Spectrum: Many people think sex is all about anatomy and orgasms, but pleasure is also political. I love the titular term “pleasure activism”, and would love to hear your definition of it for those who haven’t read your book!
amb: Pleasure activism is the work of reclaiming our whole and satisfiable selves from the delusions and trauma of oppression, and a way of aligning our deepest liberatory beliefs with the ways we pursue happiness in the world. It’s rooted in the work of Audre Lorde, particularly as written in the “Uses of the Erotic as Power”. It’s living your life as a yes, an orgasmic yes!
Spectrum: Why is it impossible to isolate conversations about pleasure from the larger social and political issues it intersects with?
amb: Pleasure is about feeling contentment, happiness and satisfaction – those things are systematically denied to us inside of capitalism because we are intended to constantly be laboring and purchasing.
I believe that experiencing authentic pleasure in the body helps us to grasp that we are not our looks, our externally dictated oppressive conditions, or whatever is trending in a moment, but that we are all wired to feel joy and satisfaction and we should by all means focus on that.
Spectrum: How is our physical body connected to our physical environment? How does the pleasure of the body impact the way we experience the world around us and share it with others?
amb: The body is the miraculous system through which we experience our environment – we are judged, punished, categorized, connected, loved and, of course, pleasured, through our bodies. I believe that experiencing authentic pleasure in the body helps us to grasp that we are not our looks, our externally dictated oppressive conditions, or whatever is trending in a moment, but that we are all wired to feel joy and satisfaction and we should by all means focus on that.
Spectrum: I love your conversation with the Womanizer in Pleasure Activism!! How can sex toys awaken our intimate relationships with ourselves, others, and the world around us? Can a sexual tool become a tool of activism?
amb: I am a huge fan of sex toys for expanding the creativity and intensity with which we can experience sex, both with others and with ourselves. Sex toys can help us understand our own pace, rhythm and power as bodies that can actually feel so much sensation and tolerate such exquisite delight. It’s also helpful to have sex toys that guarantee intense stimulation and pleasure without much movement for those of us with disabilities. I absolutely think sex toys are part of pleasure actvism, because they can be part of healing reclamation of the body and can increase the access to pleasure regardless of how our bodies can move – not everyone can or should have their back thrown out. I also want to make the point that not all toys are designed for orgasm – there are a lot of sex toys that are about feeling more sensation, awakening the body beyond the patriarchal focus of genitalia.
Spectrum: Porn often becomes sex education for people who have no other space to learn about sexuality. If porn is a mirror for all of society’s hangups about sex (given the way it can be produced, staged, and tagged in an exploitative manner, especially if the performer is not also the owner of their own content and image) how can we recontextualize porn as a muse for our pleasure? How can we enjoy porn when there is a myriad of harmful messages and sexual miseducation amidst the positive pleasure fuel?
amb: One of the people I interview in the book, Nnena Joiner of Feelmore, in Oakland, makes pornography that is liberating. So do Ignacio Rivera, Erika Lust, and so many others. So first, I think it is important to know that we live in an abundant time of pornographic options. I think whenever we see or hear that people are starting their sexual journey with porn, is just important to remind people that that isn’t real life, and it isn’t the kind of power dynamics that we want to create in our bedroom spaces – to really open the path for fantasy and intimacy to actually co-exist in the body, mind, and relationship.
Spectrum: What is your advice for someone struggling to own their “no”?
amb: Practice it. A lot of times we struggle because we try to pull it out in the most extreme conditions. Practice listening for all the small nos in your day, in your life. Practice saying no inside yourself. Ask a friend to be a “no” partner, where you can text them when you want to say no and get some cheerleading to get there.
It’s a great thing to raise as educational conversation.
Spectrum: How can we work against the messages in mainstream media that depict intimacy as something devoid of communication and consent (i.e. non-pornographic movies where sex is sudden, brief, and instantly gratifying)?
amb: Well one thing is to notice that that kind of sex can be very fucking sexy in the right context, where there are two adults who know they actually want each other and it’s a dynamic they enjoy. There is something extremely arousing about being known deeper than words at the level of desire. And then naming the moments when it’s actually not sexy because it is violent, power-over, nonconsensual. It’s a great thing to raise as educational conversation.
Behavior that disconnects us from our humanity is traumatic for everyone, it’s just a matter of where and when that trauma lands.
Spectrum: In trying to heal and resolve violence outside of a carceral system, can restorative justice help us move away from carceral logic? What are its limitations? What do we do when restorative justice fails or isn’t an option?
amb: My approach to justice is transformative – trying to get to the root causes of harm, conflict, abuse, so that we break cycles of injustice instead of continuously turning to the state for interventions that, in 250 years, they have not been able to make. I think restorative justice is a step in the right direction, but caution against restoring things to unjust conditions and thinking that that will resolve the issue. I think the goal is to release our addiction to the pleasure of punishing others, and awaken our compassion. Behavior that disconnects us from our humanity is traumatic for everyone, it’s just a matter of where and when that trauma lands.
Spectrum: How has writing and authorship deepened your understanding of (any of) these concepts? How do you put words to body feelings?
amb: The permanence of publishing meant that I had to really commit to the vulnerability of putting things on the page, knowing they would last and go beyond my inner circles. I listen to my body and it’s actually the easiest writing I do, to say exactly what my body feels, what my body teaches. It felt really important to me that I was honest about my own actual journey of pleasure, to demystifying and taking the lies out of how we access pleasure – SO much of it is about how we communicate, how we get in touch with our desires from within with the clarity needed to communicate those boundaries and longings to others.
Spectrum: How can books also be a part of our pleasure practice?
amb: I believe books themselves, good books, give us pleasure, ideas give us pleasure, scholarship and imagination and text that makes us self-reflect…all of it can be deep pleasure. And then specifically we live in a moment when there are so many texts that can help us get to pleasure in new ways – Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body Is Not An Apology, Ariane Cruz’s The Color of Kink, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s The Ethical Slut and all of Brene Brown’s work and so much more.