Eyes closed, I sat cross-legged on a pillow on the floor of a downtown D.C. dance studio as a man I’d just met delicately brushed a rosebud along the side of my face. My skin tingled as I noticed how similar the petals felt to actual human touch.
Did this count as an ecosexual act? It was hard to tell what it was. Though I enjoyed the experience, I was glad that rose was there as a mediator and that a stranger wasn’t actually caressing my face.
This rose ritual was part of a puja, or Hindu adoration ceremony, that I’d signed up for because the woman running it identified as ecosexual — and I was on a quest to understand this fringe environmental movement. I’d heard about the performance artists who’d staged weddings to the earth, but I didn’t totally understand how people were incorporating nature into their love lives.
What is ecosexuality? And where is the earth registered?
To some, calling themselves ecosexual is a way of signaling their environmental activism or beliefs. To others, it’s a sexual identity meaning they derive pleasure or a sense of connection from being in nature. Still others might gladly attend an earth wedding but eschew the “ecosexual” label.
But before we dig in too deep, let’s start by taking a slow, deep breath, savoring the fresh air. Crack a window or step outside if you need to.
Yes, appreciating the wind, air and sky — by doing something as simple as yogic breathing or as daring as running naked — can all be part of ecosexuality.
Humans have a long history of honoring our bond with the natural world. In the Middle Ages, for instance, some Venetians used to symbolically “marry” the sea. But as a dimension of sexual identity, ecosexuality is a fairly new term. According to Jennifer Reed, a sociology PhD student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, who’s writing her dissertation on ecosexuality, the word started appearing in online dating profiles in the late 1990s. Back then, it was a way for daters to communicate that protecting the earth is so important that they want a partner who also cares about the environment.
Nevertheless, ecosexuals have found one another and begun to form a community. In 2008, Beth Stephens and her partner, Annie Sprinkle, started holding weddings where they would symbolically get married to the earth, the sky, the sea, the sun or other natural elements in front of an audience. The weddings were essentially performance-art pieces meant to call attention to humans’ interdependent relationship with the earth. In one such ceremony, Stephens and Sprinkle walked down the aisle in elaborate green costumes. Dancers, musicians and spoken-word poets used art to convey humans’ connection to the planet. And yes, there was cake.
The weddings were also a way to respond to opponents of same-sex marriage who thought, “If you let gay people get married, they’ll marry anything,” said Stephens, who’s chair of the art department at the University of California at Santa Cruz, summarizing the criticism of the time. Stephens and Sprinkle, who’s an artist and sexologist, responded to that fear by saying: “Okay, we’ll marry the earth.”
It was also a positive form of environmental activism, something lighter and brighter than the doom and gloom often associated with climate change. “So much of the environmental stuff is very apocalyptic, which is understandable, but that shuts people down, too,” Reed said. Weddings, on the other hand, offer a chance to celebrate a hopeful vision of the relationship between humanity and nature.
“We felt as environmentalists, we needed to change the way people looked at the earth,” Stephens said in a phone interview. “We used the wedding as a way to show our love for the earth, just as humans use weddings to show their love for each other.” Rather than categorize ecosexuality as a form of protest, Stephens called it “a movement of attraction.” Instead of envisioning the earth as a mother who will never forsake her children, she and Sprinkle encourage people to see the earth as a lover who could leave if you don’t treat her right.
They have conducted more than 50 ecosexual weddings in the past decade all over the world, exchanging rings and vows such as, “Do you promise to love, honor and breathe in the sky for as long as you shall live?” In a video showcasing clips from various ceremonies, Sprinkle breathes in deeply before saying, “I do.”
In another wedding clip, an officiant asks, “Do you promise to be careful in caring” — the officiant pauses dramatically — “about your water consumption?” Stephens and Sprinkle wait for the guests’ laughter to subside before responding: “I dooooo.” Or was that an “I dewwwww”? (The couple has a penchant for puns; they frequently refer to themselves as “pollen-amorous.”)
Stephens and Sprinkle do have a list of 25 ways to “make love” to the earth, several of which are things many of us already do. For instance: Spend time with her. Smell her. Admire her views often. Like most sexualities these days, ecosexuality exists on a spectrum. Much like the Kinsey scale depicting the range from heterosexuality to homosexuality, Stephens and Sprinkle have a 1-to-6 scale to measure “How ecosexual are you?” A person need not fornicate with foliage to identify. They have created a chart that lists a few dozen ecosexual acts, among them: mud wrestling, fire walking and “moon communion.” (My experience of having my cheek caressed with a rosebud, by the way, might be more accurately described as “ecosensual.”)
Stephens and Sprinkle estimate that around 50,000 people worldwide identify as ecosexual to some degree. Not every committed environmentalist is eager to take up the ecosexual label. Reed, who does identify as ecosexual, is holding a wedding on UNLV’s campus for Earth Day that will be like Stephens and Sprinkle’s. She says student activists were eager to attend the wedding and offer support. When I emailed a student about the event, she noted that she wants to “pledge myself to the continued initiative of keeping our planet beautiful for the next generation to explore.” But she does not identify as ecosexual and declined to be interviewed.
What makes the term so scary? For starters, the movement is young, obscure and often viewed as radical. News coverage tends to be prurient, with headlines such as “Ecosexuals believe having sex with the Earth could save it.”
But giggling about humans having sex with nature misses the point.
“Ecosexuality is less of an orientation or a fetish or an identity than it is a worldview,” Stefanie Iris Weiss, author of “Eco-Sex: Go Green Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable,” said in a phone interview.
Weiss’s brand of ecosexuality focuses on the products adults use during sexual activity and whether they’re good for our bodies and good for the earth. (For example, some types of personal lubricants and sex toys contain hormone-disrupting chemicals.)
Her definition of ecosexuality is expansive. Standing on a beach and feeling the sand or the water rush over your feet would qualify as an ecosexual act. So would sitting under a tree and meditating, or smelling fresh air and flowers.
“It’s not necessarily about having sex with or ... even necessarily having an erotic pang ... but just a feeling of pleasure and happiness and joy,” Weiss said. “You’re recognizing that this makes your body feel good.”
By that definition, there are a lot of ecosexuals out there.