Thirty years ago, someone whom I helped uncover hidden patches of desire and playfulness christened me with the title “pleasure activist.” I’d never heard the term before. I don’t know where he heard it or if he pulled it out of thin air. But I recognized myself in it and started including it in my professional bio. In the intervening years, the phrase has entered the culture to the extent that a young queer black-bodied woman from Detroit named adrienne maree brown can publish Pleasure Activism (2019), an entire volume of stories, essays, poems, lists, and interviews celebrating the pleasures of not only sex and intimacy but also drugs, dance, fashion, organizing, and social justice advocacy. I love that, among other personal treasures she imparts, amb has a posse of friends who refer to each other as “woes” because they are Working On Excellence.
Early on in the book, amb presents in passing a kind of manifesto:
Pleasure activists seek to understand and learn from the politics and power dynamics inside of everything that makes us feel good. This includes sex and the erotic, drugs, fashion, humor, passion work, connection, reading, cooking and/or eating, music and other arts, and so much more.
Pleasure activists believe that by tapping into the potential goodness in each of us we can generate justice and liberation, growing a healing abundance where we have been socialized to believe only scarcity exists.
Pleasure activism acts from an analysis that pleasure is a natural, safe, and liberated part of life – and that we can offer each other tools and education to make sure sex, desire, drugs, connection, and other pleasures aren’t life-threatening or harming but life-enriching.
Pleasure activism includes work and life lived in the realms of satisfaction, joy, and erotic aliveness that bring about social and political change.
Ultimately, pleasure activism is us learning to make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have on this planet…
Pleasure activism is not about generating or indulging in excess. I want to say this early and often, to myself and to you Sometimes when I bring up this work to people, I can see a bacchanalia unfold in their eyes, and it makes me feel tender. I think because most of us are so repressed, our fantasies go to extremes to counterbalance all that contained longing. Pleasure activism is about learning what it means to be satisfiable, to generate, from within and from between us, an abundance from which we can all have enough.
And she closes the book with this benediction:
Pleasure is the point. Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom. We can gift it to each other in a million ways: with authentic presence, abundant care, and honesty; with boundaries that keep us from overextending; with slower kisses; with foot massages in the evening; with baby hugs and elder hugs; with delicious food; with supported solitude and listening to our bodies, our shameless desire, and coordinated longing.
Find the pleasure path for your life and follow it. Let it reverberate healing back into your ancestors’ wounds. Let it open you up and remind you that you are already whole. Let it shape a future where feeling good is the normal, primary experience of all beings.