Getting Kinky With Ecology

Photo of a giraffe sticking out its tongue

This essay on kink ecology is the sixth piece in the Unpure Imagination series, which seeks to engage with and challenge themes of toxicity, purity, pollution, and restoration in an always compromised world. Series editors: Ben Iuliano, Kuhelika Ghosh, and Richelle Wilson.

As I was in the midst of my master’s degree, exploring the complexities and contradictions posed by petroleum and pleasure, our planet entered the COVID-19 pandemic. So I started listening to episodes of the Savage Lovecast, Dan Savage’s syndicated sex-advice column cum podcast, for some raunch reprieve. Considering questions about pegging and polyamory quandaries was more pleasurable than confronting the converging, compounding crises of the climate and COVID-19. The more I listened, though, the more I started to see connections between my research into petroleum pleasure and the more promiscuous podcast content. I started to see what a kink perspective could provide environmentalism.

Toward a Kink Ecology

In the spring of 2020, I started contemplating what it is about petroleum that makes it so seductive. It was soon evident that petroleum produces extensive pleasure—the pleasures of convenience, comfort, and commodity. Movement is made smooth and speedy. Materials are made supple and single-use. Conditions are made climate-controlled, and consumption is made fast, frictionless, and free-from-context. Yet, petroleum is also producing our deeply dis-pleasurable climate crisis. The pleasure it does bring is cheap and easy—a pleasure indifferent to planetary cause and effect, a pleasure predicated on fantasy. And as all fantasies are founded on the improbable/impossible, there is fallacy in this petroleum fantasy.

Also in the spring of 2020, I started consuming lots of the Savage Lovecast, whose episodes are filled with crude fantasies of another sort. On “Episode #683,” Dan Savage invites Midori, sexologist and “Supernova of Kink,” onto the show. And together they tackle a call from a bashful late bloomer with dom desires. In their conversation, Midori describes kink as being all about how to “play together and play better together.” This phrase evokes the aims of the environmental justice movement. Whereas the mainstream environmental movement has conventionally considered the social and ecological as separate, the environmental justice movement has called to correct this by addressing concerns associated with “where and how people live, work, and play.” Since kink is all about playing better together, I started to consider what a kink perspective could provide environmentalism.

In front of a crowd, two people sit on a car wearing rainbow sashes.
Dan Savage (left), creator of the popular sex-advice podcast Savage Lovecast, rides a Gay Pride March float. Photo by Jeremy Seto, 2011.

Our current ways of play and pleasure, so saturated in petroleum, are far from just, far from joyful. As a result of our current ways of pleasure—our pleasureways—the planet has been drastically altered, disproportionately by some, and the consequences, current and coming, are distressing, disastrous, deadly, and entirely dis-pleasurable. These petroleum-saturated pleasureways have privileged particular classes of people and particular categories of pleasure. Some pleasures, though produced in excess, have been rendered a scarce resource, surfeit for a few, scant for most, resulting in pleasureways that are uneven, unsustainable, and, in many ways, unsatisfactory. It seems that reconfiguring our relationship with petroleum requires reconfiguring our ways of pleasure. Contrary to what is often portrayed by both critics and proponents of the mainstream environmental movement, this reconfiguration wouldn’t require renouncing pleasure.

Kink practices are not procreative but creative—rather than reproducing that which is, kink reimagines that which could be.

As Nicole Seymour examines in Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, the mainstream environmental movement is conventionally associated with responsibility and restraint, austerity and asceticism, purity and piety. It refuses frivolity or flaws, adornment or artificiality, irreverence or indecency. It resists gaiety, glee, and pleasure. Indeed, within mainstream environmentalism, the cultivation of pleasure is commonly considered a profligate pursuit. But characterizing pleasure as unproductive and unnecessary is neither attractive nor accurate. After all, the pursuit of pleasure is enjoyed by human and more-than-human naturecultures alike. So centering pleasure within environmentalism is neither imprudent nor improvident—it is imperative. Both Nicole Seymour and adrienne maree brown have contended that pleasure can be a mode of resistance, environmental and otherwise. Perhaps pleasure could also be a means of reimagining post-petroleum futures just and joyful.

Pleasure for the Future

This reimagining would require a reframing of—rather than a refraining from—pleasure. It would require redistributing and remaking pleasure. It would require expanding access to pleasure as well as expanding the accepted forms of pleasure. And as we reimagine our pleasureways, we might focus not on pleasures aimed at accumulation but on pleasures that acknowledge the always-already-there abundance. We might recognize the ways in which pleasures have functioned—and flourished—on the fringe. Kink pleasures are one such way.

Kink preferences and practices are considered fringe in United States culture. Within the U.S., there is an established sexual norm that sets cis/hetero/white/vanilla/monogamous sex in purpose of procreation as not only the proper but also the primordial way of being, behaving, and belonging. Any preferences or practices that deviate from this established sexual norm are deemed a perversion of the proper/primordial, or perhaps as merely peripheral to it. Such dictates are disingenuous, detrimental, and all-around dull. They are a denial of the myriad and multispecied ways of being, behaving, and belonging, a denial of “the sheer delight of dwelling within a queer bestiary”—and, I’d add, a kinky one.

A large bird displaying its feathers and inflating its chest sacs as part of a mating ritual
For the sage grouse, some sexual acts that humans consider kinky are common practice. Photo by Bob Wick for the Bureau of Land Management, 2012.

As kink might provide perspectives for envisioning post-petroleum pleasureways, it might also provide perspectives for expanding and enlivening environmentalism. The mainstream environmental movement is often associated with somberness and sanctimony—associations that are more often a turn-off than a turn-on—so activating alternative ecological approaches is essential to attracting more people to the movement. To activate pleasure as an ecological approach is also to activate a queer approach. My approach to environmentalism is queer, as am I, meaning it is imperfect, irreverent, and indecent, as am I. Queerness informs both my ecological perspective and my erotic preferences and practices. Kinkiness also informs my erotic preferences and practices. So perhaps, too, it could inform my ecological perspective. And though this line of inquiry is not intended to conflate queerness and kinkiness (though there is some contention over whether or not kink constitutes a sexual orientation and though there are some, such as myself, who belong to both queer and kink communities), there are some congruences that compel me to consider them as complementary as it concerns environmentalism. Kinkiness, like queerness, is not unusual, even if U.S. culture treats it as such. And kinkiness, like queerness, can provide creative ways to reimagine worlds. So as some have called for a queer ecology, I am proposing a kink ecology too.

Kink is (Always Already) All Around Us

Kink encompasses all manner of erotic esoterica, all manner of sexual preferences and practices outside of the established sexual norm. And though kink is often deemed unnecessary, uncouth, unnatural—a perversion—it is not entirely uncommon. There is some evidence that would suggest “everyone is a little bit kinky.” From 2014 to 2015, Justin Lehmiller of the Kinsey Institute conducted a survey of 4,175 Americans on the content of their sexual fantasies in what is considered the most comprehensive survey of sexual fantasy in the United States. It found sexual fantasies including kink to be highly common. For example, 96 percent of women and 93 percent of men reported having BDSM—bondage & discipline / dominance & submission / sadism & masochism—fantasies.

Kink could provide perspectives for expanding and enlivening environmentalism.

The fulfillment of these kinky sexual fantasies in practice isn’t entirely uncommon either. In 2014, Christian Joyal and Julie Carpentier of the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières conducted a survey of 1,040 Canadians on the prevalence of kinky preferences and practices. The survey found that 45.6 percent of all genders had sexual fantasies considered kinky and 33.9 percent of all genders had fulfilled at least one of these kinky sexual fantasies. Kink is not entirely uncommon among humans, and what humans consider kinky is not entirely uncommon among the more-than-human either. Lobsters practice what humans consider urophilia. As do giraffes. The sage grouse practices what humans consider coprophilia. And some Amazonian frogs practice what humans consider necrophilia. Indeed, the established sexual norm that dismisses and derides all the fantastical, fatuous, flippant forms of erotic engagements across spaces and species is both bogus and boring.

Kink Ecology for Resilience and Revelry

Kink is neither unnatural nor uncommon (though this doesn’t really matter; the artificial and the atypical also have merit). And kink ecology can provide perspectives for resilience and revelry as we reimagine our futures. Some perspectives provided by this fringy pleasureway include:

1. A Condition of Consent

Consent is constitutive of kink culture, and it requires communication and collaboration. Within the established sexual norm, there is what adrienne maree brown calls a “culture of access based on power,” an assumed “access of . . . white people to people of color’s bodies, men to women’s bodies, cis to trans bodies, those with resources to those with less.” Within this context, consent is frequently flattened, reduced to yes/no, the response as fixed. Or consent is not considered at all, not posed as a question but presumed. Our petroleum-saturated pleasureways are characterized by such, with the realization of pleasure for some requiring extractions/emissions for others. In contrast, consent is, for kink pleasureways, requisite to involvement. All involved are informed and interested, and their consent is considered as revocable, as requiring continuous reaffirming.

Seen from above, a ship floats on a dark sea of spilled oil with iridescent patches
Oil spills are an example of the failure of petroleum economies to provide aftercare. Photo by Kris Krüg, 2010.

2. A Convention of Aftercare

Also common in kink culture is aftercare. Aftercare is a practice of attending to all involved post-play. It is a practice that considers the causes and effects of a pleasureway, that contextualizes a pleasureway. It is a practice of addressing any (consensual) messes, be it secretions or spills, that might have been made in pleasure pursuit. These causes and effects are often overlooked in our petroleum pleasureways.

3. Creative Adaptations for a Changing Climate

As kink can provide perspectives for reimagining our pleasureways, kink can also provide perspectives for responding to our already changing climate. The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by a zoonotic virus, is one example. It is estimated that animals harbor around 40,000 unknown viruses, a quarter of which could potentially move to humans. And as temperatures rise and habitats are reduced, animals are required to migrate to “new and narrower ranges,” increasing the potential for viral spillover. So though it is imperative to curtail temperature rise and habitat reduction, it is also important to ready ourselves for inevitable impending pandemics. While wearing gas masks in public might have been read as freakish before, it is now recognized as functional. And glory holes, previously considered aberrant, are now categorized as a safe way to engage in sex during the pandemic. Both of these practices already common in the pleasureways of kink, queer, and kinky queer communities provide possibilities for cultivating pleasure through crisis.

Three people stand in a small circle wearing kink outfits, including a gas mask
Gas masks, which become more mainstream amidst the COVID pandemic, have long played a role in the kink community. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, 2015.

While petroleum-soaked pleasures favor the fast, the frictionless, and the free-from-context, kink pleasures provide an alternative. Thus, I propose a kink ecology: A kink ecology for envisioning post-petroleum pleasureways that acknowledge the always-already-there abundance, that allow for accountability and adaptability in pleasure pursuit. And a kink ecology for expanding and enlivening environmentalism by welcoming the imperfect, the irreverent, and the indecent to the movement, by widening and wilding our conceptual resources for responding to crises. After all, kink practices are not procreative but creative. Rather than reproducing that which is, kink reimagines that which could be. For though fossil fuels “may be running out, imagination is not.” It is imagination that is fundamental to forming futures more just and joyful. And as we imagine those futures, kink might provide perspectives on how to play together, and play better together, in our increasingly weird and warm world.

Featured image: Behaviors that humans consider kinky are not uncommon among giraffes, nor among many other more-than-human creatures. Photo by Kate Spence, 2016.

Madeleine Bavley is a queer and kinky ecologist currently residing in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her work explores concepts of pleasure, porosity, and penetrability, with particular emphasis on concerns of petroleum and pollution. In the words of Stacy Alaimo, “The anthropocene is no time to set things straight.” Website. Twitter. Contact.