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Everywhere we look, we see reminders of the many tragedies happening in our world. Wars, human rights violations, environmental catastrophes, discrimination, and so much more. In the midst of all of this collective trauma, it can be easy to feel hopeless and helpless. Especially as activists. 

Mental health experts confirm what many of us have experienced:

Exposure to distressing news can negatively impact our mental health, leading to anxiety, emotional distress, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Experts also propose ways we can manage our exposure to tragic news. Such strategies include turning off notifications on our phones to limit how often we view news alerts and opting for reading the news rather than seeing images or watching videos, as visual information may affect us more significantly.

Although I have found some of these tips helpful (especially turning off my phone notifications to only calls and texts), they still feel insufficient. These behavioral changes may limit how much distressing content I view, but they don’t actually help me feel more hopeful. The one thing I have found that does? Focusing on pleasure.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t immediately think about the word “pleasure” when I think about activism. I have experienced a lot of compassion fatigue and burnout in my activism-related work and research over the years. An experience that is all too common in this line of work. It makes sense that pleasure has never felt like a priority, or that it even belonged in my work at all.

Today I see it more clearly: working myself to the point of burnout and hopelessness does nothing to support the causes and people I care about.

Bringing pleasure into activism

My introduction to this new focus on pleasure was the work on pleasure activism by Adrienne Maree Brown, who wrote the New York Times Bestseller book “Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.” 

For many of us, due to our religious and cultural backgrounds, we likely associate the word “pleasure” with one particular kind of pleasure: sexual. Although sexual pleasure is certainly a valid experience of pleasure, I have found that expanding that word’s definition has been incredibly healing.

As Brown beautifully explains:

“When I talk of pleasure, I’m really talking about happiness, satisfaction, and contentment, and what does it mean to be able to experience those things in a world that has been structurally developed to deny that to the majority of people who live in it.”

Pleasure, as Brown talks about, is not just about sexual or erotic pleasure; it is also about the joy, happiness, and satisfaction we can experience through things like food, art, music, dance, and being around children and community. 

Mentioning Brown’s work on pleasure activism, Katherine W. Bogen, a clinical psychology PhD student and activist, responded to criticism she received after posting a video of herself watching a sports game, even as she continued to share her activism supporting Palestine. 

I appreciate the way she explained how it is possible to hold space for both pain and pleasure in activism: 

“It is unsustainable to hold only rage and grief; we need to experience moments of pleasure […] in order to stay engaged in the fight. I strongly believe that in order to have a well-rounded sense of activism, a sense of groundedness in any kind of struggle, pleasure is a healing necessity.”

In asserting that “one of the major ways we collaborate in our own oppression and suffering is by buying into the lie that we don’t all deserve access to pleasure,” Brown reminds us of how the denial of pleasure can be used as a control tool, and how reclaiming pleasure is a form of activism in itself.

Pleasure activism in action

One practical example of incorporating pleasure into activism is in the context of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). I recently learned about the concept of pleasure-based sexual health and sex education in a course with The Pleasure Project and Sexology Courses. Since 2004, The Pleasure Project has worked towards “putting the sexy into safer sex,” as they advocate for the inclusion and celebration of joy, happiness, desire, and pleasure in sex education. 

In 2022, a research analysis on sexual health interventions found that incorporating considerations of pleasure led to better health outcomes, such as more frequent condom use and knowledge improvement. While more research is needed, we have strong evidence that “recognizing that sexual experiences can and should be pleasurable” can help improve sexual health outcomes.

In SRHR and beyond, pleasure matters in activism because it reminds us that we have a shared humanity; and that in activism as in life, we can strive for more than just surviving

Reclaiming pleasure in every aspect of our lives (whether through enjoying a sports game, sharing a meal with friends, taking care of our bodies, making art, or even making love) is a true act of resistance.

For me, focusing on pleasure means being able to have hope and to hold onto my own humanity, which I share with those who are suffering, knowing that, as Brown states:

“When I am happy, it is good for the world.”

How could you incorporate pleasure into your own activism and life?

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