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Skinny Dipping for the Environment


9 Minute Read

Annie Sprinkle, a golden era porn star cum environmental activist, and her partner, Beth Stephens, a queer artist/activist, and professor, have always been all about sex, sharing their enthusiasm publically. Now, as ecosexuals, they’re skinny dipping for the environment. Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure that they directed and produced, is a documentary about water which conveys its message through the ecosexual gaze. Together, Sprinkle and Stephens, with their art, are shifting the metaphor “Earth as Mother” to “Earth as Lover.” They’ve married the Earth, Sky, Sea, Moon, Appalachian Mountains, the Sun, and other non-human entities in nine different countries. Experiencing nature (human and non-human) as sensual and erotic, they aim to make the conservation movement sexy, pleasurable, and diverse. Their partnership reflects a merging of concerns about the environment, broadening definitions of sexuality, and an expansion of radical feminist art.

From tree hugging to dirty sex—orgasmic mud baths for example—the ecosexual approach to battling climate change is more fun and maybe even more effective than mainstream, dry-mouthed techniques. Sprinkle and Stephens, the co-creators of the ecosexual movement, which teaches that humans aren’t separate from, but are part of nature, use ecosexuality as a platform for environmental discourse. “Ecosexuality is a new sexual identity, an environmental activist strategy, and an expanded concept of what sex is (and can be) in our culture. . . . What most ecosexuals have in common is a love, passion, and interest in the well-being of the Earth, and they find “nature” sensually pleasurable… .” Today they estimate 12,000 to 50,000 people identify as ecosexuals. The relationship between Annie and Beth, playful and sexual throughout, provides the medium to appreciate the erotic interplay between humans and nature embraced by ecosexuality. Their sensuality thrives in the watery milieus of Water Makes Us Wet.

The subject matter of the film is significant, yet there’s plenty of opportunities to smile and even laugh. Social issues are presented in a playful, performative and humorous way. Sprinkle and Stephens, are free spirits, which also characterizes the ecosexual movement. Working collaboratively with E.A.R.T.H. Lab, a nomadic institute situated in the University of Santa Cruz (UCSC) Arts Division with a mission to create new forms of environmental art, conduct research, develop theory, and produce happenings, Stephens, Sprinkle and their dog, Butch, embark on a performance art journey in their “E.A.R.T.H. Lab mobile Unit” around California, investigating the pleasures and politics of water. As viewers, we’re taken along for the ride. Sprinkle, about to turn 65 and be a full-on senior citizen, and Stephens, 58, in keeping with their past, briefly appear naked in the film, feeling that it was important to be naked older women countering a taboo.

Boston Performance, Calderwood Pavilion, November 13, 2009
Boston Performance, Calderwood Pavilion, November 13, 2009

This documentary is part of their film trilogy to raise awareness about the environment. In Goodbye Gauley Mountain—An Ecosexual Love Story (GGM) (distributed by Kino Lorber), they raise performance art hell in West Virginia to help save the region from mountaintop removal destruction, which climaxes with their wedding to the Appalachian Mountains.

A porn actress and pleasure activist in the 1970s and 1980s, Annie Sprinkle was a key player in the sex-positive feminist movement, her art projects a vehicle for promoting sex education and equal rights. Now, an ecosexual, she’s enlarged the scope of her efforts, approaching her mission with the enthusiasm with which she embraced her life as a porn star and pleasure activist. “My work is still very much about sex, and I’ve done work about sex for almost five decades. Just that now my ecosexuality and love for the Earth comes into play.”

Beth Stephens, her partner, and collaborator for eighteen years, realized her connection to nature growing up in West Virginia, spitting distance from Gauley Mountain. An interdisciplinary artist and activist, she’s explored themes of sexuality, gender, queerness, and feminism through art since the eighties. Currently, a professor, Chair of the UCSC Art Department, and founding director of the E.A.R.T.H. Lab, Stephens’ visual art, performance pieces, and films, have been shown extensively, nationally and internationally.

Initially, I didn’t take ecosexuality seriously, but I’ve learned it can be very serious and may be a surprisingly successful conduit to express crucial messages about the natural world. The environmental ethic suggests that survival requires a mutual relationship of respect and care between humans and the Earth. Who can argue with that? (See Sexecology.org)

“Why water?” I asked.

Living in California after their wedding to the Earth, the state was experiencing a severe drought.

“So not having water, being on water restrictions, and reading about places where over 100,000 people don’t have good drinking water, like the central valley in California, we got worried. We just love water. Plus we depend upon it for life.”

To some extent, the water problems of California provide a paradigm for water crises occurring elsewhere in the United States and globally. The U.S. is technically water-rich; however our usage is outpacing our resources. For the past few years, the effects of serious drought have been extensive throughout the west—not just in California.

In 2016, when Sprinkle and Stephens set out on their road trip, the reservoirs, rivers, and aquifers in California had dried up. Narrated by the Earth, Water Makes Us Wet is informative, funny and engaging—and focal.

What started their quest? The drought was a factor, but it was a clogged toilet at home that made them ask, “Where does it all go?”, leading to their investigation into what happens to San Francisco’s wastewater. The education they received was the impetus for their journey. Blending the scientific with the spiritual, their exploration into the ways of water include visits to research labs and field stations, conversations with a wildlife biologist and a Director of Public Works, and meetings with others of a more spiritual bend.

At Big Sur they swam in the perennial stream, Big Creek. “When you spend a lot of time in nature you don’t need to know the name of the thing,” their biologist guide, said. “You just need to know its place in the environment, stop talking all the time, see where your mind goes”—an ecosexual message.

A visit to Annie’s family home and pool where they stop to swim provides the opportunity to share details about the water burden associated with pools. Annie gave her first blow job in this pool which is why she picked the name Sprinkle when she got into the sex industry—she loved it wet. Here, Annie and Beth cavort naked talking about water magic, against the backdrop of information about the burden of the more than 1.2 million residential pools in California, 250,000 in Los Angeles County. Thirty-thousand gallons are required to fill most pools: California water usage varies according to the socioeconomics of a region. For example, the daily average for residents of Compton—a community with few pools and below average median incomes—is 106 gallons, compared with Beverly Hills where residents average 284 gallons.

Informational screenshots about the ocean are sobering, letting us know the consequences of greenhouse gases on ocean waters, and that between 1970 and 2012 there’s been almost a 50 percent decline in marine life populations. Poignant and humorous images, such as their communication with elephant seals, capture the sexuality omnipresent in nature.

In the mountains east of Los Angeles, Stephens and Sprinkle learn how Nestle is mining water off the mountain, depleting the water supply, endangering more than half a dozen animal species, and creating a shortage for people living there.

Annie succumbs to eating a Big Mac that she says, “is more embarrassing than making porn,” which never embarrassed her. This moment, the film’s editor, Keith Wilson feels, reflects the complicated relationship many have to water and consumerism, to food and humor, and our ability to handle and juggle that complexity. Annie’s downfall provides the opportunity to explore the relationship between water and beef, resulting in a trip to stockyards: 1799 gallons of water are needed to make one pound of beef in California. California Feedlots

One of the last places visited is Lake Tenaya, where Annie’s dad had wanted his ashes sprinkled. Tenaya is an alpine lake in Yosemite National Park, and problems associated with high visitor use have been increasing, information that would have been good to include. This is one of the scenes which best reflects the sensuality of their relationship with nature, and an understanding of ecosexuality.

The interplay of the sexual with the ecological, the personal and the informational, the mixing of levity with significance, is successful. At the end of the film Annie and Beth “crash” the San Francisco Pride Parade, add an “E” to GLBTQI, reflecting the integration of sexuality and ecology, and the connection to their earlier lives.

To respect, love and be kind to the environment, to realize that we are part of a beautiful ecological cycle and every move counts—are ecosexual messages delivered by Sprinkle and Stephens, by the experts they meet, and the photography which reinforces the magical dynamics of nature. Screenshots of facts are effective, as are visuals such as endless shelves of bottled water and the stockyards. However, depending on the target audience, moments such as the baptism of a childhood friend, Beth learning how to use a netipot, or the extent of time spent at the San Francisco parade, were distracting.

Keith Wilson, who’d edited Goodbye Gauley Mountain, also edited Water Makes Us Wet: An Ecosexual Adventure, with assistance from Jordan Freeman, Sprinkle and Stephens. Wilson was the cinematographer for most scenes and arranged a number of interviews. The second camera was managed by Jordan Freeman, who also did the aerial shots. Footage of Big Creek, Sagehen, and Yosemite was shot by Seth Temple Andrews. Water Makes Us Wet, distributed by Juno Films (junofilms.com), runs 80 minutes, premiered in documenta 14, and was shown in New York City at several venues, including the Museum of Modern Art. It is being shown at the British Film Institute in London, March 23 at 8pm.

What’s next for Stephens and Sprinkle? In spite of their ages, they aren’t slowing down. “As the Earth is our love, we are in an intergenerational relationship with the Earth. We are just a few decades old. The Earth is millions of years old. We are very young by these standards.”

And, they are completing a book, Assuming the Ecosexual Position, University of Minnesota Press, chronicling their ongoing art collaboration and exploring their ecosexual work, combining sex and gender activism with environmental activism. To quote Annie, “We expect the book to make a big splash in the academic world.”

Water Makes Us Wet | BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival 2019

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