If you happen to find yourself in Sydney this week, you have the unique opportunity to have sex with the earth. You just need to stop by the "ecosexual bathhouse," which is currently part of the Syndey LiveWorks Festival of experimental art. The bathhouse is an interactive installation created by artists Loren Kronemyer and Ian Sinclair of Pony Express, who described the work to me as a "no-holds-barred extravaganza meant to dissolve the barriers between species as we descend into oblivion" as the result of our global environmental crisis. But they also see their piece as a part of a much larger ecosexual movement, which they say is gathering momentum around the world.
And they may be right. Jennifer Reed, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is writing a dissertation on ecosexuality, and says that the number of people who identify as ecosexuals has increased markedly in the past two years. And Google search data confirms that interest in the term has spiked dramatically over the past year. We may look back on 2016 as the year ecosexuality hit the mainstream.
Ecosexuality is a term with wide-ranging definitions, which vary depending on who you ask.
Amanda Morgan, a faculty member at the UNLV School of Community Health Sciences who is involved in the ecosexual movement, says that ecosexuality could be measured in a sense not unlike the Kinsey Scale: On one end, it encompasses people who try to use sustainable sex products, or who enjoy skinny dipping and naked hiking. On the other are "people who roll around in the dirt having an orgasm covered in potting soil," she said. "There are people who fuck trees, or masturbate under a waterfall."
The movement's growing prominence owes much to the efforts of Bay Area performance artists, activists, and couple Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens, who have made ecosexuality a personal crusade. They have published an "ecosex manifesto" on their website SexEcology and produced several films on the theme, including a documentary, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, which depicts the "pollen-amorous" relationship between them and the Appalachian Mountains. And while touring a theater piece across the country, Dirty Sexecology: 25 Ways to Make Love to the Earth, they've officiated wedding ceremonies where they and fellow ecosexuals marry the earth, the moon, and other natural entities.
Sprinkle and Stephens talk openly about ecosexuality as a new form of sexual identity. At last year's San Francisco Pride Parade, they led a contingent of over a hundred ecosexuals in a ribbon-cutting ceremony to "officially" add an E to the LGBTQI acronym; Stephens told Outside that they believe there are now at least 100,000 people around the world who openly identify as ecosexuals.
According to Reed's research, the term "ecosexuality" has existed since the early 2000s, when it started appearing as a self-description on online dating profiles. It wasn't until 2008 that it began its evolution toward a fully fledged social movement, when Sprinkle and Stephens began officiating ecosexual weddings. The two artists had been active in the marriage equality movement, and they wanted to harness that energy for environmental causes. Stephens has said that their aim was to reconceptualize the way we look at the earth, from seeing the planet as a mother to seeing it as a lover.
Also in 2008, Stefanie Iris Weiss, a writer and activist based in New York, began researching her book Eco-sex: Go Green Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable, published in 2010. Weiss, who was at that time unaware of Sprinkle and Stephens's work, initially lent the idea a more practical, literal focus, with research revealing the harmful environmental impact of materials used in condoms, lubes, and other sex products upon both our bodies and the planet. She said that she wrote the book to help people make their sex lives "more carbon neutral and sustainable," and to help us avoid polluting our bodies when we have sex.
The desire for safer and more sustainable sex products remains an important part of the ecosexual movement, and Weiss said that green options for consumers when it comes to sex products have increased dramatically since she wrote her book. But she has also happily embraced Sprinkle and Stephens's more holistic take on ecosexuality, immediately recognizing in their efforts a shared goal: to help people reconnect with nature, and with their own bodies.
Reed said that ecosexuality is different from other social movements in that it focuses on personal behavior and pleasure rather than protests or politics. She said that some people within the environmental movement have kept their distance from it for this reason. But ecosexual activists interviewed for this story all insist they have a serious goal at heart. As Morgan said, thinking about the earth as a lover is the first step toward taking the environmental crisis seriously. "If you piss off your mother, she's probably going to forgive you. If you treat your lover badly, she's going to break up with you."
At the same time, the sense of levity that characterizes works such as the bathhouse or Sprinkle and Stephens's performances is an integral part of the movement. Morgan describes ecosexuality as a means of moving beyond the "depressing Al Gore stuff" that people often associate with environmentalism. Her hope, and that of other ecosexuals such as Weiss and Kronemyer, is that it can gives the average person a way of engaging with the issue that is accessible and fun, and that creates a sense of hopefulness.
Morgan and Weiss both say that they also see sex as a potentially powerful tool for motivating people to make the environment a priority. As Weiss put it: "If you're running from floods, you won't have any time for sex."
Neil McArthur is the director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at University of Manitoba, where his work focuses on sexual ethics and the philosophy of sexuality. Follow him on Twitter.