It’s gettin’ hot in here: Reproductive, climate justice intersect at ‘A Case for Climate and Sex Symposium’

Roselyn Paratore/Courtesy

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Current debates about the climate crisis and the health of the environment pose a mirror to society’s image and ask it to reconcile with its own behaviors, habits, patterns of consumption and attitudes toward the environment. Narratives of global warming can be apocalyptic, depressing, unmotivating, disabling, infuriating and frustrating. This is counterproductive to the aims of the environmental movement because it stifles the conversation that we need to have around these climate realities.

This calls for new narratives and ways of thinking about the environment. These innovative conversations and productive dialogues are precisely what Rose Paratore’s “A Case for Climate and Sex Symposium” aimed to stimulate.

Rose Paratore is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. As an undergrad at UC Davis, she found that her conversations around climate change and environmental advocacy work were stimulating but not as interesting and novel as she was hoping for.

“Toward the end of my time at Davis, I started to crave more juicy, meatier, more meaningful conversations, whether that’s about relationships, sex or climate,” Paratore said.

Once introduced to intersectional understandings of the environment such as climate health and reproductive justice, Paratore started to develop new academic interests and dedicated her later education to these more complex conversations.

After networking at Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, as well as at the Women Deliver summer conference in Vancouver, Canada, Paratore developed the collaborative team that would become “A Case for Climate and Sex.”

“This conference sparked in me this idea to organize a workshop for men, for single dads, to learn about women’s bodies and the female reproductive system, and about pregnancies and birth,” Paratore said. As she shared these ideas with other people in the climate activist community, she found more ways to intersect the environmental issues with reproductivity.

Thus, the focus of the event was to showcase the many ways in which environmental health is intersectional with reproductive and sexual health. To accomplish this, the symposium hosted a variety of voices to speak on the issue of climate change, ranging from artists to youth leaders to musicians to shamans.

As she shared these ideas with other people in the climate activist community, she found more ways to intersect the environmental issues with reproductivity.

Alan Gamage, a shaman, educator, activist and friend of Paratore, spoke at the symposium and shared his perspective on how dichotomic thinking and constructions in the English language limit our narrative frameworks for understanding these issues. Gamage, being half-white and half-Native American, grew up with a very dualistic identity. He opened what he called an “experience” rather than a presentation by bringing the audience intimately into his family life and sharing stories of his father’s fascination with words and language. His father would hop between definitions in the dictionary to show how all of the words define each other, like a nebular network.

These moments informed Gamage’s own curiosity with language and the way it’s constructed. He explained that binaries in the English language, such as good and bad, man and woman, and dominant and submissive all create an uncreative mode of thought. Yet it is also very difficult to remove ourselves from this binary method of thinking since it is embedded in our language and cultural narratives.

“We often talk about how the colonists came over to dominate the West and the Native Americans had to be submissive to the will of their values. We also talk about how to counterdominate that, how to stand up for ourselves, how we fight back,” Gamage said at the event. “And if we talk about fighting, we’re still in the dominant-submissive paradigm, so it’s not really an evolution of consciousness.”

Thus, using a language that involves binaries and dualistic thinking makes it seemingly inevitable to fall victim to these faulty paradigms.

While these issues may be complicatedly nestled within our cognitive frameworks in ways that we have difficulty separating from external realities, it is still important and productive to recognize and problematize these entanglements. Being aware of these hierarchies and dichotomies is important for how we regulate and manage our daily lives and interactions. To break the audience-speaker divide, Gamage implemented audience participation.

“When you become aware of a world that’s bigger than you, I think we have some programming to care and to have compassion.” — Smiley

This dissolution of binary and traditional conceptions of the environment was also embodied in the artwork displayed at the event. Julie Smiley’s work showcased the honesty of urban environments while also expressing how humanized spaces affect motherhood. According to Smiley, she gets a lot of comments on her portrayal of urban environments.

“We hardly ever see our own markings and delineations,” Smiley said. “I don’t edit out the electrical wires in my paintings, of what some people think is now a marred landscape, because the lines are very evocative for me about how I felt emotionally about my physical environment.”

Whether or not we are attuned to the emotional impact that our architecture and surrounding environment play in our daily lives, Smiley’s work makes us reexamine what we call home. Her integration of technology and nature challenges the common misconception that natural spaces are beautiful because they are not infiltrated by humans, and why many feel that urban developments such as telephone poles and electrical wires degrade our image of nature.

This representation of a human-intersected nature is also part of Smiley’s own attempts to reconcile her feelings and relationships with her surroundings. Smiley found that becoming a mother altered her perception of her environment as she became more attuned to the potential environmental hazards and threats that could affect her child. Raising children in an environment that is becoming more humanly uninhabitable is a challenging ethical dilemma, as are many of the emotional concerns of motherhood in a rapidly changing urban world.

“When you become aware of a world that’s bigger than you, I think we have some programming to care and to have compassion,” Smiley said. “How we mother is attached to our environment and how our society perceives environment.”

Bridging this connection between motherhood and the environment, Smiley’s work suggests that at the heart of environmental issues is a need to adopt a motherly relationship with the environment. While there are several connotations and definitions for “motherly,” Smiley’s work channels a concerned, protective and empathetic motherly figure.

This call for love, sacredness, empathy and concern was also echoed through Molly McGettigan Arthur’s presentation about eco-birth. Arthur described eco-birth as “a relationship between the life-givers and Mother Earth,” as birth seems to “crystallize the oppressions that women have received … from the very beginning of time.” Or, as described on her website, eco-birth is about “realizing our maternal lines back to the beginning of the cosmos is our reclaimed story of creation and redemption.”

The female body has historically been oppressed and abused in ways that seemingly embody misogyny and patriarchal attitudes. Arthur’s talk honed in on medical misrepresentations and oppressions of the female body. This complicated history ranges from restrictive birthing procedures to breastfeeding.

Arthur described eco-birth as “a relationship between the life-givers and Mother Earth,” as birth seems to “crystallize the oppressions that women have received … from the very beginning of time.”

Arthur related her own personal history of this issue, noting that her mother was given scopolamine during her delivery so that she would not experience or remember the pains of her birth. Many women who were given scopolamine during this time were bandaged and covered so that their husbands would not see their wives’ post-surgery bruises and injuries. Scopolamine is used to make the patient unconscious and unaware of the physical pains they may experience during medical procedures, and according to Arthur, it has also reportedly been used as a date-rape drug. Taking medications such as scopolamine can deprive a mother of the amazing experience of birthing and the first moment they get to meet their child.

In addition to this, doctors used to tell new mothers to not breastfeed their children because it was considered unsanitary. Few children of Arthur’s generation were breastfed because of this, and Arthur called this deterrent a “hate of the body.”

Arthur noted that women supporting other women through labor and in fields such as midwifery and doulaing seems to ease the processes of birthing and prioritized the health and emotions of birthing women. We now seem to find ourselves at a modern crisis of birthing and the environment in which, in Arthur’s words, “we treat life-givers so badly and we treat the earth so badly.” By recognizing the immutable relationship between a mother and her child, and with humanity and Mother Earth, we can understand the connectedness of these issues and understand how our treatment of reproductive birthing bodies is a localized version of our treatment of the global body, the planet.

In addition to these voices that spoke to the historical implications of reproductive rights and the environment, as well as the intersections of climate and sex, other speakers like Nicole Donovan related their own personal engagements with the climate crisis. Donovan is a Climate Reality Project youth leader and despite being only 13 years old, her voice speaks through generations.

With environmental issues gaining more political traction, organizations like the Climate Reality Project are training young people how to engage their communities in these issues. Donovan is one of many young leaders speaking out about the effects of climate change that her generation is expected to see within her lifetime.

While these conversations and work are meaningful in their own ways, it is easy to interrogate the significance of these kinds of events. How can these discussions be scaled to fit the size of the national level of discourse around climate politics?

Rather than feeling disarmed and disoriented by challenging ideas, we can instead insert ourselves into conversations by allowing ourselves to be confused, welcoming an opportunity to learn.

Events like “A Case for Climate and Sex,” Paratore said, are difficult to adjust to larger audiences because the material discussed at these events can be novel and controversial. The discussions at this symposium don’t necessarily fit into our cognitive frameworks. Reproductive justice, speciesism, ableism, dichotomies of language and other topics have not been normalized in our society and culture. Many of these topics may require a more imaginative and creative way of thinking, and so these difficult conversations will likely be met with resistance if they are talked about on a national level.

How then do we prepare ourselves to have these kinds of conversations? Perhaps as a first step, we can ask questions. Rather than feeling disarmed and disoriented by challenging ideas, we can instead insert ourselves into conversations by allowing ourselves to be confused, welcoming an opportunity to learn.

These are very real social and political realities surrounding the climate crisis that we are often forced to confront and respond to. Although plant-based diets or renewable energy might not be a one-size-fits-all solution, they are at least the beginning of a well-needed conversation. Normalizing these difficult conversations is the first step toward breaking hegemonic thinking that privileges old, outdated models over progressive and innovative ones.

While climate and sex may not be obviously overlapping subjects to many people, the speakers, artists and hosts at this event all demonstrated through their various voices how the state of the environment impacts their lived physical and emotional experience. From motherhood to sexuality to language, these narratives about the environment and sex can help us locate misconceptions in our cognitive frameworks and equip us with a better intellectual and emotional capacity to tackle these global crises together. 

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Contact Layla Chamberlin at [email protected].