Written by Amuna Wagner
Edited by Veronica Vivi
Illustrated by Olamide Florence Adeoye aka Sharp Txngue
“How do we make social justice the most pleasurable human experience?” (back cover) asks adrienne maree brown in her phenomenal book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (2019). Guided by its opening chapter, Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: Erotic As Power” (27-37), the anthology explores a world that centres pleasure and care for ourselves and others. The book doubles as a collection of radical theories and a study guide of hands-on practice. I was living in Cairo in 2021 when I stumbled across a class on pleasurable feminisms; a group of people gathered weekly to intimately study the book, intrigued by brown’s question: “How can we awaken within ourselves desires that make it impossible to settle for anything less than a fulfilling life?” (back cover). Over the course of three months, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good reordered my world view and became my road map on how to live a consciously political life without guilt.
As a Black radical feminist and a student of International Relations, my love for joy and my life in politics always seemed like two opposing lifestyles. In my experience, feminist activism was often more draining than healing, and thus I entered the study group with a personal desire to find more pleasure in my life without abandoning my commitment to social justice. Many attendees were sceptical about the proposition that pleasure and “feeling good” could possibly save us from the violent realities we navigate daily. But as we read chapters on “Pleasure as a Political Practice” (271-316) and “The Politics of Wholeness in Movements” (317-398), we learned how to approach social justice from a perspective of radical honesty, genuine community, and experiencing pleasure as an act of defiance to oppressive power structures.
brown is a mixed-race Black queer American writer, community organiser, facilitator, and “scholar of belonging” (in brown, Pleasure Activism 1). She co-hosts the podcast How to Survive the End of the World with her sibling Autumn and publishes a staggering amount of fiction. The diverse authors she invited to contribute to Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good are testament to her belief that we find answers to our problems in community. The authors included in the book write about trans desire, terminal illness, drugs, sexual abuse, living in accordance with the moon and at the same time as Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter. In “Why We Get Off” (81-97), Joan Morgan identifies “Pleasure Politics as a liberatory black feminist project” (87) that explores how the racialised, gendered identity of Blackness intersects with multiple other identities across the world. Building on this thought, brown’s proposition of “a culture where the common experience of trauma leads to the normalisation of healing” (62) invites us on a journey of universal connection, reflection, and action that has Black thought and experiences at its core.
Perhaps the most awkward and liberatory section to study in a community setting is “A Circle of Sex” (in brown, Pleasure Activism 125-189). The chapter begins with a fictional conversation between brown and her sex toy which tells her that “it’s so much easier to dominate people who don’t know how to access their own pleasure” (128). Determined to help readers step into their erotic power within and without their body, the chapters break down shame related to various body parts and conditions, and propose a set of pleasure assignments, or “hot and heavy homework” (92). We shied away from discussing the homework in class, however we practised them in the privacy of our own homes and learned a great deal. Throughout this section, the reader is exposed to a variety of human identities, lifestyles, experiences, and politics. From sex work (“The Pleasures of Getting Paid”, 184-187), to consent, disability, and gender, rigid beliefs and internalised assumptions are challenged. Readers are provided with clear and confident language that helps them navigate intimacy as well as political debates. Importantly, in this pursuit of unlearning regressive beliefs, a sub-section is dedicated to safer sex in the #MeToo era (190-234).
In brown’s words, “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” (in Defebaugh 1). As a theory that discusses emotions in an academic setting, the book has the power to charm people into living consciously political lives without having to abandon themselves. Countering the fear that activists are on a path towards burnout and depression, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good proposes sustainable action deeply rooted in abundance. It should be on the curriculum of any politics and decolonising courses, Gender Studies, Diaspora Studies, and Queer and Feminist Studies. Some of its eloquent chapters (“The Sweetness of Salt”, Gumbs 65-80) should also be included in literature and creative writing courses.
brown, adrienne maree. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. AK Press, 2019.
brown, adrienne maree. “The Pleasure Dome.” bitch media, 3 May 2017, bitchmedia.org/article/pleasure-dome/new-column-will-explore-intersection-pleasure-and-feminism.
brown, adrienne maree, and Autumn Brown. “How To Survive the End of the World.” How to Survive the End of the World, 2017.
Defebaugh, Willow. “For Your Pleasure.” Atmos, 24 June 2022, atmos.earth/pleasure-activism-adrienne-maree-brown/.
Lorde, Audre. “Uses of The Erotic: The Erotic As Power.” YouTube, 1 Aug. 2019, youtube.com/watch?v=aWmq9gw4Rq0.
Amuna Wagner is a German-Sudanese writer, journalist, and educator. She studied International Relations and Arabic at SOAS, University of London, with a special interest in decolonising processes and the politics of gender. She co-founded and edits Kandaka, a platform that imagines feminist futures at the intersection of art and activism. Amuna regularly facilitates creative writing workshops and will pursue an MFA in Media Arts starting October 2023.