Can pleasure be a revolutionary act?
I know many people – myself included – have been struggling with the entire concept of pleasure and fun as 2023 draws near to its close. Members of my community tell me they are feeling frozen, shut down and bleak, with all the horrors in the news. Orgasms are lost when images of atrocious events flash in front of our eyes at the crucial moment.
Should we give up on pleasure at such a time? Should we feel crippling guilt when we catch ourselves feeling happy for a moment? If we want to be part of the change we want to see in the world, do we have to immerse ourselves in stress and grief?
No. There is a concept called ‘Pleasure Activism’, which I’ve been strongly behind since I first heard of it in the book of the same name by adrienne maree brown. Adrienne suggests “we have to make justice the most pleasurable experience humans can have” and calls out activist culture’s “commitment to suffering”. As someone who burnt out entirely after being an active part of the first year of Extinction Rebellion, and had to remove myself from the fight for climate justice, I know this suffering is not sustainable.
So how does pleasure support us? The basis of pleasure activism is that when we feel vibrantly and joyously connected with life, we have the strength, compassion and community spirit needed to go out into the world and be part of positive change. When we are constantly filling our energy-cup, we don’t burn out. When we can feel pleasure, we can feel hope. When we are radiant, people are drawn to us and to the causes we support.
I eventually came to this realisation with my Extinction Rebellion journey, partly thanks to the book Active Hope – How To Face The Mess We Are In Without Going Crazy (since updated and re-named … The Mess We Are In With Unexpected Resilience And Creative Power) by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. I realised that scrolling the news for hours, staying home rather than risk going out and possibly having fun (how could I dance when the world was burning?), and sending bad vibes to friends and family who I judged “weren’t doing enough”, wasn’t good PR for the climate justice fight. I also definitely wasn’t contributing to the positive energy in the world.
I had also found my libido had plummeted and my husband (arrested in the early Extinction Rebellion demos) felt the same. But was it to our mental and physical benefit to spend our evenings scrolling social media instead of connecting sexually?
Coming out of those dark times and reconnecting to my sexual self, was reconnecting to a power that for a while I had forgotten I had. It was around this time that I found the book Pleasure Activism and it all made sense.
Sexual pleasure is the most activist pleasure of all. When we reject the rules society imposes around who is allowed to enjoy it (young, fit, wealthy, able-bodied, slender), what acts should be prioritised (a focus almost entirely on penetrative intercourse), and what should surround it (expensive lingerie and satin bedsheets), we realise that it’s available to everyone. Education is vital in this - and the lack of education around sexual pleasure, especially for women, can be seen as a move to suppress power. When instead we are empowered and satisfied sexually, we have the energy and resilience to go out into the world and demand justice. When I first read Audre Lorde’s The Erotic As Power – printed in Pleasure Activism - it was the final part of the puzzle.
It was part of why I became a sex educator and coach, in 2020. I realised this issue was about far more than orgasms and happier relationships. It was potentially world-changing. I realised that THIS is how I personally contribute to change in the world. And to keep doing so, I need to keep on recharging my pleasure batteries, again and again.
Of course it’s not so easy as saying to ourselves “I’ll mentally switch off from the news and get frisky”. I’ve been struggling with this myself. But remembering that sexual pleasure is rejuvenating is a powerful first step.
I’m thankful I’ve seen a few mentions of the pleasure activism concept on social media recently that have been a timely reminder for me and lifted me up in this regard, so in this blog post I hope I've done the same for you. I invite you to read or listen to Lorde’s essay (links below), and share it with at least one other person in your life. I hope it inspires you to recharge via pleasure this weekend.
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Listen: Audre Lorde reads ‘Uses Of The Erotic: The Erotic As Power’ (full version): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWmq9gw4Rq0&t=0s