'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, September 20, 2007

But They Will Take Money From Corporations 

From an SFGate article of a couple of years ago:

Tommy and Leona are having sex on a tree stump in the middle of a Norwegian clear-cut. Leona, with a mop of brown dreads and a lip ring, looks dreamily across the demolished forest as Tommy, a little shaggy in nothing but a knit hat, works his magic.

A few minutes earlier, Leona and Tommy stood at the same spot lecturing about the evils of industrial forestry. But now they're moaning in feral ecstasy, overcoming the powerful negativity of the place -- the broken branches and dried-out logs -- with the juices of the life force itself.

Welcome to F--forforest.com (FFF), a porn site with a difference. Along with raw, explicit images and videos with scenes like the one described above, FFF is well stocked with facts about the world's forests. On the Web site, naked sylphs share space with graphs of forest loss over time and exhaustive lists of the benefits tropical rain forests provide to society.

It's a novel approach to eco-activism, certainly, but one the duo hopes will help save the planet. Indeed, in its first year of operation, this unlikely project has raised nearly $100,000 for rain forest protection through the sale of paid memberships.

"Everyone must try to create something good using what they have," Tommy told me by phone from the apartment the couple shares in Berlin. "We had nothing, just our bodies." With backgrounds in progressive and green theater and teaching troubled teens, Leona Johansson, 21, and Tommy Hol Ellingsen, 28, wanted to do more than just protest the state of the world -- they wanted to make a difference. To them, eco-porn is the obvious choice. "Porn makes really, really a lot of money," Tommy continues in his soft Norwegian accent, "so why not use that money for good?"

Easy enough, right? But, so far, the pair's biggest challenge has been giving the money away.

It's a conundrum they didn't anticipate when they got their start in their native Norway, where they managed to obtain seed funding from the federal government. "We said we were starting an alternative environmental organization," says Tommy.

Most of the material on FFF features the gentle Burning Man-esque couple and/or their friends romping in every imaginable combination. The great outdoors is a favorite setting, of course, but scenes are also set in apartments, photo studios, sex clubs and elsewhere. The sex runs the gamut from couplings involving vegetables used as sex toys to performances by scary-looking shaven-headed German Goths and is unflinchingly graphic. Like those of most porn scenarios, the plots of the video segments are vestigial at best, but in written material and between the scenes, Leona and Tommy share their feelings for the forest with visitors to the site.

But even Norway has its limits. In front of 5,000 people at a music festival last summer, the couple delivered a brief talk about human impacts on natural forests. Shedding his clothes, Tommy asked the crowd, "How far are you willing to go to try to save nature?" He and Leona, grinning, then launched into a raunchy live demonstration of precisely how far they'll go for the forest. Front and center on top of a speaker, the pair ground into each other while a local band played a heavy metal dirge called "Go Forth and F--."

Leona and Tommy, along with the band, were charged by authorities in Kristiansand, Norway, with staging a public sex show. When Tommy dropped his pants in the courtroom, the couple was fined the equivalent of $1,500 each, but they refused to pay. Instead, they moved to more liberal-minded Berlin, where FFF is now produced.

The notoriety has done wonders for FFF. Norwegian news outlets covered the trial with the sort of overblown salaciousness typical of media in quest of cheap ratings. Yoko Ono -- whose 1969 Bed-ins for Peace with John Lennon made international headlines -- reportedly called the whole affair the best art project she had seen in Norway.

The site now has more than 1,000 paying members, and its forest fund continues to grow. Even better, FFF is getting help from all over the world -- ranging from detailed ecological data for the site to donations of pornographic videos and other imagery.

As the green community still wrings its hands about the "death of environmentalism" in the wake of the re-election of George W. Bush, eco-activism seems to have lost its way. FFF's success in entirely sidestepping the staid mainstream at this moment is a breath of fresh air.

"A lot of environmental organizations are too boring, too serious," says Tommy. "It scares people away. It's possible to use irony and play around with this negative information about the state of the world and still get the information out without being too radical or angry. It's important to have fun."

And the work he and Leona do on FFF certainly looks like a lot more fun than knocking on doors gathering signatures or writing yet another letter to out-of-touch decision makers. "We have fun when we have sex, and we have fun when we have sex with others," Tommy told me.

It's no secret that sex sells do-gooder causes just as well as it sells cars and soda. Long-running campaigns by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that pair scantily-clad women with heads of lettuce and barnyard animals perennially attract a lot of attention -- attention supporters must defend against accusations of sexism. But FFF's approach is very different. The site features real people, not airbrushed sex objects, and the diary Leona contributes to the site is affecting and sweetly humanizing.

"Sex-positive erotic expression and environmentalism naturally go hand-in-hand," says Bay Area writer and cybersex pundit Annalee Newitz. "Both are efforts to show what is beautiful and valuable about the natural world."

Other sex-themed sites make donations for green causes: Bay Area-based vegporn.com, for example, which features "a cast of sexy vegans and vegetarians," gives 5 percent of its profits to vegetarian groups each month. But the site's owner, who calls herself Furry Girl, says the site is not designed mainly for this purpose. "Some of us vegans just like looking at naked vegans," she says.

FFF, perhaps the only porn site specifically created to raise money for a cause, boasts a mission-centered approach as far removed from the sleazy and exploitative milieu of the mainstream porn industry as its fund-raising work is distinct from more traditional tactics.

"It's good to see environmentalists thinking creatively," continues Newitz, "and acknowledging that we wouldn't have nature without sex."

But not everyone shares this enthusiasm for FFF's brand of environmental education. In one session featured on the site, Leona, in a blue wig, starts the lesson by flogging another woman with a huge leek. This unorthodox approach hasn't ingratiated FFF to mainstream environmental organizations, who Leona and Tommy feel are too prudish to embrace the potential of porn -- or even to accept its money.

"WWF (formerly known as World Wildlife Fund) Norway didn't want to speak with us -- they pushed us out of the office," says Tommy. "We wrote to WWF in the Netherlands; they said they couldn't take our money, either. After the court case, suddenly, nobody wanted to talk to us at all."

Though they're perpetually seeking funds, mainstream environmental organizations seem allergic to money raised through porn. Major Bay Area-based organizations I contacted for this story responded with terse brush-offs. "There are just certain stories that there is no upside to being quoted in," said one staffer at a national environmental organization based in the Bay Area.

"What is morality when people are destroying the world?" counters Tommy. "It all started so innocently. We never imagined it would be so much trouble to give away the money -- it's blowing us away how surreal it all is."

Because they've had no luck with mainstream groups, Leona and Tommy are instead moving forward on a project in which they will work directly with indigenous communities in Costa Rica and the Brazilian Amazon. "It makes much more sense to just go somewhere and help an Indian tribe directly and avoid the administrative costs," says Tommy.

As if being on the lam from the Norwegian courts and getting the cold shoulder from environmental groups isn't enough, FFF's sudden success has swamped Leona and Tommy, who still operate the site themselves. They bear the brunt of not just most of the copulation on the site but also the billing, Web-page creation and other business elements.

"The project is too big for us alone -- we're sitting in front of the computer 24 hours a day now," Tommy told me. "We never imagined it would be so big so fast. Now we want it to become more like a community -- we want people to be able to run it and upload content without us."

In spite of these growing pains, the site's success has been lucrative. FFF now has $90,000 in the bank earmarked for forest conservation. It's a considerable achievement for a shoestring 1-year-old organization of two people, suggesting that the pair has tapped into an undiscovered fund-raising wellspring. Can porn save the planet? "We wanted to create a trap to capture a lot of people who were never interested in the forest but were interested in sex -- everyone's interested in sex," says Tommy. "Many of these people have never given to the environment before."

I recall seeing this article when it was originally posted, and was mildly amused in a salacious sort of way, so much so that I glossed over the primary theme: the unwillingness of organizations associated with environmental protection to take money from people who publicize their sexual activity.

And, the question is, why? The sex is, by all accounts, voluntary, and they don't otherwise commercially exploit it, except, perhaps, to pay for some of the slight costs associated with their Berlin squat, a rent payment here, a grocery run there. Even then, what would be the problem if they did?

OK, they are obviously exhibitionists, but again, why is that such a big deal? They were willing to donate substantial sums of money to environmental groups, and there is no indication that they were requiring any public attribution for it, unlike many of their corporate, establishment donors. Perhaps, that was one of the problems, they are more comfortable with people who donate to exploit a commercial advantage from the relationship.

Aye, there's the rub (no pun intended). Environmental organizations won't take money from a couple of anarchist, self-described sex-positive individuals, but willingly solicit it from businesses and wealthy donors who profit from a system of capitalist consumption that destroys rain forests as part of a broader catastrophe of environmental degradation. Much like health care programs funded by cigarette taxes, they perpetuate themselves with money obtained from the evil that they purportedly exist to eliminate.

Apparently, something more subtle is at work. We have fun when we have sex, and we have fun when we have sex with others. Too threatening, so much so for environmental organizations built upon a professional, middle to upper middle class American model that they'd rather turn down the money than use it to achieve the goals of their organization. And, horror of horrors, can you imagine what would ensue if Tommy and Leona actually came to one of their events?

Definitely not good, not good publicity in the mainstream media world where they crave attention, even as that same media obstructs what they try to accomplish. So folks, I think that what we have here is a classic instance of social and class bias, and the primacy of reinforcing what they used to call in the old days, bourgeois morality, even if it facilitates the clear cutting of a few more trees.

Fortunately, the story had a happy ending, at least back in 2005. Rejected in their attempts to give money to mainstream organizations, some of which are known for a bureaucratized approach with unnecessary administrative costs, Tommy and Leona decided to contribute the funds directly to indigenous communities in Costa Rica and the Brazilian Amazon.

Tommy and Leona got to continue joyously copulating for the forest, and the recipients receive funds without any behind the scenes strings associated with non-profits financed by corporations and foundations. Hopefully, it has worked out well for all concerned.

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