Last week, I sat down with a legend – a porn legend. Annie Sprinkle, sex worker, porn actress, performance artist and activist, has been making performances, films, and visual art for decades, educating her audiences about female sexuality and the political power of pleasure. Her work has played an impactful role in the history of feminism and the heated debates around pornography.
But recently, like other famously outspoken feminists – Germaine Greer, Vivienne Westwood, and Isabella Rossellini – Sprinkle’s work has turned eco-friendly, or to use a more appropriate term, ecosexual. Beth Stephens, artist, educator, and Sprinkle’s romantic partner and collaborator for the past 13 years, is the leader of their current project – a film about the devastating effects of mountaintop removal in Stephens’ homeland of West Virginia. Their film, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, premiered at the Sheffield Doc/Fest and the East End Film Festival this month. Over a lovely and lengthy brunch, Stephens and Sprinkle talked to me about their new film, their sensual relationship with the Earth, and their loving relationship with feminism.
LBH: I’m going to rewind a bit first – to 1989. Annie, Post-Porn Modernist was probably your most famous piece in the UK – do you consider that show feminist?
AS: Absolutely. 100%. I was trying to say that porn was a feminist issue, that you could make feminist porn. I did this show from 1989-1994. Post-Porn Modernist was a well-known piece, but the only place in England I did it was in Newcastle. I performed once at the ICA, but I had to censor the shit out of everything. Porn was illegal here, so I wasn’t able to do my shows. Post-Porn Modernist was my first one-woman show, and I was kind of like the first sex worker to do performance art, so it was hotly debated – is it art or is it porn? People were trying to figure out, can you be a sex worker and be a feminist? Can you be a pornographer and a feminist?
LBH: Do you feel like the work was accepted by the feminist movement at the time? I think what was so interesting about this piece is that it was happening at this incredibly rich moment in feminist history, where the issue of porn created a number of divergent feminist factions.
BS: It was accepted by the pro-porn movement, I can tell you that.
AS: I was never against the anti-porn feminists. I welcomed them, I welcomed the debate, I loved them. But they would often protest, shut things down. And they didn’t play fair – they wouldn’t even be in the same room with me, or have a discussion with me. Andrea Dworkin was the face of anti-porn feminist movement. I heard her speak and she gave a very impassioned speech. I disagreed with 75% but the other 25% was, yeah, there are crazy serial killers murdering women and children in their garages and videotaping it. Yes, we share that concern. But then she was speaking for me, that I was a victim, and I’m like, no, you’ve got that wrong. But I say we needed to have this conversation, and I was at the frontlines of that debate.
But you know what, when I was younger I wasn’t a feminist because I thought, if feminists were anti-porn, then I wasn’t feminist. It wasn’t until someone came up with the term ‘sex-positive feminist’ that I said, ok I can identify. It gave a doorway for sex-workers, for all the women who weren’t anti-porn, to enter, and claim the feminist identity. That term gave me a place. That’s what we’re trying to do with ecosex. We’re trying to open the door for those who don’t feel they fit into the debate. The fact that there’s been no other queer, environmetalist film – that we know of yet – [means] there’s been no place.
LBH: Ok, so to the present day – can you tell me what ‘ecosexuality’ is?
AS: Ecosex is a sexual identity, in a way. Sexocology is the field of ecosexual art, theory, practice, and activism. In LoveArt Lab [a series of art and performance works about love] we performed 18 or 19 performance art weddings. In the first weddings we did, we married each other and the community. But in the 4th one, we married the Earth. The next day we were changed people. We made vows to love, honor and cherish the Earth in front of 400 people. Everyone there who wanted to also took the vows. We were thinking, how we can we care for our lover, Earth?
BS: What was really incredible about our green wedding is this: I was the chair of the Art Department of Santa Cruz (University of California) and we were able to get a lot of funding (from the University) to launch this wedding. The Chancellor of our university was there, a lot of sex workers, a lot of my students – [these weddings] are huge community building events, pedagogical events, political events. This marriage actually took place on the day that Prop 8 was overturned. Annie and I are of the position that if human beings can get all these rights through the act of marriage, why can’t the Earth get these rights too? The Earth is being destroyed.
AS: We teach these ecosexual workshops, where we teach people to connect sensually with the Earth. The pleasure, the erotic, sensual pleasure of just laying in the sun. Everything is alive, and everything is sexual. There is sex going on all around us in nature. So we put on these ecosexual eyes in the workshop and it really expands what sex is, which is a very feminist issue.
BS: It’s hugely empowering. Because women are really taught what sex is, how to have sex, and how to have the correct kind of sex. But sex can be anything you want it to be.
LBH: How do feminism and sexecology come together? How does your feminist politics inform the ecological politics of what you’re doing?
AS: It’s a feminist issue because people are raping, abusing, and disrespecting their mother. Our basic idea is instead of imagining the Earth as a mother – because within this metaphor, she is old, exploited, pissed off, and being treated like shit– we want to change this maternal archetype to lover.
BS: I think it’s a feminist issue because– I’m going to essentalise a little bit here – whether it’s biological or sociological, women have been left to take care of the children, and left to take care of each other. Free domestic labour is really about taking care of everyone else. And I think feminists have turned that care-taking into a theoretical position where women are more likely to be concerned about the good of the whole, rather than the promotion of individuals to dominate the whole. Feminists can definitely be bitchy or egocentric, which I actually think is great – when men are that way, they’re heroes; when women are that way, they’re put down. There is a component of individuality [about that bitchiness or egocentrism], but even the most individualist feminist thinkers are systems-thinkers, thinking about the whole. What Annie and I are trying to do is to knock down some of these binaries: [gender and sexuality binaries, but also those] between nature and culture, human and non-human, source and resource.
LBH: Can you tell me more about the film? Like most of your work, the film seems political, but also silly and warm. What is this film about for you?
BS: In Appalachia, 500 mountaintops have been removed through mountaintop removal. The Appalachian Mountains are the 2nd most bio-diverse region in the Western Hemisphere, and they’re being devastated. We’re really trying to garner empathy for the Earth [through this film]. There really is an interesting movement in feminist thought around our current geological age, which is an age caused by man-made destruction. So what we’re trying to do with the ecosexual movement is make it more sexy, fun and diverse. But we’re also trying to engage queer people and women. I think women need to mobilise and start thinking about the entire social body, which, like it or not, we’re responsible for.
AS: The environmental movement has a certain image of either the Sierra Club, this kind of conservative and white [organisation], and then the tree-hugger version, which is actually very heterosexual. We adore them all, but where is the place for the queers, the drag queens, the sex workers, the art students, the people of colour?
LBH: What do you feel are the biggest challenges for women today?
AS: I feel the movements I’ve been a part of are starting to eat their own, and kill their parents. For example, the trans movement now is eating their own. Some of these young people are anti-drag, and attacking Ru Paul, who’s done so much for the trans community.
BS: I encounter a lot of young women who don’t want to associate with ‘feminism’. But I think we’re at this moment where we really need to regroup, re-imagine and redefine what the issues we want to address are. And that’s what we’re doing through ecosexuality. I just heard Germaine Greer say, “Feminism has not happened yet”. That is so radical – and we completely agree.