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'Pleasure Activism' Delves Into The Politics of Sex and Desire

adrienne maree brown’s “Pleasure Activism” offers its readers so much to think about and grapple with. 

by Josie Pickens 

Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good is a collection of essays, interviews, manifestos and other musings, and its author adrienne maree brown wants you sweet, sticky and dripping—like honey—when you’re done reading it. brown is a Black feminist author, writer, speaker and doula who currently resides in Detroit, Michigan, when she is not roaming the world teaching humans how to rethink and decolonize the ways they fight, love and fuck.

The work of decolonization—of unburying and unburdening ourselves from expectations connected to the white-cis-male gaze—has to be more than political work. Decolonization is, in fact, very, very personal. What we have been conditioned to believe and value, through various forms of oppression and through white dominance, follows us wherever we go—even into our bedrooms, even when we are the only ones there. In fact, it is through our self-love work—which includes pleasure—that we begin to, as brown writes in her introduction, “recognize that pleasure is a measure of freedom.” Included in the list of outcomes brown hopes her readers will experience after sitting with her collection are:

  • [learning] ways [we] can increase the amount of feeling-good time in [our lives], to have abundant pleasure;
  • [decreasing] any internal projected shame or scarcity thinking around the pursuit of pleasure, quieting any voices of trauma that [keeps us] from [our] full sacred [selves];
  • [identifying] strategies beyond denial or repression for navigating pleasure in relationship to others.

The author also suggests that readers have an orgasm before delving into Pleasure Activism, as well as at the start of each new section—because what better way to remind oneself about the importance of pleasure as both ordinary and radical than cumming in preparation for reading about how we can make our full-lives more delightful? Pleasure Activism centers Black women but would make a wonderful guide for the lovers of Black women who seek to understand the possible barriers to our pleasure experiences, and for those who simply want to make pleasure better and more fulfilling to us.

adrienne marie brown considers herself a queer, pansexual, relationship anarchist, and I’ve never felt so seen in a collection of love and sexual identities. I especially adore her mention of relationship anarchy, which involves new, imaginative and unrestricted ways of understanding how we can love and/or experience one another. Relationship anarchy is about possibilities that fall outside the script we’ve all been socialized to adapt to, and brown is all about possibilities. She focuses on possibilities, and the idea that “all organizing is science fiction” throughout much of her work (including her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds). brown is, after all, a sci-fi girl—who even writes in Pleasure Activism about how Black futurist sci-fi writer (and everyone’s fave), Octavia Butler, turns her up and on.

Author, activist and doula adrienne maree brown (via AK Press)

brown’s collection begins, necessarily, with Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. This essay, penned in 1978, revealed a lot to me personally about the politics of pleasure, and how women benefit immensely by tapping into our own erotic power—power that we have been instructed to believe is not valuable and is undesired. But when women feel their own erotic power, and experience the sweetness of how pleasure can enhance our lives, Lorde writes that, “we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to our fullness.” Readers also learn through Lorde’s essay that we have been duped into believing the erotic is pornographic.  It is not. But there must be space to interrogate our connection to porn as a society, which brown delves deeply into in Pleasure Activism. She writes, “I am more concerned with what we watch when we watch pornography and how it interacts with desire pathways in our brains and body. What are we programming ourselves to desire?” She goes on to consider, “what our pornographic practices do to our imaginations”—as our erotic imaginations inform our ideas surrounding the possibilities of the kinds of desire we are open to.  

Our Summer of Sex is made possible by the sponsorship of Planned Parenthood. With their help, we are able to bring you this thoughtful series delving into the subject of sex and amplify the voices of marginalized people and communities. 

Speaking of desire and sensual (and sexual) possibilities, I was excited about brown’s descriptions of her self-love, self-acceptance practices that center self-pleasure and self-desire. Many of them are similar to my own self-love and self- pleasure practices. She asserts, “I had to decolonize my desire. I had to learn to desire myself, my body, my skin, my rhythms, my pleasure… I took photos of every part of myself until I felt I knew more about my body, could tolerate myself, even like what I saw.” This practice of picture-taking may seem trivial, but when women are constantly bombarded with images of unreal, manufactured bodies (that are often praised as beautiful and desirable), it can be difficult to tolerate, let alone love our natural bodies as they are. This practice of erotic picture-taking was followed by filming moments of self-love. brown then used the videos she created the next time she touched herself (I’m a firm believer that self-touch shouldn’t begin or end at touching only the genitalia, by the way. We should touch our full bodies as lovingly and lustfully as we expect our lovers to). brown offers, regarding her self-made videos, “These videos were not shared, they were not for anyone else’s eyes, opinions, or desires. That was radically important.  The energy of them was purely self-adoration.” Contrary to what we are taught, self-adoration does not equal egotism or self-absorption. And the practice of loving herself so intentionally made her a better, more confident lover to others.

adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism offers its readers so much to think about and grapple with. There are essays where brown explores the power of nipple play, and ones where she explores the different kinds of lovers who are into (or totally against) period sex. More essays explore our deep-seated issues surrounding sex work and why we all need to recognize it as a regular-degular profession that has existed for hundreds of years. One of the most memorable essays brown offers focuses on how we can experience intimacy while we are being triggered by previous sexual trauma. Readers learn about the pleasure practices of those living with chronic illness, about the pleasure of drug use (which brown believes should be legal and safe), and even the pleasure of Beyoncé existing on this earth. brown even gives her readers “hot and heavy homework” to help turn theory and conversation into actual practice. 

Pleasure Activism would make an exceptional book club read, or a pathway for couples to talk about pleasure, or even as a reflective guide for those going-it-alone. Pick it up today. It is, after all, National Masturbation Month.

Josie Pickens is an award-winning educator, writer and speaker. Her work focuses, primarily, on the intersections of gender, race and class. Josie’s newest passion project, a podcast called “The Love No Limit Show”, seeks to create expansive conversations on Black love.  Follow Josie on Twitter and Instagram: @jonubian.  Follow The Love No Limit Show on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter: @lovenolimitshow.

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