From Ecofeminism to Ecosexuality:
Queering the Environmental Movement
“Watersheds come in families; nested levels of intimacy. On the grandest scale the hydrologic web is like all humanity — Serbs, Russians, Koyukon Indians, Amish, the billion lives in the People's Republic of China - it's broadly troubled, but it's hard to know how to help. As you work upstream toward home, you're more closely related. The big river is like your nation, a little out of hand. The lake is your cousin. The creek is your sister. The pond is her child. And, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, you're married to your sink.”
- Michael Parfit, National Geographic in Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water (2002:xi)
Concerns with the environment as well as concerns with social arrangements based on sexuality and gender have spurred a wide variety of social movements. The ecosexual movement is an emerging grassroots social movement that begins at the intersection of environmental and sexuality issues. As a cultural theory, ecosexuality draws from a wide range of scholarly fields including environmental studies, ecofeminism, and queer theory. In this essay, I examine the conceptual antecedents of ecosexuality from a social scientific perspective and show how the ecosexual movement resists dominant modern ideology in a quest for social change and social justice. Questions my essay addresses include: Where did the need for ecosexuality and its practices of love arise from, within cultural discourse? How is ecosexuality meeting these needs, and what added possibilities is this opening up?
First, I describe the core attributes of the modern era critiqued by early environmental social scientists, philosophers, and feminists. These emphasize the dualistic, hierarchical nature of the relationship between humans and the environment in this historical period when the quality of the environment began degrading. During that time, the dominant worldview shifted: initially humans were seen as situated within nature as part of the environment, and eventually they came to be seen as separate from nature and were idealized as masters over the environment. Next, I trace connections between environmental and gender issues through select works from within the intuitive writings of ecofeminism that align with the wider social science project and its scientific methods. These, coupled with insights from within feminist political ecology, dovetail into the comprehensive field of ecogender studies.
Contemporary feminist scholars demonstrate that gender and sexuality are separate but interrelated social constructs. For example the idea of a “heterosexual matrix” - a preordained alignment of sex, gender, and sexuality - became popular during the modern era (Butler 1990). However, the field of ecogender studies does not fully explore the relation between sexuality and gender. I propose to address this problem through the exploration of queer theory and the analysis of social movements through a queer lens. These add an explicit focus to the understanding of sexuality as a fundamental organizing principle of our society and our planetary life.
More specifically, queer theory critiques and challenges the sexual order where heterosexuality is viewed as normal. Queer theorists call this perspective heteronormativity, and observe that variants such as homosexuality are labeled as deviant. A heteronormative view aligns sexuality, biological sex, gender identity, and gender roles, creating a “sex hierarchy” that privileges some while marginalizing others (Rubin 1984). Utilizing a queer lens to examine environmental issues provides a way to better understand the ecosexual movement. Queer theory shines a light on the sexual order as a field of power, and challenges the wider ideology of dualism and hierarchy that organizes the modern era.
Modernity, the Human/Environment Relationship, and Environmental Degradation
Modernity is a historical period that dates back to the 17th century. It is also known as the Age of Enlightenment and is associated with the Scientific Revolution, the French Revolution, as well as the Industrial Revolution. During this period, modern principles of science and philosophy developed that are still largely at work today. For example, this is when Descartes’ Discourse on Method was developed. The Domination of Nature was part of the first wave of critical social thought about environmental problems. Francis Bacon is portrayed as the key scientist/philosopher during the Age of Enlightenment that helped to establish the modern principles of science and a philosophy of human domination over nature (Leiss 1972). In addition to writing about humans dominating nature, Bacon is a pivotal figure in combining science and technology. In his writings, he also reduces nature to instrumental use and production. For example, he emphasizes the need to control what is “disorderly,” chaotic, wild, and dangerous - that is, nature, as these terms are associated with it.
Prior to the modern era, people generally viewed nature as a living organism where everything is united and mutually interdependent. This organic worldview constrained the human use of nature as merely a resource. Along with the Scientific Revolution, people’s general view of the environment shifts to a mechanical view of nature as passive, dead, and inert. The perceived relationship between humans and nature/environment also shifts. The assumption of the unity of opposites between humans and nature/environment, with mutual nourishment and growth as well as mutual destruction and devastation (i.e., a more pagan view of the natural world and animism) is largely replaced with an idea of human’s achieving mastery over nature (i.e., a more Christian notion with the biblical promise of “man” as the lord of the Earth). Such a perspective allows for manipulation, control, and exploitation of the environment for its resources for human use, seemingly without consequences. The domination of nature/environment by humans becomes a powerful ideology in modern society.
The degrading quality of the environmental must be understood in terms of deep-rooted attitudes humans have towards nature. In the 1920’s, philosopher Max Scheler analyzes the relationship between science and the ideology of domination in more concrete terms: science as “knowledge for the sake of domination.” People promote science as a rational and objective way to understand the world/environment thus allowing humans to use it as a tool of power to gain mastery over the world/environment. Science is used to promote and by the beginning of the 20th century is firmly identified with scientific-technological progress. The idea of “value-free” science to rationally control nature for the “good” of people obscures both the environmental and social consequences of pursuing this modern project. Scientific experts actually cast a veil over the lifeworld of nature and everyday human experiences.
During the modern era, “Nature and the relationship of humans to nature, are seen in this intellectualized, rationalized worldview as plastic: humans can mold and reconstruct the natural environment” (Murphy 1994:4). This leads to a mindset of treating pollution and the depletion of resources as inconsequential and promotes intensifying such rationality to achieve mastery of nature. Overall, humans believe in the superiority of their own reason over natural forces and that environmental degradation that may be created can be solved by technological development.
However, in the era of modernity, humans are increasingly moving into a “risk society,” as more and more destructive environmental forces are unleashed by the human modernization process (Beck 1992). The narrative of irony is that rationality and the modernist project were supposed to make humans more certain and secure through our mastery and control of nature. But, we now have a social organization dominated by risks and uncertainty that was created by modernity, complete with toxins in food, nuclear threats, terrorist attacks, and much more. Our highly developed modern institutions can merely attempt to anticipate what cannot be fully predicted as we pass unknown tipping points. A “new species of trouble” develops in the modern era based on fear as well as deep and profound dread of chronic human-created “natural” disasters rather than only acute natural disasters (Erickson 1994).
Ecofeminism, Feminist Political Ecology, and Ecogender Studies
The term “ecofeminism” emerged in the mid-1970s. It was first used in print by French feminist, Françoise d’Eaubonne, in Le Féminisme ou la Mort, whose radical title alludes to the fact that if we don’t respect the sacred feminine nature of the environment, we all perish. Early ecofeminist writings largely begin with a feminist critique of the association of women with nature during the modern era and the devaluing of both by men (Reuther 1975; Daly 1978; Griffin 1980). The dualistic and hierarchical conceptual structures that organize Western culture’s modernist ideas of the world (reinforced by religion, philosophy, and other cultural symbols) make the domination of nature and women seem “natural” (Reuther 1975). With modernity, women are identified with femininity, the body, Earth, sexuality, and flesh whereas men are identified with masculinity, spirit, the sacred, mind, and power. Binaries including reason/emotion, mind/body, culture/nature, heaven/Earth, and man/woman work together to enforce the dualistic system. The modernist structure implies that men have inherent power over women and nature.
Ecofeminism integrates two perspectives in critical theory into a new ecofeminist viewpoint: critical feminism, that emphasizes the history of the consequences of male domination; and, the critical ecological model, that emphasizes the history of consequences of uncontrolled growth linked to capitalism, technology, and progress. These theories link to two popular movements at the time, the women’s movement in the U.S. and the environmental movement. Ecofeminists also critique Francis Bacon as the key figure to establish the modern principles of science and a philosophy of human domination over nature. However, their critique continues with pointing to the history of imagery that associates women with nature and the way women are treated as reflective of the way the environment is treated. Seeing the earth as a nurturing mother in an organic unity view of the world had once created respect for both women and the environment (Merchant 1980).
Conversely, during the Scientific Revolution the domination of both women and nature was sanctioned by the formation of a worldview and a science that reconceptualized reality as a machine rather than a living organism. Both women and nature were now viewed as unruly females that need to be controlled by men: “Digging into the matrices and pockets of earth for metals was like mining the female flesh for pleasure” (Merchant 1980:39). On one hand, environmental sociology takes the position that human anthropocentrism, or the belief that humans are exempt from the environment/biospheric world, is the cause of environmental degradation. On the other, ecofeminists argue that androcentrism, or the belief that masculinity is normative and all things outside are “other,” is the source of environmental problems.
Ecogender studies scholars critique early ecofeminists for attempting to reframe the negative association of women with nature by celebrating it as positive (Banerjee and Bell 2007). Instead, they propose simply rejecting the notion that personality traits are necessarily based on a person’s reproductive and sex anatomy. Some environmental social scientists understand gender as a critical social variable in securing access to resources. From this perspective, women have a particular view of environmental issues not because they have a higher moral authority or superior vision, but because they have often been situated as the mediators who allow men to “transcend” nature to focus on the cultural sphere (Mellor 2000). In other words, women are expected to take care of the everyday physical needs, frequently without recognition or payment.
The social scientific strand of ecofeminism makes connections between and among various systems of oppression - without essentializing those relationships, namely without making them sound “natural” - and seeks to create a critical consciousness concerning modernist technological society. Ecogender studies offer an improved understanding of environment and society as the field recognizes gender as a major organizing principle of human-human and human-environmental relations. This discipline goes beyond anthropocentrism to recognize that some social groups, say “alpha males,” are afforded more privileged positions than others in relation to the environment, including access to resources and protection from pollution.
As the modern era produces a specific kind of normativity for the cultural practices of gender and sexuality, in ecogender studies sexuality is not analytically examined. Ecogender studies would benefit from a conscious, explicit inclusion of sexuality as a fundamental organizing principle of the modern era such as addressed by queer theory. Queer theory pulls apart sexuality from gender as it breaks down binary systems.
Queer Theory: Relating Sex, Gender, and Sexuality
A “heterosexual matrix” - an ideal order between sex, gender, and sexuality - was generated during the modern era (Butler 1990). Not only was gender categorized and expected to follow naturally from one’s biological sex, but the gender order became implicitly heterosexual because it sexualized masculinity and femininity as natural halves that together make a whole. The feminine was placed in a relationship of subordination to be desired by the masculine. Sexual expression became functional to reproduction. By fusing and conflating sexual desire with masculinity and femininity, sexual desire became gendered and gender became sexualized. In other words, man became equated with both masculine and sexually desiring the feminine, with the feminine equated with being female.
In her “charmed circle” versus “outer limits” diagram of sexual hierarchy, Gayle Rubin (1984) illustrates how sexual oppression has become maintained by an imaginary line between good and bad sex. This sexual value system can be represented by a binary hierarchy where “good,” “normal,” and “natural” sexuality is defined as heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive, non-commercial, coupled, relational, within the same generation, and in private. Ideally, no pornography, manufactured objects (e.g., fetish or sex toys), BDSM /kink, or roles other than male and female are involved. This kind of sexual ideology “grants virtue to the dominant groups, and relegates vice to the underprivileged” similar to ideologies of racism (Rubin 1984:283).
Queer theory scholars take sex, gender, sexuality and other identity categories to be arbitrary, unstable, and exclusionary. They perceive identity as fluid, but often related to historical developments such as capitalism. Queer theorists offer a post-structural critique of the discourse of binary oppositions such as gay/straight, hetero/homo, breaking down the normative pairing of masculine as male and feminine as female and problematizing movements based on a fixed identity (Gamson and Moon 2004). Furthermore, queer scholars examine how language patterns shape power.
From the queer theory viewpoint, a dominant modern gender order is built upon the belief that there are two genders - man and woman - each with a corresponding set of behavioral tendencies called masculinity and femininity. A core assumption about gender is that it is performed and fluid. An individual has no true or stable core gender identity. Therefore, “gender” is actually a performance - performing masculinity or femininity. Analyzing the stories of a person born intersexed (i.e., born with ambiguous genitals), Butler proposed “sex is not gender’s biological foundation, but one of its most powerful effects. The category of sex works to naturalize the binary organization of gender by functioning as the seemingly neutral referent of gendered identity” (Corber and Valocchi 2003:8).
From a queer theory perspective, sexuality is also fluid. The concept of queer disrupts the entire notion of an identity based on a fixed sexual orientation or sexual desire.
Rather than setting up categories such as ‘lesbian’ as the basis
of political identities, Queer sought to destabilize the binary
oppositions between men and women and straight and gay.
Such identities were not seen as authentic properties of
individual subjects, but as fluid and shifting, to be adopted
and discarded, played with and subverted, strategically
deployed in differing contexts (Jackson and Scott 1996:15).
Queer theory challenges heteronormativity by denying the differences upon which such modern identities have been categorized and founded. Literary critic and groundbreaking queer scholar Eve Sedgwick (1990:1) argued in Epistemology of the Closet that “an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition.”
Furthermore, queer theorists locate within heterosexuality the seeds of its own demise (Stein and Plummer 1994). From a queer theory perspective, the social regulation of sexual identity suggests that on some level the dominant society knows that there is no natural or biological relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality so it must strongly enforce the belief that there is. The battle against heteronormativity is “part of a broader battle against the tyranny of the normal. . . . The goal of a queer movement would be to remove our bodies and sexualities from a network of normalizing social controls and to create a culture friendly to sexual variation” (Seidman 2003:71).
In recent years, queer theory has exerted a stimulating influence in the study of sexuality. Some contemporary research utilizing queer theory concepts is challenging “the definition of what constitutes a social movement and what ‘counts’ as social change” (Gamson and Moon 2004:59). A valuable cutting edge investigation is the qualitative study of drag queens at a Key West, Florida cabaret (Rupp and Taylor 2003). The queens that were observed used drag “to articulate political ideas that challenge conventional understandings of male and female, gay and straight, to create new collective identities, and to disrupt existing collective identity boundaries” (pp. 212-213). This research can be seen as a case study or empirical example of larger social phenomena that arguably may represent new social movements and even forms of social change. Their study focuses on elements of sexuality, i.e. actively constructing and reconstructing gender and sexual identities within a particular community, and uses the lens of queer theory in their analyses.
Queering Ecogender: Ecosexuality
Ecosexuality is a budding grassroots, transnational social movement that originates at the intersection of environmental and sexual issues. Some definitions of an ecosexual as explained by two women who are the central organizing force of this movement include: “A person who finds nature sensual, sexy” or a “Person who takes the earth as their lover” (Sprinkle and Stephens 2011a). Annie Sprinkle, a feminist former porn star and artist and her partner, Elizabeth Stephens, a college art professor and environmental activist, began staging interactive performance art weddings in 2005 in San Francisco, California in response to the anti-gay marriage movement. In 2008, they extended these weddings to include the Earth - inviting people to join them in their vow to love, honor and cherish the Earth, Sky, and Sea “until death brings us closer together forever.” Elizabeth Stephens explains, “As a strategy to create a more mutual and sustainable relationship with our abused and exploited planet, we are switching the metaphor from ‘Earth as Mother’ to ‘Earth as Lover’” (Sprinkle and Stephens 2011b).
The original structure involved putting on at least one wedding performance each year for seven years (2005-2011). The colors and themes of these weddings are based on the seven chakras, a concept originating in Hindu texts referring to major energy centers in the body. The series moves upward in order, from root chakra to crown chakra, with weddings in San Francisco, Venice, Calgary, Oxford, Ottawa, Altadena, the Appalachian Mountains region of Athens, Ohio, and other locations. The couple aspires to make the environmental movement more “sexy, fun, and diverse.” They promote education, with events such as the ecosex symposium, and activism, with strategies for earth justice such as protecting the Appalachian Mountains from mountain top removal (MTR), a style of coal mining that’s especially degrading to surrounding ecosystems. Elizabeth Stephens’ documentary film, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story was released in 2013. As Sprinkle and Stephens explain:
[Our] goal is to begin mobilizing the gay, lesbian, bi, trans, inter- and
eventually eco to stand up against environmental injustice everywhere. As
Beth says in the film, “Gays and Lesbians can live without getting married,
but they won’t survive unless they have drinking water and clean air to
In Fear of a Queer Planet, Michael Warner (1993:x-xi) claims that “the sexual order blends with a wide range of institutions and social ideology, so that to challenge the sexual order is sooner or later to encounter those other institutions as problems.” Sprinkle and Stephens began by challenging the sexual order that privileges heterosexual relationships, in part through state recognition of marriage, with a series of performance art weddings. Shortly thereafter, they incorporated the environment. Their strategy resonated globally as people continue to join the movement and request additional performance art weddings in various locations with different environmental themes beyond the initial seven-year plan. Graham Bell Tornado wrote and performed a homily during the performance art Black Wedding to the Coal in Gijon, Spain. The Boda Negra con el Carbon ceremony was intense with echoes from many of the conceptual antecedents of ecosexuality discussed in this essay. Here this homily is reported in its entirety.
“We are gathered here today to celebrate the Black Wedding to the coal of Beth and Annie, two ecosexual human beings- eco-eco eco-eco-sexuales . . .
Coal, symbol of Nature, of mountains, rivers, oceans, the sky…
A Natural element which has been perverted by humans, ripped from the entrails of the Earth like a child from the womb of its mother.
Coal played an important role in the beginning of our age of destruction, it powered the industrial revolution.
We thank coal for the energy which lights up the darkness of the night. Thank you coal, coal, coal . . .
But there is also a dark history of coal — deaths in the mines, pollution. It played a significant role in the fabrication of our age of individualism, consumerism and Neo-liberalism and it forms part of our ‘Hysteria.’
Hysteria is the feminist version of history, the queer version, the version of indigenous peoples who fight against Neoliberalism and its history of domination because this history (the official one) is nothing more than a fairy tale written by the winners.
But this wedding is evolutionary, revolutionary because not only does it celebrate the love of these two women but it also celebrates the love which is Ecosexuality. Eco-eco-eco-eco-eco-eco-eco-sexuality.
A sexuality which includes heterosexuality, trans-marica-bollo (trans:queer) and goes beyond the prison of our bodies, a post-ethical sexuality which expands that love to include the natural elements, water, fire, earth and air, a sexuality which returns us to our origins.
We are animals, we form a part of the Earth. This wedding is a celebration of this love for the earth, and for its minerals which form part of our bodies and are the motor which drives our society.
Is there any son or daughter of the bitch Reason (hijo de la gran puta razon) who objects to this union?” (Sprinkle and Stephens 2011a).
The ecosexual movement is an emerging grassroots social movement whose production within cultural discourse begins where sexuality and environmental issues overlap. Emphasizing the queer perspectives proposed by this social movement provides a perfect opportunity to gain an understanding of how a particular historical ideology set up the underpinnings of social problems in seemingly disparate fields such as the environment and sexuality. Investigating the ecosexual movement can also shed light on developing resistance to a dominant ideology. This opens up possibilities for new social formations and more sustainable horizontal alliances among marginalized groups. These are key to overcoming a myriad of social problems and achieving social change. In the case of ecosexuality, this social change alternatively values diversity and inclusion - both personal and planetary.
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