In ‘Pleasure Activism,’ Adrienne Maree Brown Dares Us to Get In Touch With Our Needs

By catherine lizette gonzalez Feb 26, 2019

Fighting multiple forms of state violence is exhausting, especially when considering the decay of our environment. But author, activist and doula adrienne maree brown says that we can still find hope and love amid the despair that surrounds us every day. In her new book, “Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good,” released today (February 26) by AK Press, she draws from Black feminist luminaries to teach us how embracing what brings us joy is central in organizing against oppression.

"Pleasure Activism," which builds on brown's earlier book, "Emergent Strategy," includes essays, reflections, excerpts and poems from writers and activists such as Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, Joan Morgan, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Sonya Renee Taylor. A self-proclaimed "pleasure activist," brown also channels her own journey, from her time as an organizer with the Harm Reduction Coalition, a sex columnist for Bitch Media, and as a queer Black woman discovering the joys of intimacy, sex and what she calls "radical drug use."

Throughout the book, "hot and heavy homework" assignments invite the reader to tap into the full spectrum of our erotic and emotional needs. For example, there are exercises in masturbating, taking nude selfies and consenting to sex with another person. She also highlights the many ways that people of color, sex workers, disabled people and queer, trans and nonbinary people have been denied joy—and why we must center their pleasure as an organizing principle. "Feeling good is not frivolous," brown writes. "It is freedom." Colorlines spoke with brown about why self-love, healing and harm reduction are neccesary for collective liberation. 

How do you define pleasure?

The definition of pleasure, as I use it, is about happiness, joy, contentment and satisfaction. I definitely have people look at me when I start talking about the idea like, “So just pure debauchery, that’s what you’re saying. It's just pure escapism.” And I’m like, "No, it's about pure aliveness and actually being present for the world around you." I often quote the Zapatistas who say, “We’re trying to build a world in which many worlds fit.” In order to do that, we need to feel what our goals and needs are inside of that world on an individual level and on a collective level. I don’t think we can really feel for the collective if we can’t feel ourselves.

How can we use pleasure as a strategy?

The first thing is to read Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic.” She makes a really strong case for how pleasure can help us heal from oppression. Reclaiming our full erotic aliveness is a core piece in recovering from acts of oppression and marginalization. If you don’t make that initial connection, it’s really hard to not see pleasure as a guilty thing [you're] doing on the side.

You had a sex column for Bitch Media and you included a few of those essays in the book. What has it been like to be so candid with the public?

There’s tons of people of color who are thinking about pleasure, but a lot of it stays out of the public sphere. After I started talking about these things publicly people would slip up to me and be like, “Hey, I really want to talk about that,” in these very private conversations. Then, when we do get to experience pleasure, a lot of times it rides the same line as capitalism. If you are super successful and fall within norms and certain privileged areas, only then you get to experience pleasure. That’s been a big thing I’ve been trying to push back on.

How do you convey pleasure for people of color?

It’s not an accident that on this land, Black people have been told, “You’re 3/5 of a person." If you don’t feel like you’re fully human, then where in that are you supposed to believe you have access? When your people are [living with the effects of genocide], as Indigenous people are, where are you supposed to find pleasure? For me it’s about reclaiming what I believe is our birthright. And it’s not enough to do it on a personal level. What does it look like on the collective level for us to feel like we all have access to lives that are fulfilling and satisfying?

What does pleasure look like when you’re a survivor of sexual violence and trauma?

A lot of it is realizing that it’s not your fault and what happened to you [is] not the purpose of your body on this earth. Your purpose is not to please others—to please a man or to please someone who is older than you. You have a purpose unto yourself to find and reclaim.

[It’s also] having community, having other people around who you can [join in] ongoing, powerful and honest conversations about the healing process. You don't have to be ashamed to say, “I was with a lover yesterday and I felt triggered by something that happened years ago. And it’s not their fault.” It helps so much to not be in your head going through the experience of being a survivor. It takes community to figure that stuff out. When we isolate ourselves, it leads to poor decision-making, repression, self-harm cycles and abusive relationship cycles. There’s also a lot of healing that has to happen at the level of the body. I’m a teacher in somatics and I feel like that’s one of the main places that I have been able to drop in and be like, “How do I feel?”

How do somatics relate to healing and finding pleasure?

Somatics means the body in its wholeness. It’s an act of studying what helps the body move through trauma, recover from harm and actually feel in an authentic way. It's about being an authentic person that’s actually congruent, which means the face you show to the world is actually congruent to who you are inside. Much of what we get trained to do in the wake of trauma is to hide our feelings and deny that we’re feeling. A lot of it is really retraining and giving yourself permission to be the most intact version of yourself that’s available.

What I got is that being in tune with yourself allows you to know what your body actually wants in certain moments, like when you’re consenting or when something actually brings you joy.

The core of somatics is a practice that says you have a center that lives inside of you and is a sacred space. It’s a place that you can return to. And the goal of your life is not to get to a place where you feel calm all the time. It’s getting yourself to where you can feel whatever is actually happening in real time and then define how you want to organize yourself around it. That’s the part I hope a lot of people are able to practice.

You spent some time working at the Harm Reduction Coalition as an organizer, and you dedicate a whole section of the book to what you call "radical drug use." What can a harm reduction approach teach us about pleasure activism?

There are two major aspects of it that are crucial. One, rather than aiming for abstinence, we aim to reduce the harm that comes from engaging in whatever substances or sexual practices that we enjoy doing with our bodies. The other aspect is not denying the impact of living in a harmful, traumatizing world. We judge [people who use drugs]. We persecute them and lock them away instead of just saying that the world is really difficult to navigate, that it's hard to keep your head above water, to feel powerful, to feel like you know yourself. Instead of judging when people find some substance or some way to get there, my thing is, "How do we make that as safe a journey as possible?"

[In the book] I talk about my use of ecstasy for a period of time. Using ecstasy really helped me get in touch with a part of myself that I hadn’t been able to access up until that point. I knew also that I was going through some depression and I was really struggling with finding happiness on my own. That medicine really helped me move through it. Now, therapists are actually using [ecstasy] more intentionally with clients to help them have those experiences of joy, pleasure and release. I love that [in] harm reduction everything is set up by the person who is using. There’s a ton of self-determination and community determination, as opposed to telling someone what is the right path for them. When we talk about the kind of liberation we want in the liberated world of the future, I want a space where there’s a ton of agency. Harm reduction is one of the ways we get there.

What advice would you give to someone who is starting to form an intimate relationship with themselves and discovering what brings them pleasure?

First I would say, “Yay! I’m glad you’re beginning this path.” A couple of basic practices are getting really in touch with your body, literally feeling your body more, masturbating more, learning what gives you pleasure just from your own touch. I’m a huge fan of documenting yourself in certain ways, not for the public, not for posting anywhere, but just documenting, “Here’s what I look like.” There’s a lot to be said about learning how to turn yourself on and training yourself on the [decolonizing] aspects of pleasure. If most of the pornography and the media images [tell us that] what’s desirable is a skinny White woman, then you have to really learn how to see yourself. Maybe you fit that image, but the majority of people don’t. So it’s figuring out, "Well how do I fall in love with the body that I was given? How do I understand that it’s a place for pleasure and it’s a place for power?" I think journaling is also a good go-to. Throughout the book there’s a lot of “hot and heavy homework” that’s stuff like, write about yourself being naked, explore it a little bit.

How can pleasure help us build what you describe as “communities of care”?

One of the [essays] that speaks to this is from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. She talks a lot about the pleasure of intimacy where you don’t have to hide your needs if you’re not feeling well or if you need some kind of support. I think about that echoing back to what Octavia Butler constructed in almost every one of her books, how these various communities basically were communities of care. People were coming in, usually in a sort of apocalyptic situation, and having to figure out, “How do we attend to someone’s needs? How do we make whatever we have enough? How do we know if we’re free or not free?” To me, that’s a big piece of it.

In order to feel pleasure, you have to feel the whole breadth of your emotional spectrum and how to communicate [your] needs. There’s an aspect of it that’s also about surrender. If you orient [the world] around a collective community of care, then there’s plenty of stuff [available] if we know how to share it. A lot of pleasure activism is also leaning into the simple pleasures of existing, right here, right now. I think communities of care are the future for our species. And I just hope that we don’t have to go down the most apocalyptic world to get us there. Although, that’s what history seems to indicate. But, we’ll see.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.