The Power in Pleasure
Despite what capitalism has taught us, pleasure is neither a commodity nor a reward. It’s a foundational human need.
Feeling good is not frivolous, it is a measure of freedom—not just the physical freedom of the body to pursue the pleasures of the flesh, but also the mental, emotional, and spiritual freedom to feel content, happy, and present in our brief and potent lives.
As Audre Lorde shared in her 1978 groundbreaking essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”: “The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression as women. …
“Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within. In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”
It is important for me to uplift Lorde’s words for three reasons.
One, because the fact that there is a gift of liberating erotic power thrumming within each of us is something we have known for far longer than I have been alive. The denial of that power by systems like colonization and patriarchy is one of the central ways we remain oppressed. Recognizing this power is essential to reclaiming our freedom.
Two, because the answers to many of our current problems—both the systemic inequities and our collective unhappiness—lie in the writing and thinking of Black feminists like Lorde. We have a unique intersectional lens on what is happening (slavery-era policing practices, arrogant rejections of climate-based adaptations, critical race theory battles with burning books, to name only a few) and what needs to shift.
Three, because we are in a pattern of behaviors and practices that, as Lorde writes later in her essay, “do not enhance our future,” and it is past time to alter our entire ecosystem—human, environmental, and planetary.
The Pleasureless Present
We are living in an age of immense interlocking crises, from climate to pandemic to race. Although there are massive opportunities to grow and change—the fight for abolition, the proliferation of mutual aid in response to COVID-19—erotic power, happiness, and satisfaction are not words I would use to describe our current collective state.
When I say “our,” I mean it both on an individual and collective level. I can say, intimately, that the majority “we”—Black people, multicultural communities, queer people, disabled people, women, fat people—are not satisfied with the current conditions of the world. We are not content as artists and writers, as movement workers, as survivors of an ongoing global pandemic, as American residents, as a species.
And for those identities I do not share, I will assert, with space for correction, that I do not observe a lot of truly content White people, or men, or straight people, or skinny people, or businesspeople, or politicians, or deniers of the ongoing pandemic. I travel a lot less these days, but in my readings and conversations with my global community, I do not see unfettered joy among people in most other nations, either.
The work of oppression, division, supremacy, and dominance is constant, which means our work to survive injustice is constant. We are tired, but that often happens near the end of labor to bring forth new life. I believe we are the birthing bodies and the midwives of a future rooted in pleasure, imagination, justice, and freedom.
As a species that has produced slavery, genocide, rape, and war, we spend a lot of our time either nursing the wounds of ancestral, childhood, or present-day trauma, passing along the trauma we have been subject to, or generating new traumas that we have been trained to enact upon others whom we deem less human, less valuable than us.
And because many of us live under capitalism, in cultures committed to the belief that material possessions can heal spiritual wounds, we have been convinced that economic dominance—even if it is inherited—can fill up our cup of value and worth. And yet misery, suffering, rage, and despair abound.
There are exceptions, of course. I have witnessed authentic contentment in people who have committed deeply to their own continuous spiritual practice, which gives them a long view of life and a grounding of peace in what is. I have witnessed happiness that seemed both performative and authentic, in a clueless way, in communities of immense access. And I have read, with curiosity, about the Nordic nations that seem to be quite happy but also have a fairly homogeneous culture.
I also know that most of us experience flashes of joy throughout our lives, and if we are lucky we get brief periods of respite, vacation, or retirement. But overall, we are not content. En masse, we are not satisfied with what we experience and accumulate. As a general state of affairs, we are overworked, undervalued, overwhelmed, burnt out, inauthentic, and suffering unnecessarily.
What Audre Lorde pointed to, and what I have come to understand myself, is that a primary culprit for the unhappiness so common in our species is racial capitalism—the global, hierarchical system where wealth and power are derived primarily from violence, imperialism, slavery, and genocide. The prime beneficiaries of this system are, of course, those who designed it: White, able-bodied men, with each degree of distance from that identity subjected to greater and overlapping abuse. As an economic system, it is designed to pit us against each other to survive instead of fostering our collaborative sustenance, to have us value our production rather than our miraculous existence, to commodify land and labor instead of stewarding and protecting the Earth and each other.
People of the global majority, disabled people, those of us who are women, nonbinary, trans, and two-spirit have a lot to share about surviving the onslaught of racial capitalism in communities of care and pleasure. And yes, there are people trying to find out if a sustainable capitalism is possible and viable. But I suspect that what we need is the kind of radical, collective, planet-oriented economy that will emerge from a deep overhaul of what we understand to be our human purpose on Earth.
As long as we think we are here to win, to dominate, to constantly climb some ladder of hierarchy where we become more valuable than others—“our” needs trumping “theirs,” numbing ourselves to the impact of our privileges—we will continue to make the kinds of decisions that lead to our extinction.
The truest victory would be our healing, our continuation, our longevity, and our joy.
Building a Joyful Future
What if we understood our purpose as love? What if the same energy we now spend on our individualized competitions was instead invested in loving each other and loving the place we have been gifted as home—the only place in the known universe that can be our home? What if we understood that the felt experience of love is most present in that sense of contentment, of happiness and satisfaction? What if we all knew how love can heal the wounds of violation, abuse, generational trauma, and scarcity? What would our world look like if the economy was structured to give people deep satisfaction at every level of existence instead of constantly sowing competition, discontent, and the sense that there is something else, something better than what we have, or where we are, or who we are?
The principles of pleasure activism can be seen as tools to help us align with contentment, happiness, and joy. In the current context, those principles manifest as such:
What you pay attention to grows. We have spent more than two years paying attention to COVID, specifically focusing on what we must do to survive, as the pandemic has crashed against the existing political fault lines of church, state, science, race, and class. Much of my personal attention has been rooted in fear. I looked up the other day and realized I wanted to reclaim my attention from fearing and judging people who make different choices than me, and instead focus on the connection and aliveness available in these conditions.
Make justice and liberation feel good. Throughout this pandemic, justice and liberation have been at the front of our collective attention as we wrestle with our commitment to punitive justice and long for something else that actually helps us break cycles of trauma and harm and grow into a species that can lead with care and accountability. I find that this work rarely feels good in the moment of reckoning, but I always feel more alive and whole after I have been honest and received the truth from others, after I have been able to account for my mistakes in relationships with those who will not dispose of me. This is still my learning edge, but I am learning with all my might.
We become what we practice. I am a writer. I always felt I was a writer, but I did not become a writer until I got into the regular practice of writing. I am practicing being content, which for me includes intentionality around how I treat my body and the Earth. What do we need to practice collectively in order to become compatible with the future?
Yes is the way. Puerto Rican pleasure elder Idelisse Malavé shared with me that her pleasure principle is “If it pleases me, I will.” What actually pleases you when no one else is watching or pitching products at you? What makes you say “yes”? What yes do you feel in your marrow? Can you imagine how the species would feel if our life paths were defined by the things that made us feel awe, excitement, satisfaction, and love?
When I am happy, it is good for the world. My friends will tell you that I often have to reaffirm that I am a writer, because it brings me so much pleasure that I suspect it cannot also be my vocation. I am unlearning this self-denial. What astounds me, repeatedly, is that the pieces that are the most vibrant, passionate, and erotic to write are the ones the world reflects back to me as the most necessary. The practice is not just the writing or the sharing, it is letting the pleasure of my calling be the center of my life, which echoes into the pleasure centers of those who encounter and benefit from my work. To be clear, this is not about the individualistic happiness that we are sold as the elixir of elitism, which hoards or creates harm for others. I am pointing us toward the happiness derived from finding purpose in service to the world, which uplifts the collective spirit and eradicates the self-harming patterns of denial, repression, and self-negation.
I am pointing us toward the happiness derived from finding purpose in service to the world, which uplifts the collective spirit and eradicates the self-harming patterns of denial, repression, and self-negation.
The deepest pleasure comes from riding the line between commitment and detachment. Commit yourself fully to the process, the journey, to bringing the best you can bring. Detach yourself from ego and outcomes. This pandemic period is one in which we keep making gorgeous plans and having to let them go. My calendar these days feels like a sand mandala practice. I am learning to treasure the pleasure of anticipation and intention for their own merit, even if the plans are delayed by years, or have to change completely. We are getting lots of practice in being committed to our communities, while constantly detaching from the usual outcomes and instead adapting how community is practiced.
Your no makes the way for your yes. Writer and somatic practitioner Prentis Hemphill taught us that “boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” I have lived inside of this quote since I heard it. It has been my guiding star for navigating COVID visitation and travel; it helps me determine whom I can be in community with, and I believe it is one of the keys for unlocking a future where we are truly in right relationship with each other. My life is the yes. My love is the yes. Anything that isn’t fundamentally aligned with that yes has no place in my present. The boundaries I set maximize the miracle of my life.
Moderation is key. When I was first introducing the idea of pleasure activism to people, capitalism distorted what they could hear. Capitalism says “more, more, more,” socializing us to engage in hedonistic pleasure with no thought for impact or consequence. Pleasure activism says that part of the joy is in the feeling of enough. I am learning to love the feeling of enough food in my belly after years of disordered eating in which I denied myself food and then binged to discomfort. I am learning that there is enough love in this world for me to experience being known fully and loved as I am, right now, today. And while a lot of that love is from my inner circle of beloveds, there is also love in the sustaining generosity of this Earth. This love is constantly pouring toward me in the forms of sunlight, water, wind, gravity, and dirt. I know the love of certain trees, the plants I sing to, and even my turtle—not the anthropomorphized projection of love, but the interconnectedness of all life sharing the energy of the present moment. It is enough. Even our life spans are a form of moderation.
We get a short period of time in the grand scheme of history, and in that short period is all the love we will experience in these bodies. Moderation is what makes life precious; moderation is what makes the perfect bite delicious; moderation is what makes the community abundant. Lately, I have been meditating inside my grief on the benevolent mercy that keeps the realm beyond death incomprehensible to us in human form—to love so deeply that we know the sharp gift of grief is enough.
Living inside of these principles is an ongoing practice. I find it works best for me to start from within and work my way out to the whole, the collective, the large scale. I practice daily listening to what my body needs—what I need for mental and emotional health—then what my relationships need, and then what my communities need. In this deep listening and attending to the various scales of my life, I can contribute to my own health and the health of the collective body.
The Pursuit of Pleasure
I would be remiss to not take a moment for sex, for drugs, for the aspects of pleasure most overtly pursued and repressed in modern culture. It is not lost on me that many of our current struggles are variations on control and access related to sex and drugs. The abortion fight is one that seeks to shame, punish, and control the bodies of those who have sex outside the restrictions imposed by a biblical set of values. Those same values underpin the wave of attacks on trans people, particularly trans kids, or anyone seeking bodily autonomy in ways allegedly forbidden by the Bible and other religious texts. The COVID vaccine is a drug that we are trying to normalize for the sake of mass survival. In each of these arenas, there is a constant sense of collective judgment over very personal decisions. And, unfortunately, as a nation, we are no more aligned in our values than we have ever been.
Fortunately, we do have models for approaching sex and drugs from a liberatory, pleasure-based stance. We have harm reduction, a model that helps us set down judgment and stigma when working with issues of addiction, and instead show up with dignity for all and a comprehensive understanding of why we turn to drugs. We have sex positivity and fat liberation, frameworks that untie the knots of self-hate, trauma, and self-denial that keep us from loving and listening to our bodies as they are. We always have our own bodies, which guide us with desire and aversion, and which have a remarkable capacity to recover from trauma. If we have the courage to listen, our bodies can let us know what is enough, what is just right, what is delightful, and what is right for our somas, the embodied whole of our bodies, minds, emotions, and energy.
My pleasure comes from the mobility I have in the water, so I swim daily. My pleasure comes from unlocking new ideas and spiritual clarity, so I meditate daily. My pleasure comes from intimacy, so I am open and honest with my beloved and my friends and family about who I am and what I need, and curious about who they are and what they need. My pleasure comes from sex, so I seek pleasure alone or with my partner daily. My pleasure comes from drugs, so I have a moderate practice of cannabis use, with an occasional mushroom or ecstasy journey, or plant-based ritual, as it serves my body, mind, and spirit. My pleasure comes from the interdependent world, so I imagine what it would look like to unleash our full potential of love and connection in shaping the future. And my pleasure comes from knowing that I am not alone in feeling my way through this pale age to a future that is vibrant and pulsing and alive, so I curate collections and conversations of others who are in this pleasure activism realm.
I speak with such certainty about pleasure activism because it has worked in my life and in the lives of everyone I know who has truly practiced it. But you shouldn’t take my word for it. Instead, explore what happens when you increase your attention to pleasure and the space you give it in your life. You may be surprised at the joy that unfolds.