‘ve been hitting adrienne maree brown up for three days straight now. “Sorry, one more thing, I just wanna make sure I’m presenting this right,” my last email began. brown’s a writer and facilitator of social justice movements, primarily focused on Black liberation, and I needed to get this right — “this” being a definition of pleasure activism — for obvious reasons.
When I first heard the term “pleasure activism,” used by a colleague referencing brown and the work that she does, I instantly needed to learn more. As it turns out, adrienne literally wrote the book on pleasure activism, and that book was just released today. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good explores a politics of healing and happiness that says changing the world doesn’t have to be just another form of work. Then what is it?
Below, a conversation between brown and myself in which we attempt to answer that question by interrogating the role of pleasure in both life and liberation work, what pleasure can look like, and how to reclaim it to make the world a better place.
Emma: I read that you came to pleasure activism by doing harm reduction work — who coined the term?
adrienne: Keith Cylar, the founder of Housing Works.
How do you explain it to someone who’s never heard of the concept?
Making justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have. Learning that pleasure gets lost under the weight of oppression, and it is liberatory work to reclaim it.
Can you help me understand that a little bit more? How do we make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experience we can have?
I’m also in the process of trying to figure it out. One thing that I know for sure is about food and pleasure activism. Or food and justice. That when people come to a gathering space or a meeting and the food situation is healthy, and beautiful, and local and organic, and the people are having the pleasure of having food together, it makes them much more likely to return.
The other thing is that it feels important that we stop shaming people for the pleasures that they are able to find in this life. Stop equating suffering with a part of how we do our justice work, which it feels like we do now — it’s like you have be suffering all the time — and that’s actually not a good long-term survival strategy. One of the things that I really posit in the book, which is like an echo of Audre Lorde, is that we settle for suffering and self-negation because of oppression. Oppression makes us believe that pleasure is not something that we all have equal access to. One of the ways that we start doing the work of reclaiming our full selves — our whole liberated, free selves — is by reclaiming our access to pleasure.
So it sounds like there are two prongs to pleasure activism: one being working intentionally to make more “traditional” activism/organizing work as pleasurable as it can be, and the other being advocating for historically marginalized and disenfranchised folks to reclaim pleasure in our daily lives (which is radical in and of itself because of the way the capitalist white supremacist heteropatriarchy separates us from pleasure).
You got it!
Cool. Why do we need it?
I wrote the book primarily for those who, through ancestral and current oppression, have lost touch with their natural right to it. We need to stay in visceral touch with what brings us aliveness, contentment, joy — so that we do not settle for suffering or fighting for crumbs. Audre Lorde is a key teacher in this lesson and lineage.
As a black woman in this country, I have to walk around every day knowing that, had I been born at a different time in this country’s history, it would’ve been a policy, like part of the law, that I could be raised for the pleasure of whoever owned me in that time. I’m trying to come all the way back from that to living in my own dignity and like, the self-actualization of my own pleasure, my own body — not for someone else to use, not for someone else to have ownership of.
How did you come to figure out what pleasure means to and for you?
Ah… through experimentation, mistakes, indulging, surrendering. Listening to Lorde read her essay “The Uses of the Erotic as Power.” Through somatics.
Are there people who are not denied experiences of pleasure?
The world is still very much structured on the pleasures of white men, and white women to a large extent. That’s why I think we see a lot of these self-care and self-healing and even self-help areas of life dominated by white women co-opting things that are actually healing technologies but that don’t belong to them or do not apply to their lineage — things that have been stolen from or ridiculed in the lineages that they do belong to, but now white women have “discovered” them and decided this is the new trend.
I think it’s the way that white supremacy is structured — white supremacy, which, at its fundamental root, is the idea that the world exists for me and my pleasure. [As a white person], I’m supreme to everyone else and everyone else is supposed to be in some kind of service to me — either giving me their land or their bodies or their whatever.
So this idea that people of color actually have the right to exist for themselves and for their own pleasure and for their own self-realization, that to me is a fundamentally radical idea that we should all be practicing. I think that there’s a way that we think [pleasure] somehow is like the concept of heaven — like [we believe that] some day when we are free then we will finally earn the right to feel pleasure. I really want to flip that on its head as much and as often as possible: We deserve it already. We always have deserved it. It’s been denied to us, but it’s in our nature, it’s how we are wired, and all we’re doing is actually reclaiming it. It’s not like creating something from scratch.
What role does intimacy play in this?
Oh it’s huge — so much of the book is about how to be in the kind of authentic intimacy it takes to be honest and interdependent. The intimacy which we often expect to come from romantic relationships — being deeply known and deeply real — gets explored in this work as something that can and should happen in so many other places.
Can you talk about being in a relationship with yourself?
For me it’s fundamental and primary, and something not nearly enough of us are encouraged or guided to cultivate. I think we have to really be able to feel and know ourselves to authentically engage in relationships with others — relationships that aren’t toxic, imbalanced or manipulative but meaningful, spacious and based in reality.
What are some actionable ways Black and brown folks can participate in pleasure activism? White folks?
Black and Brown folks usually need to turn up the pleasure side of pleasure activism — the first thing I often recommend is looking upon our bodies in wonder and awe, accepting and loving the vessel. Understanding that it has been hundreds of years of white supremacy trying to convince us that our miraculous human bodies are inferior, not beautiful, only desirable as a fetish. So a first move is taking yourself in, naked. Exploring desire, making sure that you can see yourself in a decolonized way, as beautiful. Another way is nourishing each other. Being in meetings and spaces together where we get to practice care and delight. Dance when you make decisions. For white people, so much of it is the same, but where there is privilege, it’s about turning up the activism side of pleasure activism. Make sure that you are aware of the footprint of your white privilege, and that your pleasures don’t come at the expense of others. Make sure that you are aware of the distribution of pleasure in the city/community you live in.
How can we actively participate in working towards Black and brown liberation?
Take leadership from Black- and Brown-led groups (versus individuals). Redistribute your wealth into organizing spaces. The work of changing the world has a million front lines, especially if you believe, like I do, in the words of Grace Lee Boggs, that you must “transform yourself to transform the world.” It’s lifelong work, growing your own soul. And I think the most radical way to approach it is to cultivate collective agency. Learn to transform your behaviors. Learn as a collective how to transform our behaviors.
If you’re white, challenge racism and other oppression. Less performance of wokeness, more real-time intervention.
Okay: I’m Black, I’m gay, I’m depressed, and I feel like when my girlfriend and I (she’s also a person of color) actively choose to feed ourselves a nice meal, or sit and make out on the couch instead of actively using our bodies to contribute to and participate in work to feed a capitalist system, which is actually not for us, that is radical. But then I’m like, is it?
A lot of people are like, privately figuring shit out, right? Privately figuring out I can’t survive if I keep pushing myself this way and I never give myself a break and I don’t attend to my body. I think it’s capitalism that makes us think that’s something that we should be figuring out on an individual level instead of figuring it out on a collective level. Pleasure activism, for me, is saying it’s not just you deserving it — so you opt out, and you and your girlfriend go have a good time — it’s like recognizing that you want to be part of community where everyone’s pleasure is attended to and accounted for, a community where everyone has access and time and resources to actually be able to pursue it.
So is there always a difference between seeking pleasure and doing radical work?
I don’t think that everyone has to be doing 100% radical work for the world to change. I do think that everyone needs to become mindful of themselves as part of interconnected systems that depend on each other for quality of life and survival. So, you know, a lot of times I’m like: You don’t have to jump to being an organizer. You do have to be aware that if you are not working on solutions for solving society’s ills then you’re probably participating in creating those ills.
You just have to be awake to the fact that you are in a community, and there are people who rely on and are impacted by the decisions that you make. If you’re a taxpayer in the US, then you are responsible for the wars that we’re involved in, and the borders that are being erected in your name. You are responsible for people being separated from their children. You are responsible — right? So how can you bring as much joy and contentment and satisfaction to your life and other people’s lives as possible? One of the things I feel like I’m often trying to do is to debunk the idea that you have to be a full-time activist in order to be doing anything for the world.
I actually think you have to be a full-time human because you have to be paying attention to the fact that you’re already connected. You have to stop believing in the lie that if your family is okay then that’s enough. I recommend people read Octavia Butler’s works because this is something she shares really beautifully — that the level of interconnectedness matters. That when whatever apocalypse is coming comes, it doesn’t matter how well your individual family is taken care of.
I lived through 9/11 in New York and, on that day, it didn’t matter what your particular address was, where you lived, if your family had tons of food for dinner or not. On that day what mattered was the person to your right and to your left and whether you figure out how to safely move out of the path of danger and figure out how to take care of each other. We’re in a world where that is a condition more and more often. What I think we learn from indigenous communities and Palestinian communities and Black communities is that pleasure is a fundamental need. We have to be able to feel what it is we’re longing for. We have to be able to feel the light in order to keep going — in order to know that we’re getting somewhere.
Thank you. Thank you so much.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Illustrations by Ana Leovy.