At the beginning of her second book, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (released in March 2019), adrienne maree brown suggests that readers should orgasm before diving into the book’s pages. It’s her way of building on Audre Lorde’s idea that “revolution is not a one-time event,” and encouraging people within freedom and justice movements to prioritize joy and pleasure.
brown is a social-justice facilitator whose 2017 book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and her Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute helps activists home in on the importance of care and imagination. Pleasure Activism is a complementary guide that uses interviews, personal essays written by brown and other activists, and an annotated version of Audre Lorde’s seminal essay “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” to help us all shift from surviving to thriving. Pleasure Activism also asks readers to locate pleasure beyond what the book offers. Capitalism often tricks us into functioning from a place of scarcity, where longing for pleasure is the most we can aspire to. But what if we could tap into our desires in small ways every day? “Longing might be easier to come by,” brown says. “We are trained to long for what we can’t attain, [so] isn’t that capitalism?”
When I reached out to interview brown, I asked if we could discuss how her approaches book desire, longing, and connection. When brown and I started this interview we paused first to touch base with our senses, share what we were seeing, and what we were feeling below our necks. Since Pleasure Activism helps us imagine a collective future that’s full of joy and desire, let’s be real for a moment: I am writing this sentence on a red couch in Seattle, and you are somewhere reading it, so take a moment to feel texture against your skin and notice where the light is coming in. In the spirit of brown’s advice, maybe you should pause and masturbate before reading this interview about pleasure, transformative justice, and tapping into the joy of making human errors.
Where are you feeling the most sensation below your neck right now? Where is the light coming from?
I’m sitting on a couch in a room that used to be my bedroom. I just opened [it] up to be a freeform writing and healing room—no desk, just spaces to sit and write or move and be. The south-facing window is thick with post-storm morning light, gray and muted. I feel the rightness of temperature on my skin, which is naked as it often is at home. And I’m in a fit of sneezes, so the waves of magic that follow those are present in me.
Sneezes and post-sneezes have their very own kind of orgasmic force. When did you start specifically locating the moments of your orgasmic power and applying them?
I think I started to have days of orgasm in my early 20s. [Those were] days where I didn’t make plans with others, but just gave myself over completely to my own pleasure. I would then reenter the world feeling deeply rooted in myself, in my joy. I noticed I started to receive a different response in the world, and it occurred to me that I could shift my state, my energy, toward pleasure.
What were the transformative moments in your life that made you realize pleasure was the key to saving ourselves and our political movements?
Feeling suicidal ideation in my 20s was very clarifying. I had to get clear inside myself about what I had to have, what was worth living for. Reading Audre Lorde was a game changer—the idea that my erotic life and longings were not distraction but signs of life and freedom? Whew. Now it’s the affirmations I get from other radical Black women saying that my turned-on life force is an invitation to [find] theirs. Those conversations are very raw and strike down into the root system of what has shifted in me, which is much larger than me. I feel aligned with life.
In Pleasure Activism you write, “Prioritizing ourselves in love is political strategy, it is survival.” You specify that we need to attempt transformative justice in order to someday achieve it. In many cases we attempt to enact this in community where there has been sexual assault or intimate-partner violence. The level of connection that we both tap into and share while building accountable communities is terrifying. How do you attend to that shaky moment of “before,” of both choosing community and individual connection?
It’s scary because we’re often trying transformative justice processes for the first time when there’s been a big harm. It helps so much to notice small ways you can shift. When a friend hurts your feelings, can you get curious? When you read news about someone causing harm, can you wish they’d get support/healing for what’s broken in them, rather than hoping they get jail time—which, in most cases, will further break them? Do you have an abolitionist vision to work toward? We are responsible for imagining beyond our oppressors rather than continuously turning on each other for being oppressed.
In the conversation you have with Cara Page in the book, titled “The Legacy of ‘uses of the erotic,’” you say, “Suffering is not liberatory.” I wonder if we’re addicted to it. Cara poses the question, “How do we center creation and desire as central to liberation?” I pose that same question to you.
I’m a big fan of somatics: Most of us need to learn how to feel because we live in such numbing and distracting times. I’m [also] a fan of old-school time tracking. Track the time you spend on intentionally pleasurable activities. Make a commitment to [focusing] on collective pleasure.
In both Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism you offer deep insight about our relationship to scarcity—an effect of capitalist longing and maybe familiarity of suffering. If we can achieve a future where scarcity doesn’t rule our imagination or our desires, what will shift about pleasure?
I think pleasure will be normal and abundant in a post-scarcity scenario. We will find creative ways to keep the heat of the forbidden, new religions of kink and power as only a way of playing, not a way of denying each other’s life needs.
Octavia Butler comes up throughout the book. You even have a chapter titled, “a spoilerific gush on how Octavia Butler turns me on.” You write, “I think many of us would be nourished by the sort of symbiotic communities that Octavia envisioned, where connection wasn’t necessarily based on visual attraction but other kinds of longing and need.” Where does your own imagination and transformation fall within the millions of unknown encounters you are creating through writing books that call, for instance, to have an orgasm before we start reading?
I was actually thinking [about] Octavia [Butler] [when I wrote] that instruction. I’ve heard a rumor that she used masturbation to move through writer’s block, which means that some portion, possibly a very high percentage of her content, was offered from a postcoital state. I worked to uphold that as I was creating, and I feel certain the book is better because of it. So it’s really about shifting the state in which we engage ideas from that tight deconstructionist approach to a more open, generous-to-the-self mode. Being attracted to yourself is generally good for your future. Ask Lizzo.
Your work is in the tradition of Grace Lee Boggs. You call out to her, particularly around the idea that we need our performed selves to meet our embodied selves. I often think about this with social media: Our Facebook wall may look radical AF but, as Shannon Perez-Darby says, no one in their shared housing or office spaces can figure out how to not fight about the dishes. Where is the pleasure in being imperfect?
There is a pleasure [in] being human, [and] not [being] above the ridiculousness of being human. There is pleasure in having people I completely trust to hear every misstep and lesson and let me know if I’m really messing up. That feels more reliable than the uninformed trending of cancel culture. I am in deep community with people who would never throw me away, and whom I would never throw away. I can rest in that.