This story is part of Prism’s series on sex positivity and the arts. Read the rest of the series here.
In a conversation with adrienne maree brown featured in brown’s seminal book, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, author and associate professor Sami Schalk discusses a number of enticing and powerful subjects that inform her identity: BDSM, polyamory, Black queer womanhood, and disability, to name a few. Schalk and brown first met around 2015 at a conference devoted to Octavia Butler and soon after, the professor invited brown to speak to her class at the University of Wisconsin–Madison about Octavia’s Brood, an anthology co-edited by brown about the connections between radical speculative fiction and social justice movements.
Years later, when brown reached out about participating in Pleasure Activism, Schalk told Prism she had “no idea” what a game changer the book would be—not just for her, but for femmes of color in particular who ultimately burn out and become martyrs for movements. Pleasure Activism relies on “feminist luminaries” like Schalk to teach readers that embracing what brings them joy is central to organizing against oppression.
This is largely a philosophy Schalk was already living, but brown’s book gave her and others the language and framework needed to articulate their strategies for self-preservation, as well as permission to build joy and self-love into their activism.
In a conversation with Prism, Schalk explains how Pleasure Activism changed the way she moves in the world, and how being a pleasure activist has been particularly critical for her as she’s participated in the nationwide uprising as part of the movement for Black Lives. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Tina Vasquez: What was your introduction to what we now think of as pleasure activism—the framework, not the book.
Sami Schalk: My research focus is on Black feminism and disability, so I got connected to pleasure activism in kind of a roundabout way. I had written a little bit about pleasure in the conclusion of my first book, Bodyminds Reimagined, which is about disability in Black women’s speculative fiction.
In the conclusion, I talk about pleasure and about how, even though I was critiquing and analyzing it, one of the things I wanted to really assert is that one of the reasons I wrote about speculative fiction text is because the texts were pleasurable. I felt like academics didn’t talk about just enjoying reading, enjoying books, the pleasure of reading books. So much of the book was challenging. I had a chapter that talked about police brutality, so I wanted to center pleasure in my conclusion.
Vasquez: You’re featured in adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism, which is a book that seems to have particularly resonated with women of color activists. I’m wondering how it felt to hold the book in your hands and see how it all came together.
Schalk: I was blown away by it, by the totality of it. It really brought together some things that I had been thinking about for a very long time as someone who works on a lot of identity issues and thinks a lot about oppression. But also just as an individual who loves fashion and clothes and who is polyamorous and sex positive. For me, Pleasure Activism was a way of really bringing all of those things together in a political context and connecting it to my own work. That’s what the book did for me. And that’s why I really identify with the term because I think for a long time, I didn’t think of polyamory or sex positivity or claiming the word “slut” as things that are political. I didn’t necessarily think of those things as deeply tied to issues of race, disability, or to liberation work.
Vasquez: How did connecting these things make a difference for you?
Schalk: The framework just opened something up for me. I felt much more able to post pictures of myself on Instagram in all my ridiculous clothes and be like, “Actually, this joy matters.” The joy that this brings me matters. If you follow me on Twitter, I started doing quarantine looks because I was really struggling with depression at the beginning of quarantine as someone who lives alone. I realized it was going to be months of me having almost no human contact and no touch. So I have to do the things that bring me joy, which is wear my ridiculous outfits and wear my bright colors. Any time I would go get the mail in my building, take out the trash, or go to the grocery store, I put on a full outfit.
Being able to put that in the context of pleasure activism means that my pleasure matters and my joy matters. Accessing joy actually does help keep me alive and healthy. For me, this clothing is part of that joy. It might not be for other people. Other folks are like, “Oh, I can barely get out of my sweatpants.” If it doesn’t bring you joy, don’t do it. Don’t get dressed up at home if that’s not what you want, but I like wearing my clothes. All of that is just to say that bringing all of these pieces together around pleasure and activism and joy was really transformative for me.
Vasquez: In your larger community, did the Pleasure Activism framework lead to anything transformative?
Schalk: I definitely had poly friends who expressed feeling closeted. They were like, “It feels like queerness, but I don’t know how to compare it to queerness.” Pleasure Activism really helped them realize that monogamy is connected to patriarchy. One of the reasons that people are monogamous, men particularly, is because they want a child to pass on their wealth to. Black folks have been doing various forms of nonmonogamy for a long time, and historically marriage was inaccessible to queer folks and interracial couples. So there are ways that even our romantic relationships are oppressed. I know poly folks who have started to understand that being very open about being poly is a political statement. It’s a way of saying, “I am allowed to love multiple people and raise my child and be a professional.”
Pleasure Activism is a framework for that, but within that framework I like to remind folks that it’s not just about obtaining this joy and this pleasure for yourself. It’s about realizing how transformative joy and pleasure is, and then working hard to make sure that other people get access to it, particularly folks who are marginalized and oppressed.
Vasquez: So, I know that you’ve been participating in the nationwide uprisings by protesting in Madison where you live and teach. For a while, I’ve been worried about whether it’s even appropriate to talk about pleasure and joy in the face of this reckoning. For you, does pleasure activism have any role in your participation in the uprising?
Schalk: It’s very much a part of it. There’s an Instagram account for the Black Joy Experience, which came out of the Black youth activist organization BYP100. Right now their Instagram account is full of images and videos of folks dancing at protests and finding joy even in those moments. Here in Madison, we’ve had music at most of our protests. We shut down an intersection and then we turned on music. I mean, if we’re going to be sitting here shutting down this intersection for all of rush hour, we might as well have some music. We might as well dance. We also feed people. We feed people good food. We make sure that folks are nourished in lots of ways.
I think all of this is a really important part of the movement work, and Black liberation work as a whole. We are saying this is not about us going out in the streets and burning ourselves out. We are making sure that people are taken care of. Here in Madison, my primary job has been feeding people, making sure folks have food. Then I have people who are making sure I’m fed. I have a friend who has been bringing me good, home-cooked meals so that I can be nourished to do this work. We have another person who’s organizing a meal train for some of our major organizers to make sure they’re getting fresh home-cooked good meals or meals donated from restaurants. There is a very big focus on taking care of people’s body-mind holistically.
Vasquez: During the early weeks of the protests, what was an average day like for you?
Schalk: I’ve been doing on the ground protests, so because I’m not teaching right now during the summer, that means I’m on the ground for six, sometimes 12 hours a day. When I’m not protesting or making sure people are fed, I really focus on joy. I’ve been planting things and making sure all of the pots have lots of glitter. I bought a hammock so that I can take a nap in the sun. I just let myself feel good, and I don’t feel bad about that. As someone who was raised Catholic, there’s a lot of guilt. So it’s been work to allow myself not just to feel good, but to know that feeling good is part of fighting for liberation. I’m fighting for Black folks’ right to a full life and that includes pleasure and joy. It’s not just about being alive and surviving; it’s about being alive in our fullness. That’s what pleasure is. Pleasure is connecting us to things that make life worth living. We have to care about each other’s bodies and we have to care about each other’s joy.
Vasquez: I don’t think there’s any way to overemphasize how important that is. As a journalist who covers BIPOC leaders and women of color who fight for justice in their communities, it seems burnout culture is very real and there is a real romanticization of working yourself to the bone.
Schalk: Healing and joy absolutely have to be part of this work. We can’t actually move forward in liberation work if we haven’t done the internal work to address our oppressions, otherwise we bring that shit to the work and we replicate harmful systems.
When we see folks dancing at protests and bringing super artistic, beautiful posters and wearing bright colors, I see that as bringing pleasure to the movement. It is absolutely how we sustain ourselves. Aesthetic pleasure matters, even in protest.
Vasquez: I mean, I’ve seen the outfits you’ve been wearing to protests and they’re amazing.
Schalk: Folks really seem to appreciate it! People say thank you to me. There’s aesthetic pleasure that I’m bringing to the protest because we are outside in the heat for hours on end and I’m like, “But look at this dress, though.” I’m bringing you water and snacks in this beautiful gown. It’s fun. People appreciate that kind of thing. Of course wearing a gown is not activism, but when we incorporate it into this larger framework, these seemingly small aesthetic things can bring pleasure—and why not engage in pleasure whenever you can?
Vasquez: I feel like it would be a missed opportunity not to talk about how you twerked with Lizzo and wrote about how it was an act of political defiance. In your piece, you also unpacked how your professionalism was called into question because of it. It got me thinking about pleasure activism in the context of the classroom. Is that a thing?
Schalk: I think so. I would actually like to teach a course on pleasure activism soon, but for now I try to make my classrooms pleasurable spaces. There’s a limit to that. I can’t always have a lot of control over the space, but I always try to choose spaces that have mobile desks so that people can move. There are signs on the wall that say, “No Food,” but I tell my students to eat when they’re hungry. I encourage folks to take self-care days or mental health days. When things happen in the world that are alarming or upsetting, I talk about it in class. I see my students as full people, not just as my students. I want them to see me as a full person too.
I had a mentor in undergrad who said, “Don’t let class get in the way of your education.” It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve taken for myself as an educator, that sometimes the world is demanding that we do something else or do things differently. I’d like to think I’m trying to do things differently—and can I just say: My students fucking loved when I twerked with Lizzo.