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FFF: Will a sexy sell help save the environment?

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Leona Johannson (second from left) and Tommy Ellingsen (right) with FFF volunteers in Costa Rica. (Courtesy of FFF)

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Leona Johannson and Tommy Ellingsen of FFF. (Courtesy of FFF)

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Tommy Ellingsen (left) and Leona Johannson (second from right) with volunteers at Wild Climax Refuge in Costa Rica. (Courtesy of FFF)

Four years ago, Tommy Ellingsen and Leona Johannson decided to do something for the environment. Like many other eco-activists, the young Norwegian couple opted to set up a Web site to educate others about the death of the rainforest, and to collect donations for the cause. Yet, unlike other similar-minded idealists, they chose “to have a little bit more fun with the issues,” said Ellingsen, 31.

Fun, to Ellingsen and Johannson, meant sex, and the result was the creation of a Web site whose acronym, FFF, stands for an unprintable verb in front of "ForForest.com."

In return for a monthly fee of $15, members can download and watch homemade porn--all in the name of saving the planet. FFF, which bills itself as "the only 100% karma improving eco porn site," features videos and photographs starring Ellingsen and Johannson, 25, as well as volunteers who want to donate more than just money.

This unusual fund-raising strategy has been a success. In the past four years, the non-profit organization, which is registered in Norway, has taken in annual revenues of $100,000 to $120,000, according to Ellingsen. On their Web site, FFF promises that $12 of every $15 membership fee goes to conservation projects, the rest covering administration expenses. Like other charitable organizations, FFF files their annual statements with Norwegian authorities to keep their tax-free status.

Products and services targeted at shoppers with a social and environmental conscience are nothing new. Consumers can buy locally grown foods and cosmetics that haven’t been tested on animals, and plant trees to offset air-travel carbon emissions.

Nonetheless, organizations like FFF have found there’s a niche market of eco-activists who want to hug more than just trees. In many cases, the initiators hope that the old marketing concept “sex sells” will also promote their ideas to a wider audience. That audience, meanwhile, gets the chance to combine vice with virtue.

“I think that sex and the way we see sex right now reflects how we are destroying nature,” said Ellingsen. “It’s being suppressed like nature is being suppressed.”

Ellingsen, a former teacher, and Johannson, who used to work at a day-care center, are willing to bare everything to spread this message. Three years ago, they stripped off their clothes and began having sex on stage at a music festival in the Norwegian town of Kristiansand--all, so they said, to draw attention to the destruction of the rainforest. While this publicity stunt led to a police investigation, fines and a day in court, visits to their Web site spiked in the following weeks. “The media loved it,” said Ellingsen.

So far, he added, FFF has spent roughly $90,000 to create the “Wild Climax Refuge” in Costa Rica and given another $100,000 to Seeds Dream, an indigenous ecological organization in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

However, not everyone agrees that it’s appropriate to use sexual expression to fight for the environment. The Dutch and Norwegian branches of the World Wildlife Fund have refused to take FFF’s money, fearing that it might put off other donors.

“We did not want to be associated with pornography,” said Tor Traasdahl, head of public relations at WWF Norway.

Arbofilia, an organization trying to build an ecological corridor in Costa Rica, has similar concerns at the moment, said Hermann Edelmann, co-founder of the German reforestation group Pro Regenwald. As a middleman between FFF and Arbofilia, Edelmann recently traveled to Costa Rica trying to find a way for Arbofilia to manage FFF’s 150-acre “Wild Climax Refuge.”

Meanwhile, according to Ellingsen, FFF has more than $280,000 in the bank, ready and available to support other projects.

“Of course you cannot completely separate means and ends,” said Dale Jamieson, professor of environmental studies and philosophy at New York University and author of several books on environmental ethics. “Corrupt means will in the end corrupt the purpose that they serve.”

When it comes to sexuality, however, “there is a great deal of relativity about these matters,” said Jamieson. “It just seems silly to let that kind of moralism stand in the way.”

Many foundations that support charitable projects, he noted, earned their money through “much more serious wrongs” than pornography, such as the exploitation of workers or the destruction of the environment. And whether the donations are made for public relations reasons or are based on truly good intentions, “there is a long tradition of turning what may be called bad money into good money,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy.

The founders of FFF are not the only ones using nudity and sex to promote a cause. Some men out for a good time might choose to visit Casa Diablo, billed as the country’s first vegan strip club, which opened Feb. 1 in Portland, Ore. “Veganism is all about love, ethics and morality,” said owner Johnny Diablo, 41. When the dancers, all women, take the floor, Diablo promises that the clothes they shed will not contain any fur, leather or feathers.

While Diablo aims to make a profit from the club, he also hopes that his soy burgers and homemade non-dairy nacho cheese will convince customers of the benefits of an all-plant diet. Diablo, who has been vegan for 23 years, sees no conflict in taking a stance against the exploitation of animals while simultaneously exploiting, as some would say, the women he employs. “Sex-positive women that entertain others in their natural-born clothing is different from cutting up animals,” he argued.

Natural-born clothing is also celebrated at Veg Porn, an adult-only web site targeted to “titillating tofu eaters” and run by a woman who calls herself Furry Girl. Here, all of the amateur models are said to be vegan or vegetarian, and visitors are encouraged to send photos of themselves cooking their favorite vegan meal--wearing nothing but their birthday suits. The idea is to allow paid members to pick up recipes for tofu pie and vegan cupcakes while indulging in their erotic fantasies. On The Sensual Vegan, a related site, Furry Girl offers vegan condoms, lubricants and sex toys to animal-lovers who want to avoid the milk-protein found in some latex items.

The growing desire for sex with a conscience can be exhausting. “We are totally overworked,” said Ellingsen from FFF, who is currently putting together an erotic documentary on deforestation. “We don’t have any private life.” Of course, his definition of private life is somewhat different from that of most people.

E-mail: gks2113@columbia.edu