Sex & Relationship Therapist Shadeen Francis on Pleasure Activism

We've spent a lot of February talking about intimacy and relationships, how to reimagine our romantic partnerships and create space to tend to the relationship we have with ourselves. But it’s also important to think about how these topics intersect with social justice. 

The term “pleasure activism” was coined by Keith Cylar, AIDS activist and the founder of Housing Works, and is the subject of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, a book by writer and activist adrienne maree brown. We spoke with sex and relationship therapist Shadeen Francis on the term and what it means to her, as well as how we can own our pleasure and make justice a pleasurable experience.

1. What does “pleasure activism” mean to you, and what was your journey like getting to a place of accepting pleasure?
Pleasure activism, to me, is our intentional and strategic pursuit of pleasure. Sometimes this gets misheard as hedonism (the philosophy that pleasure is our only motivation to action) but what I mean when I talk about pleasure activism is that we have a social and ethical responsibility to make pleasure possible for ourselves and for others. It is more than personal pleasure, pleasure activism is about collective pleasure. 

I've always been pretty good at accepting pleasure! However, it was much harder to resist the shame of pursuing pleasure when I didn’t think I was allowed. I grew up hearing phrases like “life is hard," “you have to pay your dues,” or “nothing comes easy." This was the culture, but if that was all there was, what would make life feel worth living? The shift came from giving myself permission to feel good, and setting boundaries with the people, thoughts, and behaviors that didn’t serve me. 

2. What have you found are the biggest obstacles between a person and their pleasure?
The biggest barriers we face can be traced back to the various and intersecting forms of oppression. Our limits are structural more than they are personal. Sexism, capitalism, racism, ableism, and so forth – there are many systems that harm us, that teach us to exploit one another, that keep us from accessing our vulnerability. One of the worst consequences of this oppression is shame, which convinces us that we don’t deserve good things like love or comfort.

Another big obstacle is lack of education. If you don’t know what you want or what you like, it will be much harder to take intentional action towards getting it! Or, if you do know, without enough information on how to move forward, it is easy to get distracted, overwhelmed, or frustrated.

3. How is pleasure an integral part of our holistic health?
We need pleasure as part of our health. Can we really be well if we don’t feel good?

Pleasure is wired into our central nervous system. Pleasure signals to the body that we are safe and that we can settle enough to think and rest and connect. Without signals for safety, we go into survival mode: fight, flight, or freeze. When our brains and bodies are in these survival stances, we are unavailable for peace, empathy, strategy, enjoyment, or healing. When we participate in pleasures (particularly ones that don’t also create harm), we come back online. Pleasure helps us build connections to others, can act as an antidote for pain and injury, and helps us develop resilience. 

4. How can we work to make justice and liberation pleasurable experiences?
Justice and liberation work are the removal of barriers to resources by resisting and dismantling oppressive systems. As we fight for justice and remove barriers, we also need to be intentional about what we will add. We can make justice and liberation pleasurable by remembering to make pleasure a part of the process. We can create more room for joy, we can encourage people to take care of their spirits and their bodies, we can mandate that folks rest and recover. We can treat one another with kindness, we can protect energy for laughter and companionship and love. We can build the world we want while we create change in the world we’ve got.

5. How can those who have been denied joy (people or color, sex workers, trans and non-binary people), center pleasure as an act of resistance?
For people who are routinely denied easy access of pleasure, the first step is to know, remember, and honor that they still deserve it and do not need permission to pursue pleasure. It may take some creativity, but there are still opportunities for pleasure, even if they may be small. Some examples include moving when your body feels stiff, smiling at your reflection, doing something you enjoy, challenging negative self-talk. These small shifts are all acts of resistance that can bring us closer to pleasure. Community is also really important; being with like-minded others can help us when we need support. We are wired for connection, and good connections bring us joy and help bridge gaps in our resources when we need help.

Whether we belong to those communities or not, we are all accountable to one another’s access to pleasure. We all need to help make it possible for one another to live a life that can feel pleasurable and do so especially for those who have been denied on the basis of their identities.

6. What are the first steps to paying attention to and truly owning our pleasure?
Pleasure begins with presence. Practicing being fully present in the present moment is our gateway into pleasure. This often requires us to create enough safety to be vulnerable and let our guards down, so do what you can to lower stress and remove distractions so you can be in the moment.

As we pay attention to ourselves, we can check in with our feelings and our thoughts and our bodies. How am I feeling right now? What am I thinking? How is my body doing? 

The most important question is “what do I want?”Think about what would make you feel good. That might be a sight, a sound, a taste, a touch, or a smell. It might be a feeling or an experience. What tools, knowledge, or support do you need to make that happen? Pleasure activism is action with intention, so even if you aren’t yet doing the thing that brings you pleasure, if you are taking action towards it, then you are doing the work.

Shadeen Francis, LMFT, is a therapist specializing in sex therapy, emotional intelligence, and social justice. Get to know her and her work here and follow along on Instagram @shadeenfrancis