Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good

By adrienne maree brown
AK Press, January 1, 2019, 20.00

In the opening pages of Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown proclaims that “pleasure is a measure of freedom.” She then cheekily invites the reader to “have an orgasm before diving into this book and at the beginning of each new section.” It’s brown’s ability to bring her playful spirit to rigorous political thought that makes Pleasure Activism a vital book in our contemporary moment.

Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, our collective emotional landscape has been dominated by fear, anxiety, and other “ugly feelings.” These feelings deserve to be acknowledged and affirmed, especially coming from those under attack by the Trump administration: namely, anyone who is not a white cisgender straight man. But brown, a Black queer woman born in the American South, urges the reader to remember that pleasure can still exist. She’s not joking when she encourages readers to give themselves an orgasm. Now, more then ever, we need to practice pleasure as a revolutionary act, brown insists. Pleasure can become a measure of freedom, an act of resistance to those who seek to take pleasure away.

The rise of the alt-right has produced — and rightly so — a culture of fear and anxiety amongst those on the left, especially for queer and trans, Black, brown, and Indigenous folks. One would hope that this would result in more tenderness and care in activist circles on the left. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing more and more is the tendency towards “rigid radicalism,” in which activism must be hard, exhausting, and filled with anger; if it is fun, playful, and pleasurable, you’re not working hard enough.

The result of this logic is that social justice movements end up producing the very structures of oppression they’re actively fighting against. With a proclivity for call outs, shaming, and one-upping each other, the radical left is producing harm rather than healing. brown posits another way to move forward in her first book, Emergent Strategy: “I suspect that to really transform our society, we will need to make justice one of the most pleasurable experiences we can have,” she writes.

Pleasure Activism explores this idea through a wide range of topics, including an explanation of why “nipples are magic” (with “hot and heavy homework” that prompts readers to “discover or upgrade the pleasure relationship you have with your nipples”) to the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. brown moves from citing Audre Lorde to discussing her love for Beyoncé, treating each figure with equal reverence. Feminist theory and pop culture both have a place in brown’s definition of pleasure activism:

Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy … 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.

Of course, pleasure activism isn’t just listening to your favourite Beyoncé songs on repeat. Pleasure activism requires the hard work of reattuning ourselves to the world that we live in. This includes letting go of the logic of scarcity that has been forced upon us by late capitalism and the cis-hetero-patriarchy, and accepting that we’re all deserving of “the natural abundance that exists within and between us.”

Easy, right? Here’s the thing: We can’t do this work alone.

brown’s emphasis on what “exists within and between us,” on the necessity of interdependence, is crucial to the project of pleasure activism. This is enacted in the very structure of the book, which brown calls “a gathering process.” Interspersed with brown’s essays are interviews with and essays by members of her “pleasure activism lineage.” In refusing to place herself as expert on pleasure, brown’s gathering process is a radical form of writing that rejects the myth of individual talent and our culture’s investment in mastery. But more than that, it’s an act of love that knits our words and our potential together. It’s a pleasure path.

On the final page of Pleasure Activism, brown urges the reader to “Find the pleasure path in 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. It is shape a future where feeling good is the normal, primary experience of all beings.”

You don’t have to be an activist in order for brown’s words to resonate with you. We’re all wounded living under the scarcity produced by capitalism — and some so much more than others. We all need to find our pleasure path. Perhaps you’ll find it in a four-day workweek; in watching The Bachelorette (all our favs are problematic, after all); or in proclaiming, as Chanelle Grant does in her contribution to Pleasure Activism: “fuck you, pay me.” Because, really, as brown tells us, “pleasure is the point … it is freedom.”

Image: adrienne maree brown

Margeaux Feldman is a writer and educator living in Toronto, where she’s completing her PhD in English Literature and Sexual Diversity Studies. Her writing has been published in PRISM, the Puritan, the Minola Review, GUTS Magazine, and The Vault. She’s currently at work on a memoir entitled “The Bed of Sickness: Essays on Care.” You can learn more about her at