The Ecosex activists

"We are very dirty"

The US American performance artists Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens draft ecosexual manifestos and stage erotically charged wedding rituals with the Earth. Performance art that irritates and plays with taboos and the absurd in the best tradition of Dada. Sprinkle rose to fame long before the collective ecosex project as a porn actress fighting for the rights of sex workers – and only later on devoted all her energy to art.

“The Earth is our lover.”
C/O Vienna Magazine_Die Ökosexaktivistinnen

Brigitte Theißl: On your website your ecosexual concept reads as follows: “We aim to make the environmental movement more sexy and fun.” Is it all right to have fun with environmental protection in light of the climate crisis?

Beth Stephens: Yes, we want to have fun, and make the movement sexy – but also more diverse! There’s absolutely no contradiction between fun and sincerity. Annie and I also joined quite radical, serious groups, which fought against water pollution or the impacts of coal mining in different regions of the US. But no one can handle being serious and furious all the time. When there’s no place for fun in a movement, burnout is inevitable.

Annie Sprinkle: We use art to reveal new possibilities. But we also need all kinds of activist strategies. I have great respect for Greta Thunberg. She’s a very determined young woman, who is connecting people around the globe. So it’s not that we don’t appreciate being serious, too.

“I promise to love, honor and cherish you Earth, until death brings us closer together forever.”

But your art plays with absurdity, with parody?

B. S.: We draw from the traditions of Dada and Fluxus. This means the process and the incomplete are essential to our art. We choose an absurd situation and then create an absurd art project as a mirror of this absurdity. Take, for example, neoliberal capitalism, which is destroying the Earth – the basis of our existence – at a rate that no one could have ever imagined. For many people, this implies suffering, pain, it means grief. By linking art and activism, we try to reach out to people in a different way. Some journalists tend to make fun of this, they ridicule us, but we’re okay with that.

“We are aquaphiles, teraphiles, pyrophiles and aerophiles.”
Ökosex_C/O Vienna Magazine

Is ecosexuality, where nature becomes a lover, such an absurd concept, or is it actually coupled with an erotic experience?

B. S.: Have you ever had sex outdoors or swam naked in a river? Then you know the answer. Lying naked in the sun, the wind caressing your skin after swimming is quite erotic.

A. S.: Or the smell of trees and plants. Drinking a glass of cold water on a hot day – that can be very erotic, too. Many people are downright disturbed by the idea of charging something in nature with eroticism. I think most of us have already had sensual experiences outside of human relations, but are just not aware of it yet. By the way, we weren’t the ones who coined the term ecosexuality; it already existed, for example in online dating, where people used it to describe their sexual identity. But we did create “sexecology,” as we are interested in all the overlaps between sexuality and ecology. When you get down to it, sexuality plays an important role in all realms of life.

B. S.: In Christian and Jewish tradition it is generally a taboo to have erotic feelings outside of marriage, a monogamous relationship as a couple – let alone thinking about a cloud or a tree. We like to play with such taboos. But in the end, it is also about saying: Humans are not superior to things, there is no hierarchy of living creatures, we’re all connected to one another.

“We shamelessly hug trees, massage the Earth with our feet, and talk erotically to plants.”

You have set forth to turn “Mother Earth” into “Lover Earth.” What changes in perception when the Earth is no longer the nurturing and protecting mother?

A. S.: For us, Earth is no longer just a mother, she is a sister, lover, queer, trans. We lend her human traits in order to strengthen our relationship with her and free her at the same time from rigid categories. “Mother Earth” is traditionally imagined as a woman, it is reified, exploited, abused. We destroy the planet, exploit its resources, and still hope that Mother Earth will take care of us after all. But this mother can also be cruel and show no mercy – just think of earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. We hope to guide people toward sensual, closer relationships with the Earth, so that they treat her with more appreciation and respect. 

You deepened your relationship with the Earth even more by getting married to her.

A. S.: Yes, we celebrated this wedding in 2008, and ever since feel even more committed to protecting the environment. Our ecosexual weddings at different locations celebrated different elements. At donaufestival in Krems we married the soil. It was a great performance with great participants. Austria was generally quite important to our artistic development. And without Beth I anyway would no longer do any art, she is my muse.

B. S.: She is my muse, too. Annie is crazier than me, she’s my inspiration. I would probably do boring, conventional art without her. And besides, her friends from the porn business are far funnier than my friends from university.

“We embrace the revolutionary tactics of art, music, poetry, humor and sex. We work and play tirelessly for Earth justice and global peace. Bombs hurts.”

Annie, you are a sex-positive feminist pioneer. You fought for the rights of sex workers, for breaking sexuality taboos, and for self-determination. Today, sexual self-determination and body positivity are again important catchwords among young feminists. In social media there are vivid discussions about different shapes of labia as well as menstruation and queer pornography. Is sex-positive feminism a success story?

A. S.: Well, since I’ve been active in the field – 1973, which is really a long time ago – I’ve seen both great progress and great setbacks. In social media, but also on the runways of the New York Fashion Week, we finally can find different shapes of bodies, women with disabilities or of different colors. Companies finally launched products for bigger women, too. Naturally, this does not mean that fat shaming isn’t a huge problem now as before, and the same goes for the topic of abortion in the USA. Hard-won rights are cut back; there are attempts to seize control over women’s bodies.

B. S.: And it is not just the case in our country. We are experiencing a worldwide fascist movement, which aims to put women back in their place when it comes to controlling their bodies. In the US the fight for the right to abortion has practically catapulted back to the 1950s.

A. S.: I’ve also noticed a growing anti-pornography movement once again, the theses of Andrea Dworking are being rediscovered, rights of sex workers attacked. All in all, sex-positive feminists can definitely not just sit back.

The original version of this interview was published in 2019 in the Austrian newspaper Der Standard and has been updated for this edition. Thank you! Author Brigitte Theißl is a journalist and feminist. She lives and works in Vienna.

Bela Borsodi, photographer and artist, inspired us to this article with his book PHYTOPHILE (New York: Dashwood Books, 2019):

Beth Stephens und Annie Sprinkle have created multi-media art projects about love, sex, and queer ecologies together since 2002. Annie was a sex worker from 1973 to 1995 and morphed into a feminist performance artist and sex educator. In 1994, Beth became a professor of sculpture and intermedia at the University of California Santa Cruz, where she still teaches and directs the E.A.R.T.H. Lab. Stephen's and Sprinkle's Wedding to the Earth and the Ecosex Manifesto launched the Ecosex Movement in 2008. 

Ecosex Manifesto