Image: The cover of the book has a white background with silhouettes of many species of animals having sex in various colors including dogs, insects, birds, rhinos, lions, slugs, and rabbits. The title of the book is written in large purple and red uppercase letters and each word is split in half as it spans the page (each word taking up two lines.) The byline "The politics of feeling good" is in small blue letters across the bottom. Below that, in lavender letters is "written and gathered by adrienne marie brown."
Pleasure Activism is a collection of essays, interviews, poetry, and art composed and/or collected by adrienne maree brown. The structure and organization of the book is well thought out as it spaces each of these mediums apart so that the reader is not over-saturated. The book is very Queer and trans- inclusive and most of the entries and interviews are with women, gender non conforming, and/or* trans people of color. There is one somewhat academic essay but the rest of the entries involve people from a variety of backgrounds from art and performance to on the ground street activism. This makes the book very accessible to a wider audience.
"Pleasure activists believe that by tapping into the potential goodness in each of us we can generate justice and liberation, growing a healing abundance where we have been socialized to believe only scarcity exists" -adrienne maree brown, Introduction
I should have know from the cover- which depicts many species of animals having sex and the title- that this book would be largely about sex. However, the blurb about this book led me to believe that the book would be a more expansive discussion of "(making) social justice the most pleasurable experience." The book is not only about sex but the vast majority of it is focused on sexual pleasure and relationships. There is a small section on drugs, performance art, fashion, and parenting (which still often center sex and sexuality.)
I have spent a lot of time in Queer communities where sex was everywhere and the center of everything. So, I understand why a Queer writer would choose to focus so much on that. But, to be honest, I wanted more. I wanted larger discussions (though there are brief mentions) about how social justice activism is often so punishing and how to form better (sexual AND nonsexual) relationships with each other. I wanted sections on how to actually make activism more pleasurable, fun, and creatuve since activism is in the title. I wanted more discussion on all of the different ways we can find pleasure and how to find them. This was actually detailed wonderfully in the short outro at the end of the book. I wish the rest of the book showed the same amount of diversity in topics. Is simply having pleasure in your personal life "activism?" Where are the discussions of pleasure for people who are isolated from social activities due to disability, illness, geographical location, class, lack of accessibility of sexual partners (re: pretty privilege, etc?) How can we make life more pleasurable for those who lack access?
It feels necessary to explain a little where I am coming from in order for my criticism to make sense. I went from being a very active polyamorous Queer in radical, BDSM, and/or activist communities, that were very saturated with sex and play at all times, to being a deliberately single and celibate person focusing on platonic friendships without sex. I spent far more time in the former category but I've been doing the latter for years now. I am chronically ill/disabled and this plus having a lot of harmful and traumatic relationship experiences led me to choose my current path. I also have been sober for about 14 years due to addiction and it is near impossible to find any social and pleasure-oriented spaces for Queers where the majority of people there are not intoxicated- arguably beyond the ability to properly consent. It really sucks when you make a connection with someone who doesn't remember you the next day. It sucks when you get a dirty look asking about how much someone was drinking/using drugs before agreeing to something sexual with them, even though you are doing so to make sure you don't harm them. Intoxication and hypersexuality is the norm in most Queer spaces, even if it isn't in the normative world. So, a book that is basically only encouraging sex and getting high as forms of pleasure activism is a disappointment to me.
This is covered in places, such as in Micha Cárdenas' essay, Beyond Trans Desire, in which she states, "I have in recent years been able to build a deep self-love and self-respect that I did not learn from queer communities or radical political communities, where I often felt further devalued, excluded, and objectified. I have found a refuge in people committed to healing, service, and sobriety and that gave me the tools to question my desire and my part in putting myself in situations that caused me to feel devalued." So, in brown's inclusion of others words for portions of the book, she did cover more bases.
Brown does indeed briefly discuss celibacy and other topics. Brown does mention that drug use can turn into addiction. But, for the most part, she centers her own experience in what pleasure is. She tells the reader to masterbate, have an orgasm before each chapter, she tells the reader to smoke up, etc. This did not feel very inclusive of those of us who cannot, do not, struggle with, or or do not want to do those things. Weed is generally very safe in comparison to drugs like alcohol or heroin, but it's still dangerous or some of us- especially those of us with addiction histories or problems with/risks of developing psychosis. What about those of us who want pleasure in a sober setting? The sections on drugs make it seem like sober settings dominate and oppress which is not true. The vast majority of Queer and other social situations are dominated by alcohol and other drugs which deprives those of us who don't want to be around that from social pleasure.
I do want to say though that it is likely that the focus on drugs and sex in liberatory ways come from a society and government that still punishes people for enjoying sex and which still criminalizes drugs in heinous and murderous ways. These are both things that must be combated at all costs. The harm reduction interview in the drug section was excellent and there is absolutely a place for all of brown's essays and advice on sex and sexuality. I simply wanted more accessibility and variety.
I also have mixed feelings about the use of footnotes in this book. This is nit-picky, I know. But, the level of distraction warrants comment. There were times that the footnotes were excellent and I wished more books would use them in the way she did. For instance, when doing an interview with someone and they would mention something from a book, she would cite the author and book. However, at other times, the footnotes were very distracting. The book begins with an Audre Lorde essay that brown litters with critical footnotes even though many of the criticisms are discussed in the intro already (such as the limits of dated language.) In contrast, a later article pins "women and femmes" (will this phrase die in 2019, please) against "men and masculine people" listing all of the ways apparently only feminine people suffer sexual assault, gendered oppression, exploitation and abuse in sex work, etc but butch and androgynous women and transmasculine people are apparently both responsible for the same oppression that cishet men force upon sex workers while also not being victims themselves of said oppression. I am the first person to want to discuss to rampant problems with toxic masculinity in Queer communities. But, denying the trauma, work, and lived experiences of gender non-conforming women and trans people and placing them in the same oppressive role of cishet men who exploit sex workers is not how you do it. Erasing butch and androgynous women from the category of women and acting as if transmasculine sex workers don't exist is not how you do it. (I've known many trans men sex workers who not only exist, but also are often present themselves as women for their clients out of necessity and demand and thus are treated with the similar oppression cis and trans women face.) There were no footnotes from brown on this article nor were there any on other articles that made some iffy statements. This would be fine if the book was just a collection of essays with differing opinions. But, if you're going to criticize Lorde for having some general terms and dated language on an essay from 1978, I hope you're going to treat the people who are alive and writing today the same way.
Now that I have been honest about where I am coming from and why this book did not always work for me in the ways I had hoped, I want to talk about the ways that it does work for me. And, I want to state again, that this review is largely about my own taste and is not to say that others would no get exactly what they need from the book, which is why I still gave it a high rating.
As I mentioned, this book is very Queer and inclusive of many Queer identities and genders. It centers Black and Brown women and/or trans people in very accessible ways. It offers some great lessons regarding sexual and romantic relationships and harm reduction. It contains excellent and engaging interviews with amazing people. Brown's own contributions are always beautifully and kindly written and easy to read.
One of my favorite parts about "Pleasure Activism" is brown's very wise lessons on boundaries, moderation, knowing that you are deserving, and discovering balance. I bookmarked pages over and over where brown discusses how to create, hold, convey, and feel comfortable with and deserving of boundaries. While they are often described in relation to sexual and romantic relationships, the lessons are applicable to all areas of life. Here are a few gems:
"Your no makes way for your yes. Boundaries create the contain within which your yes is authentic. Being able to say no makes yes a choice." -amb, Introduction
"Don't compromise your core values, don't giggle at something you find ignorant or offensive. But, don't hang up because this human with a different life than you has reached different conclusions." -amb, It's About Your Game
"Set generative boundaries. Create mutual abundance. I envision generative boundaries as organic fences, made of stacked rocks or thick bushes that become home to millions of small creature families. Porous, breathing boundaries that are clear that mark the space between partners in ways that make them both feel abundant." -amb, Liberated Relationships, Expanded
For people who are interested in entering into or who are already part of what can be a wonderful world of multi-partnered Queer filth (I mean this in every great sense of the word,) brown offers a great deal of useful relationship, sex, and dating advice. She also offers a lot of information on solo sexual pleasure. I thoroughly enjoyed her discussion of why she likes being "a second," meaning a non-primary partner to someone. I have always felt this way and sought out that position frequently when I was dating and hooking up, but had not seen many other people write about it in the way that brown has.
The "Hot and Heavy Homework" assignments were helpful and fun editions to the essays. They are all creative and different from what I have often seen in relationship or self help books. They are also assignments accessible to a wide range of needs.
The collection of essays titled "Skills for Sex in the #metoo Era" was my favorite in the book. I adored and devoured each essay in the section. If you are a person who skips around in anthologies like this, be sure to check out that section.
Finally, I must say that even though I have my critiques how much of the book centered on sexual pleasure and drugs, this book did inspire me to open up a bit and ask myself questions about my future in regards to relationships. Perhaps that was part of why so much of it was so hard for me. So, please keep in mind after reading my review that my process is not the same as your process and both of our processes are ok. I can see a great many people- including my younger self- getting a great deal of what they need from this book. So, I do recommend giving it a read. There is a lot of great stuff in here from brown and other important voices.
*I say "women and/or trans people" to denote a group of people including people who may be women, other trans people, or both women and trans. Trans women are women. We still lack a great phrase for the inclusion of marginalized and oppressed genders, but I refuse to use "women and femmes" for reasons which I describe in this article and an author describes well here.
This was also posted to my goodreads.