Prof touts 'ecosexuality' as 'environmental activist strategy'

A St. Mary’s College of Maryland professor published a scholarly article exploring how “queer environmentalism” and “ecosexuality” can make environmentalism more appealing.

Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies professor Lauran Whitworth wrote “Goodbye Gauley Mountain, hello eco-camp: Queer environmentalism in the Anthropocene,” a study which seeks to convey the “effectiveness of queer environmental ethics in the Anthropocene, a word increasingly used to describe the anthropogenic destruction of ecosystems that marks our current geological era.” The academic journal Feminist Theory published the article.

“What do ecosexual encounters with nonhuman nature offer current discussions of environmental ethics?” she asks. “Can ecosexuality’s posthumanist tendencies queer our speciesist modes of belonging and foster an environmentalism that is not foundationally anthropocentric nor steeped in ‘reproductive futurism’?”

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“Ecosexuality celebrates the carnal and grotesque, particularly in some of its campiest moments,” Whitworth explains, offering the example that some “wedding performers wear dildos outside their clothing and don costumes that accentuate and exaggerate their genitalia.”

Whitworth describes ecosexuality as “a theatrical environmental sensibility I deem eco-camp,” arguing that “ecosexuality’s campy ecological ethics and their tragi-comic and parodic tone...provides an alternative to the didacticism and moralism that characterise much contemporary environmentalism.”

Since it “elicits confusion, scepticism, and squeamishness from audiences,” she elaborates, ecosexuality has “the potential to disrupt environmental rhetoric per usual.”

Whitworth defines “eco-camp” as a “mode of florid performance, spectacle, and ostentatious sex-positivity” that looks to explore “new forms of relationality between humans and other earthly inhabitants.”

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In a section of the study titled “Queer(ing) environmentalism,” Whitworth argues that previous research on the topic has “often focused on how rhetoric of ‘the natural’ has been used against marginalized groups—indigenous peoples, women, people of colour, and queers,” citing one study that used a “queer ecofeminist lens” to explain “the ways in which queers are feminized, animalized, eroticized, and naturalized in a culture that devalues women, animals, nature, and sexuality.”

To build on that research, Whitworth focuses on two ecosexual performance artists, Elizabeth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle, who she says espouse “interspecies ethics” in a way that makes the movement “open to queers and non-queers alike.”

“The packaging of these ethics in a campy performativity that is a far cry from conventional environmentalism challenges us to consider the possibility of alternative modes of environmental activism,” she asserts. “Thus, this article uses ecosexuality to think through eco-camp with hopes that the latter can be applied outside the LGBTQ community such that Stephens and Sprinkle’s performances become one among many examples of ‘queer’ environmentalism.”

On their website, Whitworth notes, Stephens and Sprinkle give multiple definitions of “ecosexual,” ranging from “a person that finds nature sensual, sexy” or “takes the Earth as their lover” to “an environmental activist strategy.”

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“Whereas some environmentalists expend their energy making human intercourse more earth-friendly” by promoting environmentally-friendly sex items such as chemical-free lubricants and fair trade condoms, Whitworth points out that “many ecosexuals encourage erotic encounters that are not just nature-friendly but with nature itself.”

She explains, at length, one “ecosexual” sexual encounter that Sprinkle had with a redwood tree at Yosemite National Park, as initially reported by Breitbart News.

“I loved the scent of the trunk, like vanilla mixed with soil,” Sprinkle says. “I have a strong memory of coming across a redwood that had fallen over from a storm. I walked around off the trail and peeked at its freshly exposed roots. So soft, so sensuous, so sexy! I had to touch them.”

Stephens, however, asserted in an interview that ecosexuals are “not actually out there humping trees—even though sometimes we will kind of perform that,” explaining that the concept is “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,” Stephens elaborated. “But if you look at a tree as your lover, you’re going to think twice before you cut it down or burn it.”

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St. Mary’s College of Maryland students learned about “contemporary environmental justice issues within our immediate communities” in a spring 2017 class Whitworth taught titled “Topics in Global Environmental Challenges,” which focused on “global environmental justice in the Anthropocene.”

Students were required to do a “multi-part term project” in lieu of a final exam, for which they were asked to “pick an environmental issue or problem and research it throughout the term” before writing a final paper on the topic.

As examples, Whitworth suggested topics such as “environmental racism,” “the Green Movement in Africa,” and “eco-normativity in Western environmental campaigns.” Other topics of interest could include “classism and racism in the Vegan movement,” or even an analysis of the “meat industry in the US or animal ethics.” 

In addition, Whitworth’s Emory University dissertation—“Environmental Eros: From Ecofeminism to Eco-Queer”—examined environmental messaging through the lens of “1970s ecological feminism, the Radical Faeries (ca. 1979 to today), and contemporary ecosexuality,” exploring how each of those movements uses nature imagery to further its “political projects.”

Campus Reform reached out to Whitworth, but did not receive a response. This story will be updated if and when one is received. 

Follow this author on Twitter: @Zach_Petrizzo