Together, Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle are perhaps the best-known advocates of ecosexuality, a sliding-scale term used to describe the various interactions of the environment and human sexuality. Stephens and Sprinkle didn’t coin the word—it was previously used to describe dating an environmentally conscious person—and the basic idea has been around for centuries in various cultures and religions. In the past decade alone, they say, the number of people who identify as ecosexual has grown from less than 1,000 to more than 100,000. But the duo did create the Ecosex Manifesto, in 2011, which outlines both how much they love the earth and how to interact with it. The manifesto translated ecosexuality for a wider audience, establishing it as a flexible combination of activism and identity, not a salacious sexual preference.
Stephens, a professor of art at the University of California, Santa Cruz, grew up in West Virginia, in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains and the heart of coal country. Her art, a mix of performance and visual disciplines exploring themes of the body, queerness, and feminism, took her to New York City. Sprinkle, her partner in life and art, grew up in Los Angeles and worked in the adult industry in New York City for 22 years. She spent the first few decades of her life out of touch with nature, though she’d always dreamed of living by water or in a redwood forest. In the mid-1990s, Stephen moved to California to teach. She met Sprinkle after they worked together on an art show. Their film, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story (2012), chronicles their journey as lovers, ecosexuals, and activists—and their mission to make environmentalism a little more sexy.
Sprinkle: Do you find skinny-dipping pleasurable? Do you ever lay in the sand and feel the heat of it and get a little turned on? I think most people do, but because they see the earth as something spiritual, or nature almost like God, they don’t want to have sex with it. But we think sex can be spiritual.
For me, sensuality and pleasure is a way to connect more with nature. I find nature very sensual, and I see the eroticism of it all over the place. I also let myself fantasize about it—I might fantasize about a weeping willow tree caressing my body with its leaves.
Stephens: We’re trying to shift the metaphor from “earth as mother” to “earth as lover.”
Sprinkle: We are the earth. We don’t see ourselves as separate. We feel the love of nature, and we like to give nature our love because it’s not all about taking pleasure or taking resources. We feel it has to be reciprocal, and that’s why we like the lover model. We’re giving environmentalism a kind of punk-rock edge with ecosex.
Stephens: You can be asexual and still be ecosexual. It has to do with your feelings toward the earth.
We’re not actually out there humping trees—even though sometimes we will kind of perform that—but it’s more about breaking down separations between humans and nature. If you can separate yourself from nature, then you don’t have much of a problem killing nature, exploiting it for resources, and so on. But if you look at a tree as your lover, you’re going to think twice before you cut it down or burn it. We’re artists, so we take a kind of conceptual stance to this. I mean, I got a PhD last year based on investigating these ideas, so believe me, I’ve really thought hard about this.
We feel that a lot of the environmental discourse is not as effective as it could be in terms of bringing people to the table around this very precarious conversation that we’re in now: What are we going to do about the ecological future? We have adopted this stance to draw attention to the fact that we need to be really engaged. So we don’t have to literally hump trees, but conceptually we might want to consider it.
“We’re not actually out there humping trees—even though sometimes we will kind of perform that—but it’s more about breaking down separations between humans and nature.”
Stephens: We married the earth in 2008, and then we proceeded to have 30 more weddings to nature entities all around the world. And that’s what spread the word about this.
Sprinkle: We made a vow to love, honor, and cherish the earth in front of 400 people—many of whom made vows with us—and the next day, we were changed. It’s like suddenly you’re married, and you’ve made a commitment.
Stephens: We’ve been able to use our art to disseminate and pollinate these ideas. There are probably 100,000 people now that we’ve identified as ecosexuals around the world. We do see it as a very political act, but it’s also an act of love, and it’s very much an artwork. There was an article about us that was trying to make fun of us, but they actually got everything pretty right. I know we sound ridiculous, but at the same time, people love nature. I mean, they just really do. And it doesn’t matter if you’re conservative or liberal or what.
Sprinkle: It doesn’t have to be a political thing—you can just be enjoying the sexuality of nature. It’s like gay people—not all of them are political.
There are some porn stars doing ecosex porn where they’re having hot, juicy sex outside and interacting with nature. The adult entertainment industry is ginormous, so that’s putting these messages out to a huge audience. Dollar for dollar, porn is bigger than sports and bigger than music.
Stephens: But, more important, we’re trying to reach audiences that don’t relate to the environmental movement. These might be people in the sex world; these might be communities of color; these might be poor white folks in West Virginia who really feel that the environmentalists are somehow against them. We want to help sustain environmentalists.
Sprinkle: You’ve probably noticed the stereotypes of outdoor people.
Stephens: “You can’t be a drag queen and be an outdoor person, or you can’t be a prostitute and love nature.”
Sprinkle: You can, but it’s just not the stereotype. It’s hippie, it’s new age, it’s tree hugging, you know. It’s all hedonistic. All of those words are negative. When RuPaul won an Emmy, it was a huge breakthrough because people need that glitter, that glam, that joy that drag queens bring. And if we could bring that to the environmental movement? I mean, we have the Sierra Club, which is huge, but we can’t be the flamboyant, queer, porn star kind of people.
Stephens: Well, we can, but it’s frowned upon.
Sprinkle: Yeah, we don’t feel totally comfortable and accepted there. Also, a lot of environmental activism is depressing and heavy, and you end up in jail and all these horrible things. We want to be part of a movement that helps ensure that the life of the planet is healthy and whole, and we want to entice more people to join the environmental movement—it’s fun as hell. We have a friend who does ecosexy striptease and a friend who does ecosex erotica and that kind of thing. So, for me, it’s also about sex education.
“When RuPaul won an Emmy, it was a huge breakthrough because people need that glitter, that glam, that joy that drag queens bring. And if we could bring that to the environmental movement?”
Stephens: We also use humor. I think we picked that up from being in identity politics, because when someone or something is oppressed, to always focus on that oppression is disempowering. But to inject humor? It’s a great social justice strategy, because sometimes things are so bad that all you can do is laugh about it. That laugh is empowering. It gives you the courage and the strength to keep going.
Sprinkle: We took the earth as our lover as a kind of strategy, but we’re also curious about it. Right now we’re aquaphiles, and we’re doing a movie about water called Water Makes Us Wet.
Stephens: We’re doing this as art, and I want to stress that. We’ve just been invited to an important art exhibition called Documenta. Part of the title of our thing’s going to be “Ecosexual Freedom.” It places us in an ecology of these different ideas of freedom. I think the kind of space that exists outdoors, for instance, is public space. We feel that ecosexuality is a sort of fight for freedom—to be connected to nature in whatever way you want and let that be a public, not private, endeavor.
Sprinkle: As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I see that sex is much bigger and more spectacular than just two bodies coming together in a dark room. And sex is better outside. Ecosexuals like having sex outside. The “25 Ways to Make Love to the Earth” list kind of nails the whole concept.
Stephens: Yeah, it really does.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.