Pleasure Activism (2019) offers an introduction to the politics of pleasure. It explores the ways in which we can break free of repression and marginalization – and instead embrace the feelings of freedom. It offers ways in which we can gain a better understanding of past traumas and move forward with a deeper connection to our bodies and our communities.
Learn how to self-actualize through the practice of pleasure activism.
We are all bound to encounter pain in life; it’s just part of being alive. And for those of us who are oppressed or marginalized, each day can carry a painful reminder of the ways society attempts to restrict or limit our happiness. In times like these, embracing pleasure and feeling good is like an act of liberation.
This, in its essence, is pleasure activism. It’s a way to transcend oppression and remind yourself that you’re free. By allowing yourself to feel pleasure, you can shift your attention away from the rules of repression and align yourself with what’s important in life.
In these summary, you’ll learn
- how pleasure activism can lead to self-realization;
- what burlesque can teach us about loving our bodies; and
- how science fiction can provide hope for the future.
Pleasure is about feeling whole and satisfied – not about indulging in excess.
Pleasure is freedom. To feel happiness, joy, and satisfaction – in short, to feel pleasure – is to know you are alive and liberated. In this regard, pleasure can be political, especially if you identify as a woman, femme, LGBTQ+, or have had to live in an oppressive environment.
Experiencing pleasure as an act of defiance is where the term pleasure activism comes in. In the author’s own words, pleasure activism is “the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy.” As someone who identifies as a queer, Black, mixed-race woman, the author has had to learn ways to understand and move through childhood traumas. Finding pleasure, and finding a way to her yes, has been central to that process.
The key message here is: Pleasure is about feeling whole and satisfied – not about indulging in excess.
Many of us have grown up with certain beliefs that have trained us to equate pleasure with indecency or needless indulgence. We’ve been taught to repress our desires for pleasure so much that any sort of allowance is seen as excessive. As a result, when people hear ideas about embracing pleasure, their thoughts often immediately turn to these negative perceptions. But that’s not what pleasure activism is about. The author and those she interviewed like to say, “everything in moderation.” So, while we extol the virtues of pleasure, try not to think of it in terms of excess or overindulgence!
Alana Devich Cyril’s story is a great example of this mantra. After being diagnosed with late-stage cancer, finding pleasure and experiencing satisfaction despite feeling sick a lot of the time became more important than ever.
For a while, the cancer and the chemotherapy left Alana feeling betrayed by her body, and pleasure was something that seemed inaccessible. But thanks in part to friendly health-care workers, her friends, and her loving partner, she was able to gradually bring pleasure back into her life. There was pleasure in having friends over, throwing a karaoke party, and eventually reengaging in sex. It took effort to once again open herself up to these experiences, but, for her, they were life-affirming.
As Alana sees it, a big part of being a human being on Earth is to experience pleasure. And when she advocates for “everything in moderation,” she emphasizes the “everything.” Through her journey, we see that adopting pleasure as a practice can help when we feel dissociated from our bodies or find ourselves slipping into depression.
The erotic can be a powerful form of pleasure, but it’s not limited to sex.
One of the author’s primary inspirations for pleasure activism was Audre Lorde. A self-decribed Black lesbian warrior poet, Lorde wrote many influential poems and essays, including the 1978 piece, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”
The author first encountered this essay in college, and it was transformative in teaching her how erotic pleasure can help people let go of pain and repression. The erotic is far from the only expression of pleasure, but it can be a potent one – especially when it comes to feeling connected to, and feeling good about, your body.
The key message here is: The erotic can be a powerful form of pleasure, but it’s not limited to sex.
The author would like to shift and broaden the definition of “erotic.” Too often, we tend to equate erotic with pornography. But, unless you’re watching feminist porn, there’s a good chance pornography is actually doing the opposite of what the erotic should embody. The erotic can provide you with a deeper understanding of yourself – and thus allow for a more positive relationship with your body – whereas pornography is often about repressing and objectifying women. In short, the erotic is empowering; pornography is not.
The erotic can be expressed in several ways, one of which is burlesque. Taja Lindley is a performance artist who uses burlesque as a medium of expression. For her, burlesque has been a great tool for cultivating pleasure and connecting it with the political. It’s also helped her move past painful experiences.
As someone who experienced childhood trauma and abuse, Taja believes the body holds onto these memories in a way that’s connected to – but different from – how the brain operates. She created a performance piece that involved her throat and neck, an area directly related to her past trauma. During this performance she felt something within her loosen and break free. It was profound and unlike anything she’d experienced before in her practice.
To perform burlesque, you have to love your body – or, as the author puts it, “you have to L.O.V.E. love your body.” Burlesque dancers Michi Osato and Una Osato agree. Part of it is about experiencing freedom while being completely present within their bodies. The other is about creating and performing a vision of the world they want to live in. Sounds pretty empowering, doesn’t it?
Embracing pleasure can get you closer to what you really want in life.
Are you familiar with your orgasmic yes? Well, you should be! Pleasure is about saying yes – and becoming comfortable with that can have far-reaching effects in your life.
When you get used to repressing your desires and withholding pleasure, you’re essentially growing accustomed to not getting what you want. Is this any way to live?
The key message here is: Embracing pleasure can get you closer to what you really want in life.
As we’ve learned, the author began opening up to a new way of looking at life through the work of Audre Lorde. Embracing the erotic helped her love her body – in spite of the lack of desirability that culture-at-large seemed to have for Black queer girls who, like her, wore glasses. She was starting to connect with her deep orgasmic yes.
This was a process she used to better understand what provided satisfaction, or what she really wanted in life. It helped her figure out that working with like-minded collaborators was far more satisfying than spending time butting heads with competitors or people who wanted to control her. Ultimately, this process empowered her to make better decisions.
When you’re facing life’s challenges and opportunities, be sure to assess your options and check for that yes. Is there a sense of resistance, or is there a sense of opening up and feeling more alive?
This shift in the author’s approach to life has informed everything in her work. It’s led her to focus on marginalized communities, to find ways of moving people toward what they love rather than just away from the negative things. We are, of course, justified in our big no, and we need to listen to it when we feel it. But we move forward when we’re drawn to work that gives us a big yes.
Along with Audre Lorde, the author also found inspiration in the work of Toni Cade Bambara, a Black author, social activist, and filmmaker. Among her teachings is the idea that artists and writers need to “make the revolution irresistible.” This is possible when we not only connect to our yes, but find ways to help others connect with theirs. It’s about envisioning and working toward a future where our internal suffering and the effects of oppression are a thing of the past.
The author has had good experiences with drugs – but knows her limits.
Many of the pleasurable things in life – things like sex, drugs, music, and even sugar – have been politicized in one way or another. The author believes that drugs should, in general, be legalized; as it stands, their criminalization is mainly serving to ruin Black and Brown futures.
There’s a reason why the most marginalized and oppressed people in a society turn to drugs. Marijuana, in particular, is often used to trigger pleasure or relieve pain. But as we can see with the legalization of marijuana in places throughout the United States, this doesn’t make it any less of a political issue. Nowadays, a predominantly white group of entrepreneurs are getting rich selling something that people of color are still getting jailed for. Hopefully, this burgeoning industry will find more ways of being inclusive and giving back to these communities.
The key message here is: The author has had good experiences with drugs – but knows her limits.
The author has used weed to alleviate physical and emotional pain, to feel more awake and connected, and to make it a little easier to move through what she describes as “a wounded world in long tantrum.”
She’s also had transcendent experiences with ecstasy and mushrooms. In her experience, they were invaluable in helping her to feel more connected to both the world around her and her own body. For her, the point of using drugs is to feel more pleasure and satisfaction – and to become more attuned to being awake and alive. But she’s also well aware that she has addictive tendencies and that there’s a history of substance abuse in her family. So she knows she has to be careful. Remember, moderation is key. It’s easy for drug use to turn into a way of shutting down and numbing yourself. So be aware. When the author starts to feel she’s using drugs to numb herself, she’ll step back and take a break for a few months.
She also stays away from drugs when working on nonfiction writing. When it comes time to enter the fictional realm and gain entry into her deeper imagination, though, then she might embrace the high.
Fortunately, the author has found a lot of guidance working with the Harm Reduction Coalition – an organization that believes in the rights of drug users and offers judgment-free strategies to reduce the harms associated with substance use.
Somatics is another way to connect to your body and be more open to receiving life’s pleasures.
When you’re depressed, pleasure can be one of the most difficult things to connect with. After college, the author’s drug use wasn’t helping her feel better in the long run. She was just using substances to try and cope with her constant feelings of anxiety, fear, and paranoia – as well as lingering issues around abuse, sexual trauma, and fatphobia.
But things took a turn for the better when she found a therapist and began to identify and talk through some of these issues. Later, things really began to change in deeply positive ways when a friend introduced her to a course called “Somatics and Social Justice,” which was developed by an organization called Generative Somatics.
The key message here is: Somatics is another way to connect to your body and be more open to receiving life’s pleasures.
Sometimes, in order to survive, our minds and bodies can end up dissociating from reality. We’ll carry around pain and trauma without realizing what’s going on within us. Not only will we lose touch with ourselves, we’ll lose touch with the world and people around us. In cases like this, somatics can help.
Somatics is a type of therapeutic bodywork, with movement techniques that aim to get a person more in tune with their body and their feelings. The practice helped the author let go of her attachments to the past, feel her feelings more deeply, find the hurt that she’d been carrying with her, and work through all of this with dignity.
Through somatics, she developed a far deeper understanding of herself and the beautiful vastness within her. It also inspired in her a more profound sense of empathy for others. This is how somatics can go hand-in-hand with social justice. In order to create a better world, we need to strengthen our empathy and our awareness of how so much pain stems from social inequalities, oppression, and racism.
Alongside the “Somatics and Social Justice” course was another program called “Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity,” or BOLD. It was a space where people could freely and safely share their pain and grief, as well as engage in joyful political conversations.
And it needs to happen in that order – we need to be able to connect with ourselves and our own emotions first. Only then can we start to change the world.
In order to build a better future, we must embrace Octavia Butler’s radical honesty and prioritize pleasure.
Feeling good isn’t a waste of time; feeling good is freedom. Pleasure has the power to heal, easing us back from the edge of being overwhelmed by life, and letting us know we are liberated individuals. Pleasure also has an important social function – it can be used to develop stronger connections with our fellow human beings, and with the planet we’re a part of.
Right now, things aren’t looking great for the Earth. We need to connect with each other and become more aware of our relationship with nature. Pleasure activism has the potential to facilitate this and help us envision a better world. Once again, we can turn to the visionary work of Octavia E. Butler for inspiration.
The key message here is: In order to build a better future, we must embrace Octavia Butler’s radical honesty and prioritize pleasure.
This is the third book the author has written that’s been based, at least in part, on the work of Butler. An influential figure in the world of science fiction writing, Butler is also considered to be a central voice in the world of Afrofuturism. Her work, sometimes referred to as speculative fiction, envisions vibrant communities in the future that transcend race, ethnicity, and sometimes even species. It tears down patriarchies and societal hierarchies.
The author believes that Butler saw pleasure as an intrinsic part of our survival, and as a path forward. The bold and exciting communities she created in her writing were symbiotic and interdependent. Their survival relied on communication, and on being open and truthful with one another through deep physical or telepathic connections. Her characters knew they couldn’t thrive by lying and cheating.
In Butler’s worlds, radical honesty is the way; it should also be the practice in ours if we’re to have a prosperous, sustainable future. And part of being radically honest is allowing ourselves to experience and express true pleasure; we must have a future that puts it front and center.
By allowing ourselves to feel good and to align our values with what provides true satisfaction, we can heal past wounds, and move toward a more fulfilling life. By healing ourselves, and paying attention to the things that really matter, we can then begin to heal our communities.
This is pleasure activism, and this is how we can change the world.
The key message in these summary:
To feel pleasure is to feel good, free, and alive. Pleasure activism is about connecting to the pleasures that raise our self-awareness and allow us to realign with our bodies, as well as with those around us. By embracing pleasure and the erotic, we can become more comfortable in our own skin and more sensitive to the pain and trauma we may be carrying with us. Through therapeutic practices like somatics and a moderate, purposeful use of drugs, we can get closer to understanding the pain that holds us back – and to figuring out how to move toward a more enriching future.
About the Author
Adrienne maree brown, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements and author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, is a social justice facilitator, healer, and doula living in Detroit.
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