Words by Willow Defebaugh
Battling a grim future, the question becomes: how can we understand activism and social engagement not as separate from, but intertwined with pleasure?
“Pleasure is not one of the spoils of capitalism. It is what our bodies, our human systems, are structured for; it is the aliveness and awakening, the gratitude and humility, the joy and celebration of being miraculous.”
It’s been two weeks since COVID-19 knocked me down. My health has entirely returned, save for one small thing: I still can’t taste anything sweet. I realized this the other night when I was attempting to enjoy some ice cream and found it entirely flavorless in my mouth. It’s a strange sensation to expect sweetness and be met with nothing in return. How often do we take for granted these seemingly small daily delights? It has had me reflecting on pleasure and the role that it plays in our everyday lives.
A few months ago, I read a thread on social media about how we were undergoing a “vibe shift” away from the culture of activism and accountability that has dominated these past six years, toward one of revelry and irreverence. On the one hand, I understood: between the climate crisis, a white supremacist right wing resurgence, the pandemic, systemic violence and racism, and rising homophobia and transphobia, it has been a lot to hold. On the other hand, none of these issues are going to go away just because people are tired.
The question then becomes: how can we understand activism and social engagement not as separate from, but intertwined with pleasure? This is a subject that adrienne maree brown tenderly and eloquently unravels in her book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. As she writes: “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…it must become an incredible pleasure to be able to be honest, expect to be whole, and to know that we are in a community that will hold us accountable and change with us.”
We exist in a culture of extremes. We are either pleasure-seeking to the point of escapism and denying the problems that plague our world or we are so entrenched in trying to fix them that we are run into the ground. The obvious answer is to find a middle ground, but I’m more interested in breaking down the binary altogether. Seeking balance, demonstrating accountability, promoting restoration, embodying change—why shouldn’t these things be entangled in pleasure? Why shouldn’t we see our reclamation of wholeness be an act of joy?
To use a personal example, I could tell you about the onslaught of attacks on trans rights in our country right now and why it’s so critical for us to have access to the levels of healthcare many of these bills are trying to stop. And that’s important. But what I have found to be equally important is to show you why that access is so critical—to show you all of the joy and wholeness that authentic embodiment has brought to my life. To thrive and find pleasure in a system that wants to tear you down is and will always be an act of resistance.
The same is true for climate activism. It’s imperative that we educate and inform others about what’s at stake and create opportunities to organize for reform. And also, I wonder how telling someone that a forest is worth saving measures in comparison to transporting them there—to reminding them how good it feels to stand rooted among its trees, to breathe the fresh air they exhale, to feel something other than concrete beneath their feet. Some of my favorite activists are those who show how fun it can be to forage in nature, how rewarding it is to shop secondhand, and how much joy there is to be found in our local ecosystems and community.
For as enigmatic as we imagine ourselves to be, they say that all our decisions and endeavors can be reduced down to two motivations: avoiding pain or pursuing pleasure. These days, I’m focusing on the latter; not in place of, but as a means to creating change in our world. Whether it’s the taste of a summer strawberry, steamy sex with a lover, or the healing effects of laughter, we are beings built to experience pleasure, a gift from Nature. Inviting one another to savor that sweetness is a form of activism—especially when we never know how long it will last.