country tend to disagree. Given the few ecosexuals that I know, all of whom are also scholars and/or accomplished artists (ecosexuality involves performance) I trust that the response of those folks will be much less totalitarian and straightforwardly racist than has been the hyperbole of sports fans and mascot defenders. I hope that they will tell their fellow ecosexuals to exercise caution. This addendum, like the original blog post is my next move in this conversation with my friends Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle and with others. As Annie wrote to me in an email: "Humor and experimentation are a big part of our work...I look forward to talking more about these things. We are learning and growing. Our ecosexuality is relatively new for us. And these critiques are certainly thought provoking. I am not new to controversy however. I like to think of it as part of the fun. That's how I cope with the sex negativity all around in the culture that gets thrown at me. But I do learn from all critiques." Which leads to the third major charge directed at Annie Sprinkle and at ecosexuality by the Cherokee nationalist, that she/it is "repulsive."
3. The controversial politics of non-normative sexualities. After the Cherokee nationalist's first charges, I had expected our indigenous studies Facebook page conversation to stay close to the topics of Native American identity and New Age appropriations. But he eventually issued scathing commentary of non-normative sexual practices and identities, characterizing Annie Sprinkle and others like her (porn actresses and sex workers, I presume) as "nasty women" who have "repulsive lifestyles." He also issued a shocking charge, (I hesitate to quote extensively as I have not asked his permission), essentially that gay identity is marred by having deviant sexualities tied to it. So, being gay should not be considered deviant. I agree! But all/most (?) other non-heteronormative practices and identities should be considered deviant and perverse? He worries that the gay community becomes a haven for "every sexual dreg society has to offer...GLBTIIQLMFAO." And now we should add "E" to that already too multiple term? He also mentions that the problem began when lesbians refused the gay moniker. I and other indigenous studies scholars--indigenous and non-indigenous, queer and straight--argued against such characterizations. Such derisive name-calling seems out of step with both honest academic inquiry and productive activism. And it is certainly not in the spirit of rigorous analysis and conversation that we like to promote in our indigenous studies community.
I highlight our conversation on the indigenous studies Facebook page in order to call attention to the varied kinds and tones of responses that will occur in our society around such issues. I saw intolerance and fear; anger, both righteous and abusive; openness; critical questioning; and generosity. Unlike Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, I am an academic newcomer to controversies having to do with the "sex negativity" that prevails in our contemporary society. (On a personal level most of us are influenced by sex negativity.) The response to my initial post and the politics of sexuality and nature at play in ecosexuality featured there affirms my sense that it is important work to engage in multi-disciplinary ways, carefully yet assertively, and with tolerance whenever possible with "nature" and "sex" topics, and their underlying binaries of nature/culture, purity/contamination, and normative/deviant. Such ways of dividing up the world into essentialist notions of good and evil (rather than defining good and bad, for example, according to suffering) help produce both nature and sexuality as rigid categories that end up doing violence to both humans and nonhumans. On our indigenous studies Facebook page we saw just a taste of the verbal violence that can ensue.
(Please note that some of the comments to this post were posted before the addendum appeared on this page.)