“Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good” Asks Us to Practice for the World We Want

Writer, healer, and self-proclaimed pleasure activist adrienne maree brown’s latest book arrived in the mail just as I was packing up to leave town, which is to say, right on time. As a disabled travel writer, journeys bring with them my greatest joys and the greatest pains, the dual condition of which I like to explore as I move, because sometimes, trauma, pain, and oppression can become stale when left to sit, but when it moves, we can map it, and maybe formulate medicines that can bring about healing. I find joy in that work, and I think the various voices in Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, are on that tip, too.

Including essays and conversations by brown and other pleasure activists, this collection offers up a multitude of tactics for which to embody pleasure, claim it as a central and essential liberatory practice, and a sustainable one for the long-term road trip of justice work. I wasn’t familiar with the term or what it meant for social movements, but I did have to assume it had something to do with sex and hoped that it would give me something beyond that assumption. I wasn’t disappointed.

Brown, author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, defines pleasure itself as a satisfying feeling and/or the act of giving sexual satisfaction to another person, and says, “in a nutshell, pleasure activism is learning from what pleases us about how to make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have.” It is more focused on those individual and collective experiences and how they can inform movements for justice rather than on offering a structural overhaul of those movements themselves. Most of what is written by brown herself does center on sex, touching on topics like fantasies, porn, period sex, polyamory, and masturbating, while the other pieces in the book engage with pleasure from various entry points, all in some way responding to Audre Lorde’s 1978 essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”

For instance, writer and scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes letters to her friends who create joy in the tradition of author and activist Toni Cade Bambara. In it, she spoke of watching a documentary on rape at school and realizing that the silence she had experienced as the result of assault was one “that other people had moved through,” that she lived in the “legacies of women who have been shaped and strengthened by burn.” There is a continuing thread in this book of Black women, usually queer fat femmes, learning of the power of this shift from other Black women. Of this, Gumbs says, “let’s call it: you will not move through this room and not know that there is a Black femme in here who loves herself at least as diligently as oppression denies her.”

“There is no justice for Black women without pleasure!” Brittney Cooper of The Pleasure Ninjas collective

While Gumbs expressed her joy through letters, Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, wrote one of the more academic pieces in this collection, and maybe the heart of this book. In “Why We Get Off: Moving Toward a Black Feminist Politics of Pleasure,” she hopes to “articulate a politics of pleasure that positions [it] not only as desirable and a social and political imperative, but also an under-theorized resistance strategy for Black women in the U.S. and Caribbean.”

In Two-Spirit Black and Indigenous organizer Holiday Simmons’s diary entries addressed to GoD (the D standing for “dick”) about hooking up on dating apps while transitioning and trying to get pregnant, he offers us the gift of, “hurt people hurt people, but healing people heal people!” And in a conversation on fashion with BlackStar Film Festival founder Maori Holmes, she gives us Marie Kondo-esque guidelines for constructing a wardrobe that can thrill the wearer in a way that can better facilitate them to take on the world.

As a chronically pained (and chronically single) queer, I was hoping for more voices to complicate ideas of who gets to access pleasure, especially in bodies not deemed normative. I wondered how my asexual, aromantic, and agender accomplices would be able to complement these takes, as well as disabled, Deaf/HoH, mentally or chronically ill folks. Alana Devich Cyril did briefly touch on this in a talk on late-stage cancer, and how the depression that she fell into on her first chemo cocktail made pleasure inaccessible to her. Ultimately it was Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s entry, Care As Pleasure, where she said, “Care isn’t always orgasmically pleasurable: people need to be able to get what we need and go to the bathroom whether or not it feels like a dance party,” that made me feel a little more ‘seen,’ or validated.

“We are all responsible for finding a way, a moment, an opening, or a set of relationships that allow us to grow as interrupters of despair.” Malachi Garza, Experiments in Cannabis for the Collective

One section that brown wrote that didn’t focus much on sex and that gave me tons of pleasure was one entirely dedicated to Beyoncé. My pleasure icon, a feminist icon, all the icons, and the “queen my anarchic heart continues to choose,” as brown puts it, Beyoncé is ultimately a regular-ass person, a Black woman artist mother-of-three from Houston, Texas who feels pain and fucks up and through the alchemy of her work transforms the natural into something supernatural. As the title of brown’s chapter states, The Pleasure of Living at the Same Time as Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter is something I specifically focus on when I’m struggling to think up reasons to go on living in 2019. And just as brown alerts at the beginning of that section, if you take issue with our love for this woman, feel free to skip ahead, because much of her body of work echoes the messages in Pleasure Activism — and to paraphrase author Kiese Laymon who is quoted in this book, we have to hold fast to joy wherever we can find it in this world, by any means necessary.

This is driven home particularly when brown writes on Beyoncé’s 2017 Grammys performance, where she was pregnant with her twins. At the time, Aquarius season was giving way to Pisces season, and Bey’s performance was an oceanic ode to the worship of water gods and goddesses in African diasporic spiritualities and their powers of cyclic growth. While performing “Love Drought,” a painful but almost radically optimistic song about joining together to bring about a desperately-needed reckoning, Beyoncé says, “if we’re going to heal, let it be glorious.” It’s moving through pain and trauma that makes space for pleasure to be possible, for peace.

It’s true that in conversations around social justice, we often talk about what sucks, what we don’t want, and what needs to be torn down. In order to build a better world, to move towards the goals of decolonization, abolition, and liberation, Pleasure Activism tells us, we need to “practice for the world we want,” as sister burlesque performers Michi and Una Osato put it in one piece. What I got from this book is that all bodies have the potential to develop this practice of using the intelligence of what makes us feel good and apply it to movements for justice. We don’t have to just give our blood, sweat, and tears to this project, but share our pleasure, too. We can — we must — bring all of all of us.

Bani Amor is a queer travel writer who explores the relationships between race, place, and power. Their work has appeared in CNN Travel, Teen Vogue, Bitch Magazine, and in the anthologies Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity, and the upcoming Where We Stand: Brown and Black Voices Speak the Earth. You can follow them on Instagram @baniamor and on Twitter @bani_amor.

Bani has written 3 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. I cannot WAIT to read this! Just popping into say I’m so glad to see adrienne maree brown’s work amplified on autostraddle! Without emergent strategy (and autostraddle) who knows where I’d be? Probably sad & broken.

  2. What a gorgeous review. Thank you so much for alerting me to this book. As a disabled, autistic, chronically ill and usually single queer, I appreciate that you named this as well:

    “As a chronically pained (and chronically single) queer, I was hoping for more voices to complicate ideas of who gets to access pleasure, especially in bodies not deemed normative. I wondered how my asexual, aromantic, and agender accomplices would be able to complement these takes, as well as disabled, Deaf/HoH, mentally or chronically ill folks.”

  3. Yes!!!! I’m so so so excited to read this book! I can’t wait to get the copy I pre-ordered so long ago! This idea of pleasure, erotic, joy in liberation work is so central to the work I want to do, am trying to create right now.
    Also recommend Joyful Militancy by carla bergman & Nick Montgomery, adrienne maree brown contributed a bit to that book, and their concepts weave together beautifully

  4. I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time, too, and this review kind of confirmed some of my hesitations about it. I’ll still read it, but in the past I haven’t *loved* adrienne maree brown’s work, which I know is approaching sacrilege to say in certain circles. I was definitely hoping that it would take a broader view of pleasure than just sex, and I’m gathering that sex is largely the focus of the book. I was also hoping, like other commenters said, that it would talk about the ways in which access to pleasure is denied to people based on certain marginalizations. Generally, I guess, I would say my biggest critique of brown’s work is that it’s sort of packaged/marketed as being radical, but I think her analysis is maybe left of liberal but not actually as radical as it’s sold as. I definitely echo the recommendation for Joyful Militancy though, if these are the kind of concepts your into!

    Also, one more thing-I find it interesting (and by that I mean incredibly frustrating) that people are encouraged to access sexual pleasure as a form of liberation, but drug use is never seen as a legitimate form of pleasure, and people who use drugs are never seen as having anything valuable to contribute to our movements. I’m a drug user, and I love drug users, and drug use is a normal part of the human experience. Certainly not all drug use is harmful, and I would argue that using drugs to experience pleasure and our bodies is just as legitimate as sex as a form of pleasure. That’s an essay I’d love to read within the concept of pleasure activism!

    • Hey Sea! Thanks so much for your feedback. This review is short and not meant to be totally comprehensive so do know that there is an entire section on drugs and drug use in the book (I only quoted the Cannabis for the Collective piece above) and adrienne maree is very adamant about its inclusion. I found that section to be critical and well-thought out, including an array of voices speaking to the issue from different angles. Totally okay to be critical of her and other’s work, you’re not alone there! I haven’t read everything she’s done but from this book alone I don’t see a centrist viewpoint from amb; seems very radical to me. Now I’m excited to pick up Joyful Militancy!

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