Prioritizing Pleasure in our Movements

Embracing joy can give insight into the type of world we want to live in—and the motivation to work toward it.

J. Patrick Patterson

Members of Latinas Acting Up! dance on the picket line outside of Warner Bros. Studios on Oct. 27, 2023, in Burbank, Calif., during the Screen Actors Guild strike DAVID LIVINGSTON/GETTY IMAGES

plea·sure ac·tiv·ism

noun

1. a movement that emphasizes joy as a form of resistance

What does that mean exactly?

Pleasure activism asserts that we all need and deserve to feel pleasure and that enjoyment gives us the energy to bring about social change. It’s a political framework that centers joy. The phrase was popularized with author and activist adrienne maree brown’s 2019 book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which draws inspiration from the Black feminist tradition, especially the works of Audre Lorde and Octavia Butler.

Like hedonism?

Hedonism is seeking pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Pleasure activists want to build a better society. If we’re in touch with what makes us feel good, we’re less likely to settle for the status quo. Embracing joy can give insight into the type of world we want to live in — and the motivation to work toward it. Pleasure activism is also about learning how to make fighting for change enjoyable. 

Pleasure activism doesn’t promote excess either. In her book, brown makes it clear that moderation is key: Having resources to buy unlimited amounts of pleasure leads to excess, and excess totally destroys the spiritual experience of pleasure,” she says.

“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.” — Audre Lorde, "Uses Of The Erotic: The Erotic As Power"

But activism isn’t always fun.

True. But it doesn’t always have to be miserable either. It’s harder to convince people to engage in liberatory struggles if it’s all doom and gloom. A line frequently attributed to Emma Goldman puts it nicely: If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” 

Many of us, especially Black women, have been socialized to think we must earn everything, from food to housing to education. Capitalism even makes us feel like we have to earn leisure and happiness. Part of the reason so few of us have a healthy relationship with pleasure,” says brown, is because a small minority of our species hoards the excess of resources, creating a false scarcity and then trying to sell us joy, sell us back to ourselves.” But pleasure is also something we need to survive, so we must create social and economic structures that reflect that.

This is part of ​“The Big Idea,” a series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism.

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J. Patrick Patterson is the Associate Editor at In These Times. He has previously worked as a politics editor, copy editor, fact-checker and reporter. His writing on economic policies and electoral politics has been published in numerous outlets.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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