How pleasure became political
In a world that restricts our bodies, every orgasm is an act of protest.
As a queer transnonbinary female-assigned person living in the Deep South, my body is the object of both fascination and legislation. It’s also where I experience pleasure — from the fleeting aroma of jasmine to the soul-quaking connection of orgasm. As the sole inhabitant of the absurdly contested territory that is my own human form — land I consider autonomous, but which is considered by the state as subject to decree — my experience of pleasure is always a rebellion, and as such, a form of political action.
The idea that an individual’s sensual experience is inseparable from politics isn’t new. Even the most stalwart porn-burning, second-wave feminist will tell you the personal has always been political. “It is simple math to connect the political inhibition of pleasure in individuals with the weakening of the individual,” Dulcinea Pitagora, an NYC-based psychotherapist, tells me. “To remain in power, it is in the best interest of those in power to weaken those not in power.” In other words, stealing joy — whether through anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, restrictions on sex work, or abortion bans that make some of us second-guess or fear sex — is an effective way to control and oppress people, and it always has been.
For some, this feels more true now, in post-Roe America, than ever. If they didn’t before, everyone with a uterus is beginning to feel the weight of what it means to live in a body over which the state is asserting control. Experiencing physical pleasure may once have felt like a natural right for us as living beings, but now it feels like a reclamation. Since the Supreme Court decided we don’t have the right to bodily autonomy, every moment of non-procreative sexual pleasure we take is a small act of rebellion. Using our bodies — which have been repurposed as political tools — for personal pleasure makes every orgasm a small protest.
“Pleasure is an important, and I would even say crucial, aspect of being alive.” -Dulcinea Pitagora
Of course, pleasure isn’t limited to sex, but sex nonetheless plays an important role. In that sense, we can’t forget that what we’re fighting for in this moment is more than abortion rights — it’s also the right to feel pleasure in our bodies in the ways that we choose. “Pleasure is an important, and I would even say crucial, aspect of being alive,” Pitagora says. “[We need to] make a decision to intentionally and consistently cultivate pleasure in [our] lives as a form of self-care, in whatever form that looks like to [us].”
Legislating away our pleasure centers
“Our ability to feel [sexual] pleasure is built in; it’s part of our anatomy and neurology,” Carol Queen, co-founder of the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco, tells me. The powers that be can’t technically prevent us from finding or feeling pleasure — but living in a world where our bodily autonomy is so fraught can make it more difficult. In fact, many people’s ability to experience physical pleasure is contingent on the ability to feel their body as an autonomous zone — in essence, being the one in control of their body.
“Pleasure is connected to empowerment via consent,” Pitagora says. “Experiencing pleasure requires a stable foundation that sets the stage for the brain and the rest of the nervous system to experience release.” In other words, consent is a necessary element of pleasure — and in this terrible political moment, the government is effectively minimizing our ability to consent.
Every yes we utter in service to our own pleasure is simultaneously a reclamation of our own autonomy and a gamble with the government over that autonomy. To wit: Given my legally contested body, I am aware every time I have sex, it could result in further legislation — or even prosecution. I choose allegiance to my autonomy every time, but I know that decision could come with consequences. When we consent to the pleasure we take, but resist the legitimacy of the legal consequences of that pleasure, consent becomes a very gray zone. And because our nervous systems know the difference between consent and coercion, that gray zone can lessen the joy of our sexual experiences.
Using our bodies — which have been repurposed as political tools — for personal pleasure makes every orgasm a small protest.
For many people — particularly the most privileged among us — the recent abortion bans may be the first time in their lives that they’ve really had to question how much control they have over their own bodies. Of course, regardless of the laws passed, the wealthy still have access to safe abortion care, at least for now. But people who have never before had to think about or fight for their rights are spending a lot more mental energy engaging in what has become an unavoidable conversation, and their pleasure centers are no longer safely enshrined.
As usual, though, the most marginalized communities are still the most likely to feel the greatest impact of the recent Roe ruling on their sex lives. “The impact of sex-negative legislation that’s been enacted consistently for so many years shows up first and most severely [among] the most intersectionally marginalized, particularly Black and brown people,” Pitagora says.
Future generations are likely to feel the impact even more. So much of pleasure comes from knowing who you are and how your body works, and part of the right wing agenda is cutting funding for all kinds of education — especially related to bodies, queerness, history, and identity. We’re currently facing both a rash of “Don’t Say Gay” bills that have dangerous consequences for LGBTQ+ teens and a dearth of inclusive sex ed programs. The combination effectively denies queer teens access to knowledge about pleasure at the same time as it seeks to erase even the possibility of that pleasure.
The power of “pleasure activism”
The irony in all of this is that, as Queen notes, feeling pleasure is more important now than ever. “Pleasure is one way to process stress and challenging times,” she says. But if our ability to feel pleasure is being mediated by politics, and we’re all going to experience the effects at some point or another, what can we even do about it? Will life in post-Roe America decimate our libidos? Not likely — and certainly not if pleasure activists have any say.
For privileged, white cis-het women who were spoon-fed the presumption of autonomy and have now suddenly had it stolen, the whole idea of pleasure as a political act may feel both archaic and novel. “I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit,” is the familiar refrain of boomers who find their feminism reactivated. But there are a lot of folks — namely queer Black women — who never had the luxury of taking a break, and we can learn a lot from them.
Every yes we utter in service to our own pleasure is simultaneously a reclamation of our own autonomy and a gamble with the government over that autonomy.
People who live in marginalized bodies have been talking about the relationship between pleasure and power for so long that there’s already an extensive erotic political lexicon and a long, unbroken history of Black feminist erotic philosophy — even if it is largely unacknowledged by white feminists. Following in the footsteps of Audre Lorde, who educated folks about pleasure as political action in the 1970s, writer adrienne maree brown outlined the idea of pleasure as activism in her 2019 book, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. “Pleasure activism is the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy,” she wrote.
But what does pleasure activism mean in practical terms? For Emme Witt, a dominatrix in Los Angeles, it includes making a career out of rejecting social norms and dismissing legal attempts to control her. Witt is a femme domme and a mom, a woman publicly exclaiming her sexual pleasure, and a middle-aged person who is “supposed” to keep her desire under wraps by some people’s standards. “I ‘do’ pleasure activism by actively dismissing social beliefs that I’m not supposed to experience my body in certain ways,” she tells me. “As a pro-domme, I could have criminal charges brought against me because my work isn’t totally legal. If simply doing my job can ultimately impact my rights, then seeking pleasure through that line of work is definitely political.”
Reclaiming pleasure in the face of control
Unlocking our collective erotic and political power does not mean we all have to quit our day jobs to become full time pleasure activists. It can begin with simple self-inquiry. “The considered phrase, ‘It feels right to me,’ acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding,” Lorde wrote in Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. Reclaiming pleasure as power, then, begins the moment you allow yourself to wonder what feels right to you instead of looking to external powers to dictate your desires.
“The antidote would be in accessing consensual pleasure with ourselves and within our communities, and reminding ourselves that the formation of social constructs like power and pleasure begins on the individual and community level,” Pitagora says. Pleasure, not just as an individual experience but also as a communal one, can help us move forward.
We can’t control what happens next politically, but we can support ourselves and each other through the uncertainty by giving and receiving pleasure — freely and with enthusiastic consent. As Pitagora points out, marginalized people have always found ways to survive and thrive during desperate times. We’re certainly not going to stop now. “Pleasure is one of the deepest human drives, so we will always do what we need to do to pursue it,” Pitagora says. “We have always been finding creative ways to experience pleasure, and we will continue to do so.”