How do settler colonialism, control of women’s and differently gendered bodies, sex, industry, pollution—but also pleasure, love, care, desire, bodily autonomy, and survival—cleave together and apart in the inland wetland of Windermere Basin park? Starting with this question, this article explores my own attraction to this tiny place in postindustrial and settler colonial Hamilton, Ontario. I am curious about what it can teach us about the complex entanglements of these things, and the toxic desires that are both enabled and foreclosed by the relations that gather here. In the first section, I briefly rehearse the basin’s toxic history and, guided by Audre Lorde’s definition of erotics and Catriona Sandilands formative work on queer ecologies, my own desirous attachments to the life it nonetheless sustains. The next section reveals how, in the context of settler colonialism and climate catastrophe, these erotics are queerly tangled in questions of more-than-human gender, sex, and reproduction, too, in ways that invite a capacious and multivalent understanding of reproductive justice. The final section examines the performance art of white settler ecosexuals Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, but sets this alongside a performance by Vanessa Dion Fletcher at Windermere, in order to insist on a version of ecosexual erotics that, while joyous, remains imbricated in fraught histories, complicity, and an inalienable attention to what Michif scholar Max Liboiron parses as “differences and obligations.” Taking a cue from settler feminist artist and scholar Lindsay Kelley, I refer to this as “bad ecosex.” In its refusal of purity, bad ecosex holds the trouble of contemporary ecological relations together with the pleasurable power of erotics to build a politics of change grounded in feeling deeply.
Introduction: Against Analogy
“Can somebody be sure to get a photo of me with the steel factories in the background?” asked Lenape and Potawatomi performance artist Vanessa Dion Fletcher as she removed the speculum from her vagina. She had placed a mat down on the gravel and patchy grass that covered the viewing platform next to the creek that flows into Windermere Basin, in order to show us her cervix. The angle of the morning sun made it hard to see much of Vanessa’s interior, but a few of us gave it a try. Afterward, Vanessa distributed a speculum to each of us for practice on ourselves, on our own time. The performance was part of a workshop on toxic love: using various practice-based methods, a group of about twenty of us was down on the shores of this postindustrial wetland to explore the queer connections between toxic waters, bodies, and our myriad desires. Since we were testing various water samples as part of our workshop activities anyway, we added a jar of Vanessa’s bodily waters, retrieved from the speculum and slightly diluted, to the lineup.
Our workshop was joyous in many ways. We laughed and made bad jokes as we read the results from the various sampling kits: the creek was definitely not pregnant, but the results of the drug test we administered were ambiguous; Vanessa’s cervix water was high in turbidity but the pH balance was okay. But Vanessa also told us that when considering what to perform at our workshop, she was thinking about the ways that the sexual and reproductive bodies of Indigenous women had been stolen from them. While celebrating her body and her sexual being, Vanessa’s performance also indexed these thefts that have occurred through so many means: Canada’s residential school systems, the high numbers of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls in Canada,1 forced sterilization programs that remained in effect until the 1970s,2 and imposition of settler colonial ideals of family and sexuality.3 These thefts are also connected to the environmental pollution in places like Windermere, whose brunt Indigenous women had borne disproportionately.4
While all of these issues are connected, sampling Vanessa’s bodily waters alongside those of the basin was not an act of analogy (as in, “Vanessa’s body is like this body of water”). Instead, it was a way to gather various bodies and waters, including our own, into a common frame in order to trace their shared and divergent conditions of possibility: how do settler colonialism, control of women’s and differently gendered bodies, sex, jobs, industry, pollution—but also pleasure, love, care, desire, bodily autonomy, and survival—cleave together and apart in these wetlands?
Starting with this question, what follows is an exploration of my own attraction to this tiny place—Windermere Basin Park. As a white settler who grew up alongside these waters, I am curious about what this place can teach me about the complex entanglements of those issues, and the toxic desires that are both enabled and foreclosed by the relations that gather here. In the first section, I briefly rehearse the basin’s toxic history and, guided by Audre Lorde’s definition of erotics and Catriona Sandilands formative work on queer ecologies, my own desirous attachments to the life it nonetheless sustains. The next section reveals how, in the context of settler colonialism and climate catastrophe, these erotics are queerly tangled in questions of more-than-human gender, sex, and reproduction, too, in ways that invite a capacious and multivalent understanding of reproductive justice. The final section examines the performance art of white settler ecosexuals Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, but sets this alongside Vanessa Dion Fletcher’s Windermere Basin performance, in order to insist on a version of ecosexual erotics that, while joyous, remains imbricated in fraught histories, complicity, and an inalienable attention to what Michif scholar Max Liboiron parses as “differences and obligations.” Taking a cue from feminist artist and scholar Lindsay Kelley, I refer to this as “bad ecosex.” In its refusal of purity, bad ecosex holds the trouble of contemporary ecological relations together with the pleasurable power of erotics to build a politics of change grounded in feeling deeply.
Desiring Windermere Basin
It is now early October. As I shut the car door and step out onto the gravel, I notice the used condom at my feet. Places like this have long served as settings for unsanctioned desires: unmarried sex, queer sex, paid-for sex. I take a photo of this morning-after souvenir and head out to the viewing platform.
Windermere Basin is located at the tip of Hamilton Harbour, in Southwestern Ontario. If you get in your car and drive from Toronto to Niagara Falls—the latter made famous as much for its heart-shaped honeymoon hotel beds as for its tumbling natural wonder—about halfway through the journey you will cross the Skyway Bridge, in Hamilton. From this vantage point, you will glimpse the gray rumpled sheet of Oniatarí:io (Kanie’keha) / Niigani-gichigami (Anishinaabemowin) / Lake Ontario (English) on your left, while Hamilton’s infamous skyline will open up to your right. Across Hamilton Harbour the sailboats and greenways near the Desjardins Canal will be overshadowed by the lake freighters, shipping ports, and the spectacle of the belching steel mills (still spitting fire long after their twentieth-century heyday) that make up the east-end view. The basin is almost under the bridge, in the southwest armpit of the lake. It’s easy to miss. If you see the eight-story-high ball (painted to look like the globe) that collects methane from the Woodward Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant, then you’ve already gone too far. If you take the Eastport Drive exit, though, and pull into the lot that announces this small park, now managed by the Hamilton Waterfront Trust, you might find me at the end of the walking path that leads out to the concrete platform (the same platform where Vanessa asked us to look at her cervix) that overlooks the basin.
It is difficult to imagine that this place was once a natural wetland and mudflat. Not that long ago, the Windermere arm had been part of the ecotone of land and freshwater used mostly by Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee people as seasonal hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds prior to and then concurrent with early colonization.5 As population growth and massive industrialization followed, major infilling of lands included the construction of a forty-hectare basin in 1954. Windermere subsequently was choked by both sediment from Red Hill Creek (which also carries overflow of urban sewage destined for the Woodward Avenue Wastewater Treatment Facility just over the road) and heavy industrial deposits from Canada’s biggest steel industry on its other flank. By the 1980s these waters were shouldering a significant burden borne of industrial desires; the world was hot for steel, but for the basin, it was almost too much to bear. In eventual recognition of the environmental disaster nestled in this corner of the lake, Hamilton Harbour was designated as an “Area of Concern” by the Great Lakes Management Plan, with Windermere singled out as a particular worry. Its sediment contained on average nineteen times the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) of anywhere else in Lake Ontario. It was called an “ugly and polluted cesspool,” deemed “beyond repair.”6
But today, the field is bursting with goldenrod and a fish jumps impossibly high from the creek waters. The basin is located on a seasonal bird migration path, as a hawk’s shadow moving across the scraggly weeds reminds me. Despite its contamination, Windermere is visited by numerous rare bird species. Many other plants and animals—milkweed, fish, bees, coyotes—can also thrive here. This is partly why, in 2002, Hamilton launched a 22-million-dollar remediation plan to restore part of the basin to marshland. Windermere Basin is now, two decades later, one of Canada’s largest inland coastal wetlands. Three small artificial islands in the inner basin serve as wildlife habitat, while on this side of the creek, you will find swallow boxes, some informational signage, the parking lot, and the platform.
My skin is alive. I am in a strange kind of love with this place. And by “in love,” I mean, I am in a heady, breathless, desirous, erotic relation with it. Walking along the gravel track I inhale the myriad intimacies in this swampy soup of soil, wet, and air. There is something dirty and sexy and a bit unkempt about Windermere—all that squishy mud and panting vegetation sticking to your palms and up your nostrils. When Audre Lorde wrote about the “uses of the erotic” in 1978, arguing for the erotic as a source of power, multispecies desire was not an obvious part of her proposition. Yet, here at Windemere, it is impossible not to make the connection between her theorization of the erotic and the sensual feelings I experience. Lorde describes the erotic as an acknowledgment and opening to our capacity to “acutely and fully” feel, in an embodied and sensuous way, everything we are doing.7 Such feeling comes from a “deep participation” that “cannot be felt secondhand.”8 Lorde’s examples include being with her lovers, but also writing poetry or painting a fence. It is no stretch (and in line with much of Lorde’s poetry and prose) to extend this “deep participation,” then, to a multispecies experience of a specific time and place.9 Moreover, as queer ecologies scholar Catriona Sandilands noted almost two decades ago, we need “to take seriously the argument that the ecological crisis is, even in a small part, a problem of desire”—that is, desire’s management, containment, erasure. Taking this seriously would require us to counter the imaginary of environmentalism that suggests it not only is short on pleasure but may (in an ethics of restraint) in fact oppose it. In response to this, Sandilands notes that “desire for, and pleasure in, the tactile presences of the Other has the potential to reorient sexuality away from both ecologically and sexually destructive relations.”10 Both Lorde and Sandilands express something that I can only understand because, in places like Windermere, I have become alive with it: that consciously opening to a deeply felt relation to another is a source of intense pleasure, but also a bridge to honest understanding and political action.
With Lorde and Sandilands as my guides, then, I give myself over to the deep embodied pleasures I feel here “in the tactile presences of the Other,” as the polite Canadian sun warms the back of my shoulders. I no longer live in Hamilton—I have been moving in and out of this city my whole life, and in 2015 I left (most likely) for good. Much of my family still lives in Southern Ontario, though, so when I visit, I spend time here. I come here for walks with my friends and my kids. I have organized workshops—such as the one where Vanessa tried to show us her cervix—and fieldtrips here. I film the water, record sounds, and watch the clouds.
I am out at the platform by myself, and I have climbed over the railing at the water’s edge in order to take a closer look at the shoreline trash. A cormorant moves strangely in the water—flapping as though about to take off, but then rolling over to one side, repeatedly. Sometimes it stays under for five or ten seconds. As I move closer I see it is tangled in fishing line. The edge of the bank is not very stable, and the drop off into the creek is steep. Following advice from the Dundas Turtle Watch (this animal is not a turtle and I am not in Dundas, but I called the first working phone number Google gave me), I try to get as close as possible to the bird. I take a stick and tangle it with the line to pull the line toward me. Then, having nothing sharp with me, I chew on the line until the bird is free. I watch it slowly paddle away, but the line must still be wrapped around its wing. Although it keeps trying, it can’t take flight. Eventually it swims from view. When I come back the next day, I can’t find it.
While official reports have called the basin “healed,”11 to many this will feel like a stretch. Despite its multispecies vivacity, the park remains crammed between major infrastructures for transportation, industry, and waste. It is loud and smelly. Broken furniture and empty beer cans line the edges of the parking lot, while the bank of the creek itself carries the overflow from the neighboring wastewater treatment plant: water bottles, shotgun shells, stir sticks, candy wrappers, coffee cup lids, Styrofoam, straws, Kinder Egg toy casings, and plastic tampon applicators in all colors of the rainbow. Other anthropogenic disturbances are not so easily spotted. These include the changed sex morphologies of some species of fish, such as the round goby, that swim in and around Windermere’s waters. While initially linked to endocrine-disrupting compounds in the wastewater effluent, higher incidence of intersex morphologies documented near the harbor’s industrial contamination hotspots suggest that these effects may also be associated with high levels of toxic sludge from the steel mills, even as these levels have been declining.12 And now, climate change is adding to these challenges. As temperatures climb, water levels fall, and cyanobacteria bloom. A message repeats itself on several signs scattered through the small park: “Danger—Keep out of water. Unsafe soft sediment on bottom of pond. Entrapment likely. No pets allowed.”
Hamilton Harbour belongs to one of the world’s largest systems of freshwater, but I never swam here as a child. I never ate food from this basin’s waters nor picnicked on its shores. Yet these are the waters that grew me up—they gurgle through me like a secondary circulatory system. Coming here, I think about my strange relationship to this place—what I have inherited and what I have usurped. A white settler woman made by these waters, I am also complicit in their making: Hamilton’s waters flow into the Great Lakes watershed, an area covered by the two-hundred-year-old Dish with One Spoon agreement, enacted to ensure peace among the Six Nations during a time of escalating conflict. Passing around a dish of beaver tail, each party to that agreement would only take what they needed. I’ve probably told that story a bit incorrectly, but I think it has to be my responsibility to try to understand it. Paying attention to my own body in the context of other bodies, both forgotten and remembered by these waters, is one way to enter into accountability. If I am open to the bodily knowledges of this place, the lives of those who have belonged to these shores much longer than me start to surface. I think of that used condom in the parking lot, and then about all of the ways of loving, and modes of sexual relation, that have been suppressed by settler colonial norms. I also think about young women, and cars, and sex in deserted and remote parking lots, and the vastly different ways in which that story ends.
So it feels a bit disconcerting to be so smitten by this place. What does it mean to feel deep erotic desire in and for a place that is so fraught and in whose fraughtness I am complicit? Recalling Lorde, I note that even as her notion of the erotic is linked to one’s capacity for joy, the experiences she describes are not free from difficult histories, difficult inheritances, and wounds. The erotic relations she recounts take place within, and not outside, “a racist, patriarchal and anti-erotic society”13 as a means for resisting it. Sandilands (inspired by the writing of Jan Zita Grover) similarly proposes a provisional definition of queer ecologies as being “both about seeing beauty in the wounds of the world and taking responsibility to care for the world as it is.” As Sandilands’s reading of Grover in that essay illustrates, this “seeing” includes the acute feeling and deep participation that Lorde’s erotics posits. In other words, neither Lorde nor Sandilands offers an understanding of the erotic that would exist outside of or after the oppressive and marginalizing worlds to which these erotics respond. Instead, thinking (and feeling) with Audre Lorde and Cate Sandilands at Windermere invites a more complicated mode of desire—a queer multispecies erotics that is pleasurable but also political, which is to say, about relations of power.
As I turn away from the creek, a fuzzy caterpillar makes its way across the gravel path. Swallows swoop in formation. Yellow butterflies cut the breeze with their winged cursive as carp move like stealth craft through the murky water whose surface swirls with the chartreuse ejaculation of autumn pollen. My desire persists not in spite of but because of the complex mess that gathers here. Everything here is figuring out how to get on in a “permanently polluted world”14 that is not about fixing things but rather figuring out new ways to persist. Although we are in the throes of the sixth extinction, these devastating extinguishings must also, strangely, be about desire, exuberance, and proliferation.
In other words, it is insufficient to simply affirm these feelings as erotic. The more significant task is to examine how the erotic—and its power, as Lorde claims, and the responsibility it summons, according to Sandilands—can also be helpful in navigating the complex ways in which my desirous relation to this place cannot be extricated from the various kinds of damage in which these desires are complicit. The following two sections turn to this work, beginning with a closer look at reproduction, and reproductive justice.
Entanglements of Bodies, Gender, Sex, Desire: What Is Reproduced?
Any multispecies erotics I experience at Windermere Basin are necessarily nested within the complex intimacies of sex, gender, desire, and reproduction that tether human and more-than-human bodies to one another here. From the viewing platform, I look across to the nesting habitats of the artificial islands in the basin, but also down to the creek waters that snake slowly past, taking in the myriad bits of detritus that have washed up along the banks. I consider how these desirous intimacies manifest, in one sense, as artifacts of our white settler want. From water bottles to Styrofoam packaging, a desire to consume as a way of consummating with our world is so widespread it almost escapes remark. As queer, antiracist, and feminist geographer Kathryn Yusoff observes, “One thing is clear, ‘we’ can’t stop, ‘we’ won’t stop, ‘we’ love the Carboniferous fuel stock even as it sears the skies we live under.”15 That is, we may be so attached—not only to our creature comforts but to the systems that keep us reproducing this want—that we are drowning in our own excesses.
Desire and reproduction appear in other forms, too. As a counterpoint to the condom in the parking lot, I consider those tampon applicators sticking out of the mud like a rainbow of mangrove roots. They index a population of potentially reproductive human bodies turned inside out and flushed down the toilet, to later arrive on the mucky bank of this inland sea. Other reproductions are evidenced in the blue-green algae that flourishes as the waters warm16 or in the so-called invasive species, like the round goby,17 that thrive in the effluent—all this precipitated by the specific coming together of these waters, these histories, and this climate at this time. Observing the creek’s attempt to hold all of this, I contemplate water’s own reproductive capacity. The Indigenous wisdom that “water is life”18 describes a relationship to water that is very differently learned and lived than my own, but I easily find evidence of this statement all around me: all living bodies of water—amniotes and also birds and reptiles, fish, insects, plant life, fungi, bacteria—owe their existence to gestation in a watery milieu, be that a womb or a wetland.19 In other words, water reminds us that the plurality of gestational processes—that is, reproduction—extends far beyond human wombs. Water itself is a reproductive body—yet these wetlands are heaving under the petrochemical, disposable, climate-changing weight of our dumped desires. These waters are transformed by our human want—to fuck, to not have a baby, to be modern, happy, healthy, independent. Our love affair with the good life reproduces itself in these waters to spawn new waste ecologies, which, as queer settler feminist scholar Heather Davis remarks, remain our progeny even in our disavowals.20 But what happens to water’s own capacity to make new life? What happens to water’s pleasures? Water’s desire?
Yet, even as the bodies of both terrestrial and aquatic species here are infiltrated and transformed by the reproduction of our human desires, this inventory of how sex, gender, desire, and reproduction articulate with these wetland waters does not draw a straight line between a certain kind of desiring body and the basin’s polluted waters. Such direct cause-and-effect analyses should be actively resisted for several reasons. First, they can scapegoat individual bodies while distracting us from the structural and institutional conditions that lead us here, as exemplified by Giovanna Di Chiro’s analyses of the “sex panics” generated by research on intersex fish. Pointing to both media coverage and scientific research communications on sex-changed aquatic morphologies, Di Chiro argues that the panic and fear reported in this literature perpetuates the idea that some sexes and genders are “normal” or “natural” while others are monstrous. Instead of bringing urgent attention to the sources of toxic pollution (both in terms of material source points and structures of power), these discourses dump fear of trans or intersex bodies into those bodies. Using trans bodies as cautionary tales results in what Di Chiro calls a “polluted politics” that impedes “the potential to forge coalition politics that move us toward a more just, green and sustainable future.”21
A second reason to resist simplified cause-and-effect chains is the lure of purity. As Di Chiro and others remind us, discourses on toxics set up a scenario that suggests, first, that a state of purity preexisted the toxic pollution that is now the source point of our troubles and, second, that a return to such a state is automatically possible and desirable. The first assumption begs the question of how, where, and when such a state of purity would be identified.22 At Windermere Basin, would this be a return to the 1940s, before the full effects of industrialization settled into the waters? To the late 1800s, before the widespread application of the industrial chemistry that conditions much of this pollution? To a time before colonization? To a time back before the last ice age, when this lake was carved from tender Silurian-age rocks by the Wisconsin ice sheet? Any appeal to a “natural state” is a trick of deixis—this designation only makes sense when tethered to a certain scale and a particular perspective. The second assumption—that such a state of “undamaged” purity is desirable—raises similarly difficult questions. If we undid the toxic pollution, what other worldings, becomings, and relations would also be undone? As eco-crip scholars like Eli Clare remind us, desires for pristine natures are problematically linked to violent bodily normativities that reverberate upon the bodies of disabled people.23 As with the analysis of the transgender fish, here the risk is that the desire for uncontaminated places will translate into a rejection and hatred of supposedly “polluted” or “damaged” bodies.
Nor can we simply say water pollution is caused by bad sexual bodies who dump the discards of their desires (again, to fuck, to self-pleasure, to not have a baby, to manage their menstruation, to not be depressed) into the nearest swampy hole. While we should critically reflect on how our sexual and reproductive bodies have become pharmaceutically enhanced, petrochemically prostheticized, and brokered through disposable commodities and Big Pharma in the fulfillment of capitalist colonial want, this analysis falls too easily into a paradigm of “good ecological citizenship” that individualizes the responsibility to behave well (Recycle! Buy organic! Ride a bike!) without considering the structures and infrastructures that are the conditions of possibility for any choices we might make. It moreover merges with the image of the good sexual citizen, where not only sex workers and clandestine parking lot lovers but also intersex fish and other “queer reproducers” would fall well outside of the “charmed circle” (in the words of sex theorist Gayle Rubin) of sexual acceptability.24 As Lauren Berlant reminds us, drawing on Rubin’s work, “Heteronormativity attempts to snuff out libidinal unruliness by projecting evidence of it onto . . . other populations deemed excessively appetitive, casting them as exemplary moral and political threats that must be framed, shamed, monitored, and vanquished if the conventional good life, with its ‘productive’ appetites, is going to endure.”25 While Berlant and Rubin are referring to sexual appetites, the ease with which this passage could describe moralism toward excessive straw sippers or plastic bag takers (not to mention condom and birth control users) should give pause for thought. Or consider the tampon applicators: while no-applicator tampons, menstrual cups, cloth pads, or free bleeding may all be good environmental alternatives to plastic-applicator tampons, the different needs of menstruating bodies and their ability to use such products independently must be considered. In other words, insisting that we all become “good sexual/environmental citizens” will do nothing to remedy other kinds of reproductions at work here. In one of my walks around the basin in 2016,26 I expressed my bafflement at those tampon applicators, but my friend Sarah reminded me not to blame the menstruator. Instead, she said, we should challenge a sex-gender system that keeps a menstruator’s intimacy with their body shameful, and change the culture that reproduces invisibility around women’s and trans people’s sexual and reproductive bodies. Flushing a plastic applicator means we don’t have to touch ourselves or admit to a body that bleeds, desires, and maybe makes other bodies.
The condom and pharmaceutical contraceptives in the water also index other projects of reproduction and ask us to consider kinships that were not given the chance to fully flourish here. Colonization was not only of lands and waters but of bodies and the ways in which they love and make kin. As Dakota scholar Kim TallBear reminds us, “Growing the white population through biologically reproductive heterosexual marriage—in addition to encouraging immigration from some places and not others—was crucial to settler colonial nation-building.”27 TallBear points out that the reproduction of white bodies (via “marriage yoked to private property”) was necessarily tied to the “wastelanding” (to deploy a term from Traci Brynne Voyles)28 of Indigenous lands and the “culling of black, red and brown bodies.”29 These genocidal acts are resisted everywhere, and in these waters, too—for example, in Grandmother Josephine Mandamin’s water walks around lakes including this one, or in the 2015 protest led by Anishnaabe activist Kristen Villebrun, who camped on a raft in the harbor for three days and spearheaded a call to clean up Hamilton’s waters, which have been wracked by massive sewage spills. But such resistance also begs the question of whose labor and desire is doing the heavy lifting to maintain the water’s own reproductive capacities.
By paying attention to the different kinds of life and death in these wetlands, we are thus invited to think about sex and reproduction in more capacious ways. Reproduction of and through desire at Windermere Basin is about reproduction in multiple senses. Just as hormonal effluent, condoms, and tampon applicators literalize various projects of control over human sexual reproduction, these things also index what Max Liboiron, Manuel Tironi, and Nerea Calvillo describe as toxic reproduction’s double valency. The first valency traces how the reproduction of certain bodies can be hampered through toxic discards—for example, when dumped chemicals contribute to infertility or when peed-out hormones interfere in sex morphologies such that the reproductive capacities in certain species are curtailed. The second valency of reproduction underscores the reproduction of certain systems or structures, as evidenced by these dumped artifacts—for example, the maintenance and reassertion of a capitalist acceptance that certain “unloved” sites can be polluted with impunity, or the reproduction of the belief that the cost of damage can be simply externalized, or the reproduction of the colonial assumption of access to land for dumping (or any other) purposes.30 Other reproductions—of colonial genocidal attempts to control Indigenous bodies—are also in evidence, as much by what is not here (a seasonal hunting, fishing, and gathering ground) as by what is (a park jammed between a highway and steel mill and announced by a sign produced by the government of Canada).
Guided by Liboiron, Tironi, and Calvillo’s theorization of toxicity, I have come to understand reproduction not as only the reproduction of bodies through human reprosexual means, but rather as the reproduction of phenomena more broadly, through actions not limited to sex and including ideology, policy, imagination, norms, and a variety of behaviors. The salient questions for Liboiron, Tironi, and Calvillo here, as well as for my own observations at Windermere Basin, thus include what thrives, what is altered, what persists, what is redistributed, what is destroyed, what is injured, and what is constrained?31 All of the artifacts of sex, gender, and desire that mingle in Windermere’s waters also lead to an expanded understanding of reproductive justice. Yes, reproductive justice pertains to questions of health and rights related to human fertility, pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for kin, but it is also inextricable from environmental justice, anticolonial, feminist, trans, and crip struggles, too. An expanded concept of reproductive justice is one way to gather up these flourishings and curtailments, and to examine what is “enabled, constrained, and extinguished within broader power systems.”32
So where does this leave me and my desires, wading in the midst of all this? Plastic tampon applicators are bad for the water, but the problem is not the menstruator. While the antidepressants and contraception that account for some portion of the endocrine disruptors that are altering behaviors and bodies of aquatic species, these pharmaceuticals—and latex condoms—can be lifesaving. Moreover, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a transgendered or intersex fish—a sexual morphology that many fish species occupy “naturally.” While we could probably do without lilac-colored petroleum-derived tampon applicators and the customer-luring corporate machines that drive their production, many plastic disposables (like straws) allow bodies of various abilities to enjoy independence and convenience within necropolitical worlds that prefer they not thrive. Even as the material and immaterial reproductions afloat here may trouble us, many of these artifacts are crucially about pleasure and bodily autonomy, too.
Reproductive justice is capacious here, and inextricable from environmental and anticolonial justice. Desire here is about my desire to be with this place, as well as the heady pleasures I experience in the company of all this itchy fecundity. But we also find desire in the remnants and residue of all our settler consumer capitalist appetites—plastic toys, foil wrappers, cigarette lighters—now archived in these waters. The hormonal effluent and endrocrine disruptors, used condoms, and tampon applicators remind me that humans are also sexual and reproductive bodies. We desire, have sex, and sometimes make new humans, too. Meanwhile, forms of sexuality and kinship less present testify to what has fought to reproduce itself under heteropatriarchal colonization. Sex and desire tangle and tether me to Windermere Basin in complicated ways. Considering these relations brings me back to Lorde’s and Sandilands’s propositions. How can I grapple with these complex lineaments—patriarchal, colonial, capitalist, ableist, speciesist—of reproductive justice in which I am implicated without disavowing the “deeply felt” capacity for pleasure and joy that draws me here?
Holding these complex entanglements of sex, gender, desire, and reproduction together thus requires adequate modes of knowledge-making that refuse to reduce their complicated relations. We need ways of holding both the responsibilities and the pleasures that Lorde and Sandilands call for.33 Given that art is a mode of knowledge that can hold complexity and contradiction, we might look at examples of artistic expression to guide us.
One obvious example is the work of pioneering ecosexuals Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens. For over a decade, these ecosexuals have spearheaded a bawdy and humorous but also entirely serious artistic and scholarly movement to take the earth as lover. This has manifested in SexEcology workshops, marching as ecosexuals in Pride parades, and performances that stage ecosexual marriages to elements and nonhuman entities (the sky, the moon, a lagoon or a lake), as well as writings (including a manifesto, articles, and, most recently, a book) and films. “We will save the mountains, waters and skies by any means necessary,” they claim in their Ecosex Manifesto, “especially through love, joy, and our powers of seduction.”34 Ecosexuality also inspires a way to channel erotics into an ethic of respect, care, and repair. Of their marriage to the moon, Stephens and Sprinkle note, for example, that the “wounded” moon, damaged by NASA bombing, can “heal itself” through ecosexual love and affection.35
Sprinkle and Stephens’s ecosexuality exemplifies the erotic in some of the ways that Lorde describes—as a source of knowledge, of energy; as a guide for relating differently to others and the world. It also clearly demonstrates the pleasures that can be found in the tactile presences of others, as Sandilands suggests. Their film, Goodbye Gauley Mountain, is part memoir, part enviro-documentary about mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia (where Beth grew up), and part performance piece (culminating in a marriage to the mountain).36 Its scenes of Sprinkle and Stephens’s naked bodies, squatting in the river as they enjoy the ecstatic pleasures of small rapids, rocks, and soft mosses with which they bring their bodies into contact, clearly demonstrate their commitment to pleasure. In this way and others, their work is intensely joyful, and for this reason alone, it deserves our attention in a context of an environmental politics that can be depressing and isolating.
This does not mean that an ecosexual romp is always fully embraced by others. When I have shown Goodbye Gauley Mountain to undergraduate classes, many students don’t like it (at least in discussion directly after the film). Some of this distaste can (sadly) be attributed to lesbophobia, fat-phobia, and classism. Nicole Seymour’s argument on “trashy environmentalism” is useful here, as she points to the classist disdain for “vulgar excess” of environmentalisms such as Stephens and Sprinkle’s.37 But recalling Sandilands’s observation about environmentalism’s reputation for prudish restraint, it could also be that pleasure in the face of environmental destruction does not always land well. Simply put, these ecosexuals may be perceived as having too much fun for this to be real environmentalism.38 Their ecosex is “great sex”: everyone can do it, and everyone will get off. Deliberately cultivating a can-do aesthetic, whereby orgasmic joy seems to be just a waterfall or a tree-hump away, this ecosex may be too good to be true—too good to be believable, or too good to be taken seriously.
As Audre Lorde argues, erotics is not simple, nor easily won, nor uncomplicated. It is struggled for—sometimes at great cost—“in the face of a racist, patriarchal and anti-erotic society.” Erotic feeling’s deep capacity for joy is denied and questioned, manipulated and co-opted. But Sprinkle and Stephens—as queer people, as women, as environmental and sex-work activists—know this, too. While a limited view of the film that focuses on the performance art (such as the campy marriage scene) might suggest that the ecosex they seek out is blithe or uncomplicated, this reading does not do justice to the film as a whole. As Cynthia Belmont notes, more than just a casual roll in the hay, the film is importantly “an antidote to the toxicity of single-issue politics in the coal documentary genre.”39 My deep fondness for Goodbye Gauley Mountain is also rooted in the film’s difficult confrontations with race, class, ability, and plain old interpersonal failures of communication. There is deep tenderness in the scenes that describe the ableist and classist marginalization that anti-mountaintop-removal activist Larry Gibson suffers. This resonates in other scenes that poignantly capture the ways in which stereotypes of “hillbillies” within liberal environmental circles compound the violence with which these communities have to reckon. Again, Nicole Seymour’s analysis of the film corroborates this complexity, as she holds it up as an example of “a class-conscious environmentalism that breaks out of traditional affective and aesthetic trappings.”40
Sprinkle and Stephens’s ecosex is also complicated in ways that the film does not acknowledge. As my students regularly point out, Goodbye Gauley Mountain does not attend to the settler colonial histories of West Virginia. In many ways, this ecosex activism exemplifies what Max Liboiron identifies as “benevolent” environmentalism that, while addressing symptoms of environmental degradation, fails to address the root cause: colonialism’s assumed access to land. In their words, such environmental work “does not usually address colonialism and often reproduces it.”41 This assumed access reproduces colonialism whether that access is for mountaintop removal mining (definitely bad) or ecosexual weddings that fight mountaintop removal but don’t acknowledge the colonial genocide that enabled it (also bad, but more complicated). Read through Liboiron’s lens, this ecosex may not be so great after all.
I am again prompted to ask, so where does that leave us? My intention here is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: although Goodbye Gauley Mountain does not adequately attend to colonial relations, we may still find elements of the film to appreciate. For example, it makes an important contribution to cultivating an erotics in some of the ways that Lorde advocates, and in the queer and multispecies ways these might manifest, as proposed by Sandilands. But it does leave me wondering about how to use erotics not only to grapple with the violences that contextualize our desires but also to understand how we are sometimes complicit in these very things and, as such, fail to address them.
The “good sex” pleasures cultivated in Goodbye Gauley Mountain seek full delight, no apologies. But for most bodies, sex includes a broad spectrum of concerns, affects, and situations, few of which equate unequivocally to uncomplicated passions. Even when we are motivated by desire, uncontaminated pleasure is rarely guaranteed. I am reminded of Liboiron, Tironi, and Calvillo’s analysis of toxic reproduction that informed my understanding of reproduction in the previous section. They describe toxicity not as “wayward particles behaving badly” but rather as “a disruption of particular existing orders, collectives, materials and relations.”42 Given this definition that focuses on toxicity as a disruption of orders, could it be that most erotics (whether “good” or “bad”) are toxic?
This brings me back to Vanessa’s DIY speculum performance at Windermere in 2018. This performance also draws the connection between many violences, but in more complex and sometimes contradictory ways. Just as the tampon applicators half stuck in the mud might index the still-hiddenness of menstruating bodies, the plastic specula that Vanessa distributed to us all after her performance were a direct invitation to contest that regime of invisibility and shame. At the same time, Vanessa’s gift to us was not uncomplicated. We were a pretty diverse group: settler and Indigenous, younger and older, differently gendered, with various disabilities. Which of us gathered there could use a speculum easily (or at all)? How were the stakes different, for each of us, in letting our cervixes be seen by the outside? Whose erotics were most up for grabs? Whose reproductive and sexual bodies belonged most securely to them? Such encounters with our own bodies in place at Windermere not only might feel different for each of us, but they also gathered up other lineaments of relations in various kinds of fraught configurations. Vanessa’s performance directly confronts the “differences and obligations” that Max Liboiron speaks of: “There must be solidarity without a universal We,” writes Liboiron, but “you can’t have obligation without specificity.”43
Vanessa’s performance also directly takes up the question of doing environmental activism, politics, and performance on stolen Indigenous and. As I sat in front of Vanessa during her speculum performance, I considered how it both subtly and radically torqued Annie Sprinkle’s much earlier 1980s “Public Cervix Announcement”44 performances that asked audiences to approach the stage where she sat, speculum inserted, to examine her cervix. Vanessa’s performance invokes the DIY aesthetic and sex positivity of Sprinkle’s original acts but situates them within a very different ecology of bodies, where the fraught conditions of love, self-love, and ecosex are exposed in ways that implicate not only an antisex patriarchy but settler colonialism and environmental violence as well—resonant with the more capacious understanding of reproductive justice discussed above. It is worth noting that these early performances by Sprinkle appropriated tantric language and Hindu images (imagine Sprinkle as a multi-armed goddess with a sex toy in each of her many hands). Vanessa’s performances raise the stakes of that kind of appropriation considerably. Whose bodies get to use other bodies in their expressions of ecosexuality? How is a relationship to land and water different for a settler or an Indigenous performer? (On a less poignant but still fraught note, I admit that my plastic speculum still sits in a pencil case on a bookshelf. Although unused, I can’t bring myself to turn it into more plastic landfill.)
In other words, if Sprinkle and Stephens try to offer us an example of “good” ecosex, might my participation in Vanessa’s more complex specular invitations be a kind of toxic or “bad ecosex”? This is not because Vanessa’s body or her performance is bad, nor because my body is bad. Nor is it because, although joyous and irreverent, Vanessa’s performance was also awkward in the unavoidable intimacy it pressed onto the participants, many of whom were meeting for the first time. Rather, this was “bad ecosex” because despite my good intentions in cultivating a desirous relationship with Windermere Basin, I can only ever be a lover with a lot of bad baggage.
The idea of bad ecosex was first suggested by feminist artist and scholar Lindsay Kelley, in proposing that in all of our human incompetence, any ecosex is probably going to be something like “having bad sex with the earth.”45 To take this suggestion further, we might think about bad ecosex as one way to name the fraughtness of desire in and with place. The co-implications of want, pleasure, reproduction, and sex, embedded within capitalist colonialism, have no simple resolutions here. These are not relations I can slink away from in the early light of morning, shoes hanging from fingers, after a wild night. But the impossibility of tidy resolution does not mean that pleasure must be disavowed. While we might want to think sex can be as simple as a romp in the river, for many of us, sex is just as often awkward, unfulfilling, unevenly experienced, and sticky with unintended consequences—but it can still be felt deeply, learned from, and practiced with care.
In suggesting this term, I also want to disturb some of the ease that ecosexuality promises. Bad ecosex reminds us that the erotic itself is not immune from the relations we are trying to shift. “Bad ecosex” recognizes that our erotics do not exist outside of or separate from that which needs changing. Indeed, returning to Lorde, we recall that it is through deep erotic participation that we can come to greater knowledge and understanding, that we can understand our responsibilities. In Lorde’s words, “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”46 Moreover, “our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.” Lorde calls this a “grave responsibility.”47 We return as well to Sandilands, and her citing of Jan Zita Grover, who notes, “We assume responsibility for a place when we are able to look both backward at the burden of its history and forward at our responsibility for those parts of its future that lie under human control.”48
Bad ecosex in these ways is mundane and quotidian, and personal, but never disconnected from larger projects and structures of sex and reproduction. Bad ecosex reminds us that all sex adheres in contexts, histories, and relationships with others outside of, before, and after any desirous encounter. Being attentive to and present for these problematic intimacies can help me understand how my own sexual and reproductive body is complicit in disappearances of or damages to other bodies: birds disappeared in a tangle of fishing line; attempted colonization of Indigenous sexual worlds; a debilitation of the water’s capacity to be a gestational milieu for other life. In other words, erotics is also thoroughly about reproductive justice, as discussed above. As such, erotics can also be the site of transformation where Liboiron’s insistence on “solidarity without a universal We” can be embodied, and felt deeply—even, or especially, when the sex is bad.
When I am about ten meters away from the shore, the ducks begin to get restless; word gets passed on down the line, and like a reverse domino effect, they lift up from the water in cacophonous formation, only to settle again a few hundred meters further down. I take all of the autumnal plant sex into my nostrils, rub my eyes, and reach into my bag for another dose of Reactin, even as I know that peeing the drugs out later will contribute to the climate change that contributes to my increasingly brutal allergies. My earbuds plugged into a hydrophone allow me to eavesdrop on the bubbly breath of the fish in the creek. Someone told me last week that if I attach feathers or other bright-colored tackle to the microphone, the carp might become more curious. Somewhere else I read about a recycling experiment that used old tampon applicators as fishing lures.49
This does feel like a tangled mess, but one that lures me in, too.
For more information, see Native Women’s Association of Canada, “Fact Sheet.”
The last province in Canada to repeal involuntary sterilization was Alberta, in 1972. Indigenous women continue to come forward with serious complaints of coerced sterilization. See Lee and Spillett, “Indigenous Women,” and Kassam, “Canada’s Indigenous Women.”
See Native Women’s Association of Canada, “Land Justice Is Gender Justice”; Rahder, “Invisible Sisters”; Trainor et al., “Environmental Injustice”; La Duke, “Akwesasne”; Scott, Our Chemical Selves.
Importantly, the precolonial history of these lands and waters holds many stories, and territorial acknowledgment is complex, especially when understood through my settler view. A helpful recounting of this complexity can be found in Coleman, Yardwork.
See Luciano and Chen, “Queer Inhumanisms,” on how “Uses of the Erotic” can be read to include posthuman/inhuman inferences.
Marentette et al., “Signatures of Contamination.” Recent research has also discovered signs of changed behavior in fish contaminated by antidepressants, found swimming near the Dundas wastewater treatment plant across the harbor. McNeil, “Antidepressants Found in Fish.”
Yusoff, “Queer Coal,” 212. I call this “white settler want” not to suggest that Indigenous or other racialized people don’t want these things, too. I am rather situating the growth of these desire industries within white settler contexts. See also Hamilton and Neimanis, “Five Desires, Five Demands,” for a deeper explication of “want” in the context of feminist intersectional environmental analyses.
See, for example, Stand with Standing Rock, “Mni Wiconi,” https://standwithstandingrock.net/mni-wiconi/ (accessed May 9, 2022). I use the more general term Indigenous here to signal that this phrase, “water is life,” is found in the writing and activism of scholars from many different Indigenous nations.
See Shotwell, Against Purity, for an important discussion of purity in the context of settler colonialism.
See Gayle Rubin’s classic argument for a theory of sexuality in “Thinking Sex,” which establishes the existence of a “charmed circle” of “good” (acceptable, nonthreatening) sexual behaviors and identities.
TallBear, “Making Love,” 147. Resonating with questions I propose in this chapter, TallBear asks, “Who gets to have babies, and who does not? Whose babies get to live? Whose do not? Whose relatives, including other-than-humans, will thrive and whose will be laid to waste?” See also Sandilands, “Some ‘F’ Words,” which, drawing on the work of Heather Latimer, also discusses the biopolitics of reproduction in relation to environmental wastelands in Toronto’s Leslie Spit.
For a detailed discussion of this colonial imperative, see Liboiron, Pollution Is Colonialism.
Liboiron, Tironi, and Calvillo, “Toxic Politics,” 336. See also Murphy, “Distributed Reproduction.”
Various eco-minded folk demonstrate this possibility in their scholarship and activism. Queer feminist environmental critic Stacy Alaimo, for example, provides numerous analyses of protests, artworks, and actions that highlight how “pleasure, desire, sensuality, and eroticism” can inspire, catalyze, and energize an environmental ethics—from the queer antics of our nonhuman animal kin to the eroticized, naked anti-logging protests of La Tigresa, whose activism includes visits to logging camps to “striptease for the trees.” See Alaimo, Exposed, 5. See also Seymour, Bad Environmentalism, who discusses various kinds of sexy environmentalisms from Isabella Rossalini’s Green Porno to the Eggplant Faerie Players performance group.
This brings to mind Laura Kipnis’s classic evaluation of a feminist distaste for Hustler as being more about class politics than an ethical stance toward pornography. Kipnis, “Reading Hustler.”
See Seymour, “Climate Change Is a Drag and Camping Can Be Campy,” in Bad Environmentalism, for further analysis of fun and various forms of queer bon vivance in relation to environmental politics.
Belmont, “Ecosexuals in Appalachia.”
See Annie Sprinkle, “A Public Cervix Announcement,” http://anniesprinkle.org/a-public-cervix-anouncement/ (accessed May 9, 2022).
Lindsay Kelley proposed this phrase during the Q&A after her panel at “Hacking the Anthropocene!” at the University of Sydney in 2016.