The Politics of Feeling Good with adrienne maree brown
Are rest and joy part of your daily regimen? Maybe they should be. Author and activist adrienne maree brown joins us to talk about her new book, Pleasure Activism.
adrienne is a black feminist writer and social justice advocate based in Detroit, and Pleasure Activism will change the way you think about yourself, your body, and your relationship to feeling good. She’s also the author of Emergent Strategy, the cohost of How to Survive the End of the World, a doula, a facilitator, and so much more. This is an episode we’re gonna be sitting with for a while.
Because the crises are so big, there’s a real desire to constantly be responding to these crises —there’s never a moment when we can’t justifiably be working because there’s so much to work on… But what ends up happening is we suffer because we don’t have joy, and connection to each other, and connection to our bodies, and connection to family, and pleasure in our lives. And that suffering builds up into exhaustion. That exhaustion leads to a depletion of hope, a depletion of vision, a depletion of innovation under pressure.—adrienne maree brown, author of Pleasure Activism
We talk about:
- Acknowledging our bodies, even when things are dire. “No matter what else is happening, we still have this body that is full of nerves that can feel pleasure.”
- The power of reclaiming your body and relearning how to feel. “Somatics is a way that you can recreate, regenerate belonging through learning how to be authentic and to feel your feelings in real time, and communicate them in real time, ask for what you actually want and mean.”
- Raising sexually liberated kids, and talking frankly about sexual trauma: “If we are comfortable bringing children into a world in which they could be harmed, we need to get much more comfortable discussing that harm and figuring out ways to intervene on it.”
- Why we are what we practice—and that means practicing intervention, not politeness, in the face of racism. “If you keep rubbing at the same spot in your clothing, eventually you’re going to change that spot, you’re going to make it a worn-down area. I think we do the same thing ourselves. We wear down parts of ourselves that we actually need to keep sharp and strong. Like analysis, like the part of ourselves that can intervene on racism. We wear those things down by being polite over and over and over again.”
- Giving the finger to “posi vibes only”
- Reclaiming rest for black bodies with the Nap Ministry
- Rest is more than just another productivity hack
- The case for not reading your email in the morning
What are you doing for pleasure? Tell us!
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Katel LeDu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL So, last week we talked about removing guilt from guilty pleasures, and today we are gonna go even deeper on that topic because I got to sit down with adrienne maree brown, author of the new book, Pleasure Activism.
SWB Ahh, I am so jealous! You know I love adrienne’s work, and missing that interview was a huge bummer for me. Her first book, Emergent Strategy, was so impactful for me in how I think about my work trying to change big, messy systems, but Pleasure Activism… now that is a concept I want to explore!
KL Yeah, she’s so great! And something adrienne talks about is needing pleasure and needing to rest and slow down, and how critical these things are to doing movement work, and being an activist or an advocate for any cause. And in talking to her, it also really struck me that it’s not just important to have pleasure and take rest as much as possible, but it’s powerful that we talk about it. That we acknowledge that we need and want pleasure and even share what gives us pleasure. It helps us feel more connected to our work, our communities, our selves, and our activism!
SWB Mhmm, I feel this so hard. I wouldn’t describe myself as someone who does movement work per se, but I do think of this podcast as being a political act. And I think so are our events and so are the last two books that I wrote, but they’re also super tied into business and they’re not works of pure activism or I don’t go to a nonprofit every day. So, sometimes I’m like, “oh, does this apply to me?” But I even feel like at this level…or even just living in this world and trying to keep abreast of all the immediate daily horrors—whether it’s kids at the border or mass shootings or just a million other things—it all starts to feel like a lot.
SWB And the exhaustion feels real! And then the guilt over not giving every moment of yourself to those horrors feels real too.
KL I know, I agree. I think we are definitely contributing to movements and I often feel really, really tired. Either I don’t deserve rest because I’m able and I’m capable of doing more…like technically I could? [laughs] Or that if I stop to rest, that I’m not helping. And mainly if I’m not “doing,” then I’m not helping. I think that’s the biggest thing.
SWB Right, right, right. I also think about—we spend a lot of time celebrating people’s work and ideas here. And at Collective Strength events, we do a lot to try to spread joy, and to celebrate each other, and to find moments of happiness. And sometimes I find myself wondering, “does that make any sense? Does it make sense to be doing that at all in the middle of all of these endless crises?” I find myself questioning my own pursuit of joy a lot.
KL I do too! And that’s what they want, man! [both laugh] I mean, it is obviously great for capitalism and the current systems in place if we feel like we’re never doing enough and if we don’t find or even seek joy and pleasure and rest because then it can just be sold to us and it’ll always feel elusive, and we’ll never break free from the cycle. So, I’m really glad we’re talking about this way more.
SWB Yeah! Like the idea of pleasure and rest as something that can be inside of ourselves and not just a thing that you try to buy because you’re not giving it to yourself!
KL [laughing] Yes!
SWB Oh my gosh, yeah. Yeah, okay. But at the same time, I want to talk about pleasure, I want to talk about joy, but I also am really aware of something that I see a lot of right now, which is toxic positivity.
SWB You know what I mean. This “posi-vibes only,” “no negativity” kind of thing where people want to shut out anything bad that’s happening. And I’m like, “kids are dying in cages,” my vibes are not good!
KL No. Yeah! And look, desire for positivity is fine, but what good does it do to disregard everything else? I feel like all that does is kind of get you to numb. And if all we’re ever looking for is the positive, then we’re never dealing with real or uncomfortable or terrible shit, we’re just looking for the next thing to numb us. And, fuck, that’s good for capitalism too!
SWB Ughh, damn! And then also on a personal level… you know, last week I had a work thing happen that was not great. A project went sideways in a way I’d never experienced before. And honestly, it made me feel like shit.
SWB I felt like shit and I wanted to talk about feeling shit. I didn’t want to tune that out. I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy to tune out those kinds of negative emotions. And I don’t think it was important for me to keep it posi all week, part of it was dealing with the thing that just objectively sucked! And so I often feel like when we talk about finding pleasure and joy, a lot of people end up in that “keep it posi” space and it really distances you from your own feelings. And I think that that builds up over time. When you avoid facing the realities of the world or you avoid facing the realities of yourself, [laughs] you end up with this very selfish behavior because you focus all this energy on you feeling good, but you’re not really processing at whose expense your joy is coming from.
SWB And who is being left behind or who is being actively harmed by that kind of tunnel vision. So, this is something I really love about adrienne’s concept of pleasure activism because it’s celebratory, for sure—it’s got positivity to it—but it’s not shutting out any of the hard stuff. And I think that’s what we’ve been trying to do too—creating spaces where people have permission to talk about the things they struggle with, to talk about their trauma, and then to actually connect with others by sharing those things. Because I feel like it’s when we can open up, and when we can connect over the hard shit, and when we feel permission to be real, that’s when we ultimately create a space where a deeper sense of joy and celebration can emerge and it’s not just the surface level posi vibes.
KL Yeah! Something else this made me think of is our conversation with Nanci Luna Jiménez in the spring. She brought up the concept of adultism and how that so often manifests, as you know, telling kids not to cry, not respecting them or their emotions, and basically treating them like they’re not real, whole, human people. And I think we all grow up enduring some measure of that and I think about it all the time. If we’re taught that our emotional needs aren’t relevant or that we’re weak for showing and connecting with emotions, how are we supposed to get to a place where we’re aligned with ourselves enough to say, “yes, I need pleasure, I need joy, I need rest.” We need those things in order to heal!
SWB Mhmm. You know, it’s like every episode we do I feel all of these connection points to other episodes—
SWB —which is kind of rad. So, for example, it made me also think about Liz Fosslein, who we talked to in the winter about her book “No Hard Feelings,” which is about talking about your feelings at work.
SWB And I love that, I love talking about my feelings around work because I think that talking about our feelings at work connects us to this broader conversation about being able to align our values with our work, which is actually really hard. I think the reality is it’s very difficult to align your values with your work, given that if you work in a business, you work within an existing capitalist system. And that system is super good at exploiting people’s, and it’s super good at extracting profit beyond everything else, which means it’s really, really hard to bring anything value driven into it in a real and true way. So, bringing feelings into work culture doesn’t fix that problem, but what I think it is is still actually radical because it takes the system as it is and it inserts more humanity into it and more awareness of people into it. And that happens at a small scale, but I think it’s really important because you have to bring the people back into the equation if you ever want to get away from this system that is built to exploit them.
KL Yeah! And it’s also really radical to rest and slow down. [laughs] I’ve been following this woman, Tricia Hersey, who founded something called the Nap Ministry.
SWB Ooh, Nap Ministry? I think I finally found a religion for me! [both laugh]
KL I know! She started this movement to help folks slow down and rest as an act of protest and resistance, and I love this so much. She started it as an art installation where she invited community members to nap in a group setting and now it’s gaining all this momentum. She’s doing it all over the country and I’m so happy it’s spreading. And one of the things I really love about what she’s doing is that she’s talking about how important rest is to the collective human experience, but specifically how important it is to black bodies. She’s creating dialogue and a space for black bodies to recapture rest and peace that was stolen from them for centuries. So, she says that rest is resistance but it’s also black liberation!
SWB This is so interesting and I’m really glad to hear about her work because, yes, everybody deserves a rest, but there’s so much white supremacy built into our ideas of who deserves rest or who gets rest—
SWB —and who is allowed to be at leisure. Like you said, we spent literally hundreds of years denying black people rest. And now, today even, it’s still deeply embedded in our culture that black people, especially black women, don’t need rest.
SWB We think of black women as strong or tireless. We expect them to come out and save our ass on Election Day, right?
SWB All of that I think is really tied up in super racialized ideas of who needs what, and who deserves what, and who gets to be a full person versus who is a tool that we employ when we need them.
SWB And then you end up having the situation where as soon as a black woman needs rest and needs a break or as soon as she is struggling under the pressure that we are putting her under, immediately she can get labeled as “lazy” or some other similar stereotype.
SWB So, I do think we all deserve to reclaim rest, but especially and particularly, I want to support black people reclaiming their rest because absolutely that has been denied.
SWB And I also think about the general class issue of all of this. If you have two part time jobs and a gig driving Uber in order to make rent, and somebody is like, “just nap more”—
SWB —I’m not sure that’s totally helpful!
SWB But I do think there’s a piece of this that says, look, if you can take breaks and rest, if you have the privilege to not quote unquote “bust your ass” every second, I think it’s really important to do so, and to talk about it and to normalize it, and to make it a thing that simply is part of people’s lives.
KL Yeah, absolutely. And if you’re in a position of privilege or power to make space for black and brown bodies to rest, also do that.
SWB Oh my gosh, yeah. This also just reminds me of how much productivity culture is just a fucking scourge though.
SWB But I also think a lot of the popular lit on medium.com or whatever about rest or sleep is actually just treating it like another productivity hack.
SWB We’ve talked about this a little bit, but a nap is not just good because you get a boost of productivity afterwards. That might be true or might be true sometimes, but what if naps are also good just because they’re… good?
KL They’re good!
SWB Because people need rest and naps are good? And what if you were well rested and in touch with your body and that just felt good?
SWB And it reminds me how rigged the game is. You can’t out-optimize capitalism. There is no productivity hack in the world [KL laughs] that is going to get you out ahead of that. All it does is make you more efficient for capitalism.
SWB And guess what? Capitalism will always up its demands on you, right? So, it’s a never ending cycle.
KL Yeah! We will never win their game by playing that way. We’ll just get sick and be disconnected, so we’ve got to fuck up all the rules. Sorry, we’ve got to do it. It reminds me of something adrienne wrote on her blog, that I love. She talks about waking up to a new reality, about feeling it on the horizon—a reality where, “we collectively realize capitalism cannot yield the societal norms we need in order to survive and thrive as a species. A reality where we begin to practice what’s next.”
SWB Ughh. On that note… let’s get to what’s next. [short transition music plays]
Harvest: Creative Mornings
SWB So, Katel, you know that I’ve been talking a lot about community lately since we started running our Collective Strength events? And something that’s becoming increasingly clear every day is how much work it is to run a community!
KL Oh my gosh, it is a lot of work!
SWB Yeah. And I knew that, but I feel like I know that in a whole new level now. [laughs] So, thanks to the support of our friends at Harvest, we have a little treat today. We are going to get some extra insight from one of the best community builders around, Tina Roth Eisenberg. She’s the founder of Creative Mornings and we are so excited to welcome her to the show. Hey, Tina!
Tina Roth Eisenberg Thank you for having me!
SWB Yeah, thanks for being here! So, can you tell us—first up, what is Creative Mornings and how did it start?
TRE So, Creative Mornings is the world’s largest face to face community that I started here in New York after I moved to New York and I didn’t know anyone. And it was really hard for me as a designer to break into New York and find my creative tribe. A few years after I arrived here, I started a coworking space. And I remember sitting there, looking into my space, and realizing, “wow, you have space! You can invite people in!” So, I started a prototype kind of thing; I started inviting people in one Friday morning a month for free breakfast and a lecture. And it has over the years—over the last eleven years—organically grown into a beautiful, global community. We are happening in 207 chapters around the world—that’s 207 cities that gather their creative community—and it’s all volunteer run. It’s a really beautiful labor of love, as I call it.
KL Ah, we’re big fans of Creative Mornings. So, I do want to ask: so many communities can be kind of toxic or feel exclusive and elitist—what’s the most important thing you think people can do to create a community where folks are kind?
TRE Well, I’m a big believer that you attract what you are. So, if you show up kind, and warm, and open hearted, it kind of is contagious [laughs] to the community. So, we make a point when you arrive at a Creative Mornings that people welcome you warmly, they hand you a coffee, and might even give you a hug or a high five and people feel safe instantly. Because most people come alone to Creative Mornings. When you sign up for an event, you only get one ticket, so you have to be a little brave and show up on your own. But then when you arrive and everyone welcomes you so warmly, you kind of feel instantly comfortable and relaxed and you start chatting with other people.
SWB Tina, I love that so much and I love how you’ve grown that community. Thank you so much and thank you to Harvest for shining the spotlight on your work. How can folks find out more about Creative Mornings and find a community near them?
TRE You can go to our website at CreativeMornings.com/Cities to find a chapter new year. Or you can subscribe to our newsletter on CreativeMornings.com.
SWB Thanks, Tina! [short transition music plays]
Interview: adrienne maree brown
KL adrienne maree brown is a social justice activist, black feminist, and the author of a book I can not put down—_Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good_. It feels like critical timing for a book like this to exist and I am so excited to talk with her today. Adrienne, welcome to Strong Feelings!
adrienne maree brown Thank you. Thanks for having me.
KL So, first up let’s start with mercury in retrograde. [laughs & amb laughs] Do you feel like it’s real and is it messing your stuff up like it’s messing mine up? [laughs]
amb Yeah! I have experienced it. And I’ve been trying for a couple of years to give a positive reframe on it—
amb —because it’s supposed to be a time to renew, and redo, and refeel, and all of those things. But mostly what I feel is it just messes everything up. [laughs & KL laughs] So, you have to plan your life according to it, impossibly.
amb The other night I was flying back from LA and I ended up having to facilitate a whole moment on a plane because we had to do an emergency landing [KL gasps] and then come back up in the air. And then the air conditioning broke, and then something else happened, and we all had to get off and blah, blah, blah. But it was just like watching how humans quickly default to their most base version of themselves. [KL laughs] Like, “what’s going on?!” Like you all really want to come for these workers, [laughs] you know?
amb Just having a moment of “the workers actually don’t have a working sound system, that’s all that’s happening right now. We’re all going to be fine.” But it’s just those moments where it feels like, “oh, we’re really in the wild right now.”
KL Mhmm. Well, I am glad that I am not the only one who is feeling it. But I agree—I’m sort of trying to use it as a moment to reflect a little and look at what feels out of whack.
KL Okay, I do want to dig into Pleasure Activism. Can you tell us what the book is about?
amb So, the idea behind it, the core idea of it is rooted in this question that I’ve been sitting with, and working with, and playing around with, which is how do we make justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences that we can have? And my hypothesis and my place to work is how can I feel into the things that actually give me pleasure and let that be a guide? Like hear that yes in the body, yes in the self, and use that as a guide to help me experience more pleasure, and then experience more connection, more relationship, more depth, more connection with the rest of the world. So, part of it is that—how do we make it so that the things we’re trying to do to make the world a better place are actually pleasurable to involve yourself in? A great example that I just can not stop pointing to right now is what’s going down in Puerto Rico where all the footage of the resistance movement that’s trying to oust the governor there is dancing, and singing, and drums, and mothers dancing and leading, and children playing—the stuff that you’re just like, “who wouldn’t want to go to that party?—
amb —Who wouldn’t want to go and be a part of that?” I’m like, “oh, that’s how movement can and should look and feel.” And it’s such a compelling space. People who are like, “I might not see myself as part of a resistant political process, but I definitely want to see myself as part of a vibrant community that is dancing in the street, and feeling free, and feeling uplifted, and uplifting each other.” Another part is reclaiming access to pleasure for all of those of us who are in marginalized identities and who have been purposefully excluded from believing that we deserve access to pleasure. And really healing some of the wounds of capitalism, which make us believe that we never have enough and the only way that we can survive, and get ahead, and feel good about ourselves and our bodies and our lives is if we spend some money.
KL This also makes me think of, why do you think the concept of pleasure feels so polarizing for so many folks?
amb Yeah. I mean, I think a couple of things happen. One is that people feel really guilty for the pleasures that they indulge in. My focus is those of us who are in social justice work or in movement work—that because the crises are so big, there’s a real desire to constantly be responding to these crises and constantly be—there’s never a moment when we can’t justifiably be working because there’s so much to work on and there’s still so few people who spend the majority of their lives doing that work. So, it’s totally understandable that we’re like, “no, I’ve just got to be tireless.” But what ends up happening is we suffer because we don’t have joy, and connection to each other, and connection to our bodies, and connection to family, and pleasure in our lives. And that suffering builds up into exhaustion. That exhaustion leads to a depletion of hope, a depletion of vision, a depletion of innovation under pressure. Even being able to hold a standard for what it is we’re fighting for because we get constantly stuck in, “I’m fighting against everything we can fight against.” So, I understand it when I come across it and people are just like, “no, I can’t imagine that this is important.” And rather than try and make the case myself, I try to fill the book with examples of people who are actually doing that work—doing the healing, doing the community knitting, and uplifting through all kinds of methods. There’s work happening around fashion. There’s people who are treating and facing the war on drugs through the process of building a community dispensary. There’s a lot of options in there for ways that people are addressing the issues of this moment with as creative as possible solutions.
KL You talk about the concept of somatics in the book. Can you describe what that is briefly for folks who might not be familiar with that?
amb I’ve been studying somatics for a decade or so and it’s really the study of the body in its wholeness and understanding that there are things that break our connection to wholeness, break our sense of wholeness, and that gets stored in the body as trauma and holds on waiting for us to turn and face it and complete the process. A lot of how humans store trauma is by repressing—hardcore repression.
amb We start doing this at a very young age with kids. “Stop crying. Stop feeling your feelings. If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.” Really making it the worst thing you could be doing is actually feeling your emotions instead of the worst thing you could be doing is repressing those emotions, repressing the reality of your experience and the part of you that knows how to set boundaries and say no. So, we create the conditions for a lot of harm pretty early on in processing. So, then it’s like, “oh, how do I begin the work of reclaiming?” Somatics says that one of the ways we can do that is actually by relearning how to feel, relearning what it looks like when we’re actually grabbed and triggered and giving ourselves a center in the body, a home in the body that we can return to when those pressures come, and a way that we can reclaim our dignity, reclaim our right to be present, and open, and connected. That’s how we talk about it. And it’s incredible to me—when I first started the work, I was just curious. And then after a year of training I was hungry. I was like, “I see the transformations happening in this room and I see people walking with extra inches in their dignity. Not in their bodies, but in their presence.” And feeling like, “oh, what does it take to return that dignity to people where there’s been great harm?” And I got curious. And now I’ve been on that path learning technologies of the body in that way. One of the things that really does open up is once you clear out some of the spaces that had been blocked by trauma, so much more becomes possible in the realm of intimacy. And most people—most people in organizing, most people I’ve come across in any of the work I’ve done—are looking for belonging in some way. They want something that they can belong to that will never let them go, that will never leave them, that will never cancel them because they say the wrong thing on the internet. [laughs & KL laughs] They want something that’s going to stand for them and have their backs. And some spaces are like, “oh, parents do that or communities are supposed to do that,” but again, one of the outcomes of capitalism and that individuation of family and success is that we have fewer people that we can expect to call upon for that sense of belonging. Everyone’s got good fences now, right? So, somatics is a way that you can recreate, regenerate belonging through learning how to be authentic and to feel your feelings in real time, and communicate them in real time, ask for what you actually want and mean.
amb There’s a lot there.
KL Yeah. It really seems like if we can get in touch with that, with ourselves, it seems like that’s a natural progression to experience pleasure better or more deeply.
amb Yeah, yeah.
KL And, hopefully, actually let us do better work or be better partners. And even neighbors and community members.
amb Yeah. Although, I think the caveat I try to make whenever I talk about it is it’s definitely not like a one-stop workshop type experience of transformation. [laughs]
KL [laughing] Yeah.
amb And I think about that a lot—how to create more access or pace. There’s a slow kind of pace of work. You really have to change your practices, which I’m a huge fan of. I love practicing, and I believe that we are what we practice. I’m just like, we become what we do over and over again. That makes sense to me.
amb It’s easy to prove, right? If you keep rubbing at the same spot in your clothing, eventually you’re going to change that spot, you’re going to make it a worn-down area. I think we do the same thing ourselves. We wear down parts of ourselves that we actually need to keep sharp and strong. Like analysis, like the part of ourselves that can intervene on racism. We wear those things down by being polite over and over and over again. When the choice is like, “oh, I’d have to break the social norms in order to say this is wrong,” that kind of stuff.
amb I’m like, if you practice that over and over again, you may not think of yourself as racist, but what you’re practicing is aligned with racism. You have to begin to practice something else like intervention. And I think about that in almost every aspect of our lives. It’s not about being able to say the right thing on the internet [laughs & KL laughs], it’s about what can I practice in real time when I’m face to face with another human being who is disparaging my humanity or someone else’s humanity? What do I practice in that condition?
KL I think we are, as a culture—as an American culture, for sure—we are so hungry for this quick resolve and this quick step to the next thing.
amb Yeah. It’s all fast, fast, fast, more, more, more.
KL Yeah! And that’s something that I’m definitely learning with age too! There’s so much joy in slowing down. [laughs]
amb It is one of the blessings of getting older and starting to recognize—at least for me—to really, really deeply sit with my insignificance in a different way.
amb You get to a certain age and you realize that you’ve lost enough people and you see how that river keeps moving. The river of life and attention and interest just keeps moving forward, and the number of people who remember you once you’re gone gets smaller and smaller. So, hopefully, who will remember the real you? Even someone like a Lao Tzu or Gandhi or Martin Luther King—these people, we think we know them, but more and more it’s going to be people who just know them through biography and narrative and whatever stories. Ten stories got lifted up from their life, or ten quotes or something. There are less and less people who know the essence of that human being.
amb And when you realise that, then it’s like, oh, I want to put more of my energy and attention into the ideas that I want to proliferate in the world that don’t need to have my name attached to them, but it’s just important that they’re thought—that these questions are asked and that these actions are taken, that these practices are attempted, that this change is happening. You know? And I think about that a lot. I’m like, “I’ve chosen a really good river with pleasure and with emergent strategy and being in my relationship with nature. I can feel that my ancestors are happy.” They’re like, “that’s a good river for you, that’s a good place to pour your energy, it won’t be wasted.” I also really hope that my words help alley-oop people like the words of the black feminists I love. I’m always like, “I’m in this river and it’s got Audre Lorde flowing in it, it’s got Octavia Butler flowing in it, it’s got June Jordan flowing in it, and Ella Baker flowing in it and Harriet Tubman. If you keep going back, I’m like, “that’s a good river.” And I have tossed myself into it. [laughs]
KL [laughing] Yes.
amb And I want people to keep reaching back to the source, which I think is beyond any of the names that we know.
KL Yeah, that really resonates with me too. I want to go back just a little to—you mentioned children earlier and what we might experience as children.
KL And I noticed that in the book you spend some time talking about the idea of raising sexually liberated kids and you also talk about pleasure over 60. And I feel like it can be really—
amb Yes. [laughs]
KL —easy to leave younger and older age groups out of a conversation about pleasure.
amb That’s right.
KL What made you think, “this is really important, we have to make space for these chapters”?’’
amb I’m a super auntie, I’ve got a million niblings, a million babies in my life. All the adults that I love basically all have children that I also love and get to be joining in with the parenting for the week or the days that I’m present. And I love doing that. So, I’ve got a lot of children and I’ve been watching them come through this process, watching them awaken in their own bodies—feeling like, how can I protect them? How do I make sure that they get a faith awakening? And not just protect them from harm that others might bring to them—because I think that’s one level—but also protect them from stupid ideologies that will mess up their sex life forever. [laughs]
KL [laughing] Yeah.
amb Like the idea of virginity as something like you think you’re going to ruin yourself if you actually experience pleasure when you feel called to it—that’s a ridiculous idea. And how can I help the children that I love not get too stuck in that idea for too long? And then I’ve also been in a process of learning more about my own experiences of child sexual trauma and wanting and longing for it to be more of a conversation that adults are comfortable having. I’m like, if we are comfortable bringing children into a world in which they could be harmed, we need to get much more comfortable discussing that harm and figuring out ways to intervene on it. The raising of sexually liberated children for me is also in a direct conversation with the piece from Amita Swadhin, where she’s telling the story of the rapes that she experienced from her father and the journey that she took to reach back for pleasure—or reach forward for pleasure. And after that process, to me it’s all part of one massive, necessary conversation. It’s actually getting to be more and more rare that I meet people who haven’t experienced some level of child sexual abuse.
amb And I feel like at what point do you call something what it is? I have to plug—I’m very, very excited because my comrade and friend who I look up to, Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who is actually written about by Alexis Pauline Gumbs in Pleasure Activism. She’s one of the people that Alexa asserts is living Toni Cade Bambara’s legacy. But she has written a book that is going to be coming out this fall called Love With Accountability and it’s all about recovering from child sexual abuse and calling in those conversations with people who have harmed us, especially if we’re still in relationship with them, if they’re still alive, if they’re still hearing, and if there’s still space to do that. I think it’s a groundbreaking work, I think it’s going to change the landscape of conversations around child sexual abuse. But for me, what I was able to do in Pleasure Activism was a step in that direction. Being like, “we can’t talk about pleasure, and particularly sexual pleasure, without speaking explicitly about the ways in which most of us have that relationship in our bodies to pleasure broken.” It happens because we’re touched the wrong way when we’re young or looked at the wrong way when we’re young, or given the wrong kind of attention when we’re young, or not given the right boundaries when we’re young. And then you don’t understand why you’re 25 and unable to have an orgasm or unable to look your lover in the eye or unable to trust that you deserve as much pleasure as your partner, you know? Basic things.
amb Everyone should have access to that and if we don’t, that deserves examination. That deserves examination. What kind of society do we have if that is our common experience and how do we change?
KL I think you’re right. I think more of us than we think have experienced that. It also seems like there’s a scarcity of resources when you come to the realization that I did have trauma or I have experienced this, it’s like you kind of don’t know where to start.
amb That’s right.
KL And that’s just the first step in unlearning the shame that we feel—definitely as Americans and throughout the world—and that we associate with sex and sexuality.
amb Everything is hypersexualized, right?
amb It’s all pornographic. And, again, it’s really tied into how can we make money off of this? That’s why I love having the piece in there from Chanelle Gallant, “Fuck You, Pay Me.” Because we’re really starting to understand more and more that almost everything that we’re doing is some kind of labor of the body and getting paid for labor of the body. And we shame those who get the labor of the body sexually, but so many people are actually engaging is some form of sex work. It happens in lots of different ways that we don’t acknowledge. And then because we don’t talk about the actual value, we don’t talk about the actual structures, we don’t talk about it, we end up with—sex can only be talked about in the US if it’s hidden or if it’s transgressive. You hide your porn sites. You don’t just openly talk about “here’s my favorite place that I go to watch other people have sex.”
amb And because it’s hidden, all kinds of horrific behaviors can proliferate in those spaces. One of the earliest pieces I did—I did a column for Bitch magazine called “The Pleasure Dome,” which fed a lot of the pieces into Pleasure Activism. And there’s a whole piece in there—I got really curious about pornography and what is desirable in the US. And it was wild! So much of it was incest! Like mother-daughter, they call it like stepmother, brother. It’s all incest, it’s all variations on incest. And it’s all white people having incestual experiences with occasional exotic additions of other things. And all those other things are hyper-stereotypes. So, I’m like, “if the majority of adult Americans in this country are watching pornography at the root system of their body, of everything that they desire, what’s being programmed in is [laughs] incestual, sexual activity, sexual activity with people who are too young, and exoticizing the submissive Asian, the big black cock, all these things, then what does that do to shape the rest of how society interacts with each other? What does that do if that’s what you watch at night and that’s what you orgasm too and set all your pleasure centers to? And then you go to work the next day with people of different races and women.” Right? [laughs]
KL [laughing] Right.
amb I just think it really deserves examination and it deserves intentional practice. For me, when I was thinner, I was like, “well, what do I desire? How do I decolonize my desire? How do I start to really examine why I don’t look for the same bodies as mine?” I’ve trained myself to see my own beauty, I’ve trained myself to see my own desirability, to seek it out. I start to celebrate now when I come across cellulite in other bodies, jiggles and movement in other bodies, stretch marks in other bodies. Things that are like, “that body feels good.” When I hold someone and they’re soft and smushy, I’m like, “oh, that’s how I feel, that must be so good.” [laughs] Right?
KL [laughing] Yeah.
abmb And I think now, I’m doing this summer challenge of “thick first” where I’m having people post pictures of themselves where their thickness is the most delicious part of it—
amb —and really looking for the rolls and the stretch marks and all those pieces of it. And it’s just so exciting! I have been so excited by what I’m seeing and coming across. There are so many people who are waiting to practice loving themselves. And how do we create public space for that too?
KL So, I want to back up a little bit. What led you to write Pleasure Activism?
KL What was your path in the work and your background that led you to this place?
amb So, my nature, my entire life, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about increasing the pleasure of the experience that I was in or being in the pleasure, indulging in the pleasure of something. It’s come very naturally to me. I started to pleasure myself very early in my life, it was just very much like, “yes! Bodies are great, life feels great.” [laughs] That was my orientation. And then I went on a long detour through trauma. And then in my twenties, I started to work for a place called The Harm Reduction Coalition, learning about the principles of harm reduction, learning that the user has to set the pace of their own recovery, and the pace of their own journey. It has to be their agenda. And that taught me so much about organizing, that community actually has to set and believe in and envision the agenda, or else we’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If you just create the tertiary surface level changes, but nothing goes down into the root system, then nothing actually changes. So, harm reduction was really major for me, and during that time I also discovered ecstasy—MDMA—and started partying and going out and dancing. And having these experiences where even though at the time I felt very insecure in my body, insecure in my belonging, I was able to go and have these experiences of feeling one with the universe, and incredibly beautiful, and incredibly sensual, and incredibly alive. And be able to connect with people from a place that wasn’t just connected to my insecurity and needing something, but was connected to my abundance of self and having so much. So, I was doing organizing—facilitation really. I hesitate always to call myself an organizer because I really believe that the gift that I’ve been given is around facilitation and making it easy for those I believe in to come together. I’ve been blessed to find black liberation work, so that’s why my rehabilitation work is focused and targeted there, but I was facilitating all along the way, and then this book, these ideas, reading Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic”, the terminology from Keith Cylar just kept to returning to me. So, I slipped a little bit of it into Emergent Strategy and I thought that might satisfy the impulse to share it. What happened instead is it just kept growing, and people kept asking me about it, and I found I had so much more to share. So, right as I was like, “I think this is a book,” I went to AK and I was like, “can this be a book?” [laughs] And it worked out to have the column with Bitch magazine, which ended up feeding into the book in a really wonderful way. I feel like this is really exciting to be like, “oh—
amb —I can do this. We can do this.” I had a lot of hesitation about releasing that as the next book and releasing it during this time. Does this make sense as the next text that people know during this moment of hyper trauma? Like constant, national trauma? But so far the response has been, “hell yeah!” [laughs]
KL [laughing] Yeah!
amb People are very much like, “oh right, we have to survive this, and one of the ways that we can remember that survival is important and necessary—and I think this a lot. The coming apocalypses are so overwhelming—
amb —and I think we’re going to have to really fight for the next generation and generations of people to even want to be here, to even want to be alive. I think we’re going to be heading into periods of really massive depression, and disorientation, and melancholy. And restlessness. A sense of like, so much has already been set in motion that it’s going to be so hard to survive. And we have to attend to the spirits of those people who are going to have to live through that. So, to me, Pleasure Activism is my offer towards that. Don’t forget that no matter what else is happening, we still have this body that is full of nerves that can feel pleasure. And there’s an essay in there that I always try to uplift. My friend, Alana Devich Cyril, who passed away last fall from a fight with cancer—she talks about that. That it’s just like, “cancer is hard and I’m just going to let cancer be hard, but I’m not going to make anything any harder than it needs to be. And I’m going to look for all the pleasures that I can and really be intentional about moving directly towards pleasure.” And it just feels like that is such important teaching right now. That this moment is going to be hard, the social conditions that we’re in are hard, and you can let that be hard, you can do the work you can against it, but you don’t have to add any more suffering. There’s enough.
KL So, something that both Sara and I noticed when we read your books is that you have a writing style that we maybe we don’t typically see in a nonfiction book. There’s stream of consciousness and it’s very poetic. It’s really incredibly moving.
KL How did you arrive at that style? Or did you always write that way? Was it just that’s how it came out?
amb I think I always have had a pretty clear sense of my writing voice, my non-fiction writing voice, so I’ve tried to stay true to that voice. I did do a practice. I don’t know if you remember Friendster?
KL [laughing] Yes.
amb But back in the day [KL laughs] before Facebook and all of this, there was Friendster. What I would do is write to people that I didn’t realize I was writing—I would write a post, I was writing at that time about a breakup or something I was going through with my heart, and I would post it every single day, these updates. And I thought they were just going to myself or semi private or whatever. I don’t know what I thought, I just didn’t understand how it worked. [KL laughs] But it was actually sending the post to everybody’s inbox, [both laugh] and everyone that I was friends with on there. And when I realized it, I was like, “holy shit” and I wrote an apology. But so maybe people responded to me like, “no, we love this!” [laughs]
KL [laughing] Keep doing it!
amb “Please don’t stop, we’re totally invested in the heartbreaker and we want to understand more,” or whatever. So, that put me onto, “oh, I really do enjoy that personal style of writing.” And I think that especially for black women in this country at this time, we don’t have an abundance of our stories being told. So, I really think that my life and the experience that I’m having is really important and a valid experience to be having. So, what I often will share with people is, “here’s where I am sourcing this.” I’m not doing studies through Yale, I’m sourcing this through my own life, and sourcing this through my own experiences, and through the lessons that I’ve learned, and through the data of years of doing this work. And I felt recently affirmed because I watched Brene Brown’s special on Netflix and she was just talking about the years that she has spent doing vulnerability work and research, and it was like, “oh, there’s so many ways to do research.” And even though I wouldn’t have called it research in the time of doing it, [laughs] now I look back and I’m like, “oh, the way I’ve approached my work has been almost as a research project.” I’m always looking for, what are the patterns in this? Who gets seen here and who doesn’t get seen? Who feels like they can speak up? And who feels like they should never speak up? Who feels really comfortable taking space in the room? That also was a part of how I trained myself to use my voice more publicly. I started to notice that the people who felt comfortable in almost every space I was in were men, particularly white men, and some white women.
amb And I was like, “well, if they feel comfortable speaking up in every space, then that’s who we’re going to hear and that’s who is going to shape our future, that’s going to shape everything.” So, even if I feel often like an introvert, I push myself to engage in sharing, and engage in speaking, and engage in telling more and more of my story. And usually, I’ll be at the precipice of sharing something that feels too personal, and those are the big moments to pivot for me where I take the risk. I’ve learned a ton in risking honesty in spaces where I’ve been conditioned to tell a lie or just offer some small distortion. And a lot of my work I think also emerges from that intersection of what is private versus what is political.
amb And that there’s so much that happens in the quote-unquote “private” space that actually embodies our political compromises. It’s the front lines of where we give up our agency and give up our power and our dignity. So, Pleasure Activism in a lot of ways is addressing that. There’s a big chunk of it that’s like me responding to this Me Too moment and feeling like there’s so much we need to call in, and call out, and get accountability for. And then there’s ourself and our own practices and what we do in the private sphere and the relational sphere. And how do we learn from the inside out the skills that we need to navigate differently through intimacy and relationships? Dating, falling in love, getting our desires met—there’s a lot to learn there. And I feel like I’m still beginning that learning process, but to me, we need to put our attention on that. I want to reclaim my voice. I never want to sit through a dinner where someone is suggesting something harmful and I’m not able to say it. You know? Or I never want to sit through a sexual experience where I’m like, “I don’t want to be here, but I don’t know how to leave.” And I’ve been through all of those things. I’ve read so many of the testimonies like, “yep, I know that, I know that.” And I’ve met so many other human beings who that’s their shared experience—“I know that feeling, I’ve been there, I’ve experienced it too.” So, I think there are problems like this that are kind of like dolphins. You just see a couple of dolphins, but you know that there are actually hundreds under the water.
amb And I feel like that sometimes with these stories. You might hear a couple, but it’s actually indicative of a multitude under the water of people who are too scared still to speak up and share. Even now, I think the majority of Me Too stories are untold and the majority of Me Too experiences are kept secret, kept quiet, never spoken out loud, and we’re just beginning to learn how to tell those stories for the sake of healing and not just for the sake of shaming the other.
KL Yeah. It’s so overwhelming, but really powerful to think about. Personally, I just want to say thank you for raising your voice. I think it’s really important.
amb Thank you.
KL Okay, so one very last question.
KL I saw that you also had a podcast! [laughs] It’s called How to Survive the End of the World—
amb It’s true!
KL —which is a question I think we have all been asking ourselves. [both laugh] Can you tell us a little about what you do with the show and how will we survive? [laughs]
amb So, my sister and I have been in this conversation for our whole lives [laughs & KL laughs] of “the world is definitely going to end, what are we going to do about that? How are the kids going to be safe when that happens? How are we going to handle this?” And we sat down—we knew we wanted to be in conversation with each other and both of us had been thinking separately about podcasts, and we just kind of came together. I was like, “we should just talk to each other.” And I didn’t really see anything else like that out there where it was two people from the same family and from a pretty similar world view and politics and even work—we’re both social justice facilitators. So, I was like, “I don’t think there’s anything else quite like this.” We have mostly conversations with each other, and then we also bring on other people who we think might have some parts of the answer. And I think we both thought when we started that there would be a little bit more of the hard skills, hands on stuff, and we’re still working on integrating that more in. But so much of what has come up is “how do we need to shift how we think, and how we relate to each other, and what intimacy looks like, and what child rearing looks like? How do we need to change our ways of being in order to produce a different outcome?” So much of what I think we both believe is that the world is going to be shifting in major ways in our lifetime, and the thing that’s going to get us through is actually deep relationship. A lot of how we look at apocalypse—the movie story of it—is shit’s going to hit the fan and then everybody’s going to be trying to kill each other over some jam, right? [KL laughs] And Autumn has done a lot of work in emergency response services, I’ve done a lot of work with communities who have been going—I spent time facilitating for groups right after Katrina hit in New Orleans, and I’ve been in New York after crises. I was in New York after 9/11. And what struck me is that in those instances when it felt like the world was ending, people turned towards each other more than I’ve ever seen and took care of each other more than I’ve ever seen, and there were huge acts of bravery and solidarity. So, part of what we’re talking about is, how do we help people prepare for being with in that way? The with that comes. And then being skilled, so that when that desire to help each other comes, we actually have some skills to put behind it. We have a blast doing it, so I think it’s going to be on for a while.
KL Yeah! I love that. Well, I’m really excited because I am craving more podcasts, so can’t wait to catch up on all of them and hear more of your voice!
amb Start at the beginning! [laughs]
KL Yeah, yeah, yeah! I love it!
KL Well, thank you so much for joining me today.
amb Thank you.
KL Pleasure Activism is on sale everywhere, just want to let everyone know. Where can our listeners keep up with you and your work?
amb I often tell people Instagram is my favorite social media place, and I give good Instagram. And then my website adriennemareebrown.net is another place where folks can always find me.
KL Cool! Thank you again so much.
amb Thank you. [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
SWB Okay, Katel, it is time for the Fuck Yeah of The Week. And since we’ve been talking about pleasure activism today, I want to make sure that our fuck yeah is on theme. So, what’s one thing that you did for rest and pleasure this week?
KL Ooh, okay! So, last week actually—I’ve done this a few times—I have been doing a little cross-stitch while I drink coffee in the morning for half an hour, instead of reading news or answer email while I try to chug coffee at the same time. Instead, I sip it and I do something completely offscreen.
SWB Ooh, that’s great!
SWB I often feel like I’ve got to get to work right in the morning. Whatever time it is—doesn’t matter what time it is—if I’m up, I should be getting on with it. So, I work out, for example, and then sometimes I’m back from the gym at seven in the morning and I feel like “oop, just get right to it!”
SWB And I think I’m going to reclaim some of that time. Not hate-reading Twitter links, [KL laughs] not reading or hate-reading, as the case may be, my email, [KL laughs] just real, relaxed reading for me!
KL I love that idea. Okay, what about you? What’s one thing you’ve been doing?
SWB Okay, so I got a new bike, which is very exciting.
SWB Yeah, I used to bike a lot—all the time through college, through all of my twenties, and then at some point a couple of years ago, I just sort of stopped biking in the city. Part of it was that I didn’t love my bike and part of it was feeling like sometimes the city isn’t conducive to biking, but I decided, “no, I love biking.” And there are way more people biking in the city now, so it’s starting to be a little bit higher awareness from cars, and it is time for me to get my ass back out there! So, I got a bike. And last weekend I went out for a long ride along the river all by myself. And it was so relaxing, and so nice! It was kind of gross and sweaty, but it was also really fun! And it’s also a good time to be alone with yourself—
SWB —because it’s not super safe to ride with earbuds in—
SWB —so I don’t. And that means I’ve got no media blasting into my ears, I am not out there with anybody, this is very much me time. Just me out in the world seeing what happens.
KL Ugh, I love that! Well, fuck yeah to our pleasure!
SWB Fuck yeah! I hope all of you out there get some pleasure too! That’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer. You can check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thank you to adrienne maree brown for being our guest today, and thank you to all of you out there listening! If you liked our show, please give it a rating on Apple podcasts or Stitcher or wherever you listen to your favorite shows. And you can also get Strong Feelings right in your inbox. We have a newsletter called “I Love That” and you can get it at StrongFeelings.co. See you all next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]