The scope of the Australian bushfires is almost too horrifying to even try to grasp. A billion animals: dead. Sydney: shrouded in toxic air. Aboriginal sacred sites: gone. The Southern Hemisphere: blanketed in smoke.
The list goes on. You get it. This is a picture of human and ecological suffering.
People have rushed in to help however they can (Australia’s prime minister being the standout exception). In an odd twist, some of the most viral fundraising appeals have come from, let’s say, unexpected places. Kaylen Ward, a model, raised an estimated $1 million (around £766,000) by sending people nudes for proof of donations to relief organisations, and other sex workers followed suit. Then, this week, a sex toymaker’s Australia bushfire-themed dildo went viral. All proceeds from the $69 (nice) dildo will go to help bushfire survivors.
“We had already donated a small amount of money personally but after seeing the situation here in Australia continue to worsen, we brainstormed ways to raise a larger amount,” Josh, the CEO of the company making the dildo who goes by only his first name, told Gizmodo via email. “We figured, our company Geeky Sex Toys is really good at designing and producing sex toys, so let’s make an Australian themed dildo with all the profits going to charity!”
This isn’t their first brush with viral sex toy fame so it’s clear they know what they’re doing. But – and no offense to Star Wars fans – this batch of dildos is for a good cause.
That these appeals went viral (and not, say, those of the Red Cross or United Nations) speaks on some level to the power of sex as a motivator. But they also reveal how the internet and the climate crisis are reconfiguring our relationship with each other and the things we care about, from a habitable planet to nudes. Or as Claire Colebrook, a cultural theorist at Penn State, put it to Gizmodo it’s easy to poo-poo these fundraisers as appealing to people’s basic instincts, “but I think then we’ve got to reevaluate why we think that is a base or lesser instinct.”
The bushfires in Australia have taken on an end times-type quality to them. Maps show a continent ringed by fire, and it’s been a very real judgment day for ecosystems and communities alike that have been burned over.
The crisis is largely driven by climate change, which has warmed the continent up and dried it out. Last year was Australia’s hottest on record, and scientists have said this angry summer is what our current carbon emissions trajectory will make an annual occurrence later this century. Look at Australia and you get a preview of the horrors that await the rest of us as the crisis worsens. Wendy Steiner, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written about the connections between consumption, pleasure, and the environment, likened this to the moment in horror films when things start to go south.
“It’s one of the standard plots in horror movies and apocalyptic movies that at times like that, social hierarchies, social roles disappear, fade away, or reverse themselves,” she told Gizmodo. “And people behave toward each other in a different way.”
Of course, porn is believed to have been around for tens of thousands of years. Ditto for dildos. But they’ve rarely if ever been deployed as a response to ecological collapse. By deploying them in fundraisers to help cope with apocalypse, it puts nudes and sex objects in a new light. They’re not just something for personal pleasure but virtuous and contributing to the greater good.
While these fundraisers have most captivated the internet, they’re hardly the only ones that have raised money in unique ways for bushfire victims. Writers have auctioned their work on Twitter, as have game developers. The internet has helped normalise these unconventional approaches to disaster relief. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 15 years ago, we had celebrity telethons. Today, a telethon feels like something from the Middle Ages, and we’ve replaced that fundraising vehicle with promises of butt pics and video games.
It’s not that we don’t need the state or other large, established institutions to do their part to help in the bushfire crisis (they definitely do, and Australia’s conservative government is doing a shit job so far). But these types of organic, people-driven fundraisers show the latest step in a path the climate movement is forging, one that turns away from traditional themes and forms of environmentalism.
“A lot of ecological discourse is associated with a kind of puritanism,” Steiner said, of which nudes and sex toys are decidedly the opposite. “You get nowhere with that, I think, because waste and extravagant consumption is tied up with deep ideas of pleasure.”
The lineup at the Apple Store when the new iPhone comes out or the rise of fast fashion and instant gratification are just two examples of the way buying crap moves us to action (they also have a huge environmental toll, but that’s another story for another day). But, Steiner said, the “really clever thing would be to tie responsible behaviour to pleasure.” Which is exactly what the nude models, sex toy maker, and game developers have done.
PBS and NPR, with their perennial offer of a free tote bag when you donate, have been doing this for years. But connecting otherwise unrelated pleasure with caring for our fellow humans has become even more explicit in the face of the bushfires, spurring more people to do more good. Imagine if instead of putting up a piddly donation, Jeff Bezos had offered dick pics for donors. The internet would be singing his praises instead of trashing him. (There’s still time to change course, Jeff. Hit us up if you want us to run point).
“We need to think of objects as things that transform us, that have force,” Claire Colebrook, a cultural theorist at Penn State, told Gizmodo. “An object is never just an object. It’s also a subject. And that’s a transformation of the nudes and the dildo into something active. [These are] things that we normally see as sometimes anti-feminist or regressive are actually connected to a new environmentalism in ways that aren’t just accidental.”
In addition to pleasure, the new climate movement has also turned away from the Puritan emotions of shame and toward grief and anger as well as joy about the possibility of creating a better world. You need only look at the signs at climate strikes, memes on Instagram, or listen to Greta Thunberg speak to see those emotions on display, reflecting our new relationship with nature, each other, and the people in power who have hard-wired the economy to run on fossil fuels creating the crisis. Ultimately, the reordering of our values and ways of engaging with each other could finally unlock the systematic change needed, and nude fundraising is just a smaller piece of the bigger shift.
“The managerial, rational, calculating attitude is what got us into this mess,” Colebrook said. “We’ve alienated ourselves from things. Now, we’re getting more open.”