By Anna D. Hirsch, MFA, MS with LiveLikeLove
Sex and sexuality geeks are the people who make a habit and even a career out of studying sex and sex culture, and sex savvy communities have become increasingly well versed on the subject of pleasure as an epicenter of healing and flourishing. Indeed, the science of wellbeing is clear: we have to stop addressing healthcare through the lens of discrete diseases and do more to care for whole people and whole communities. In the mental health field, that means we have to attend to people’s joy along with their sorrow. One way people find a lot of joy in life is through the pleasure of having sex.
In a way, the current situation is very simple. In the era of COVID-19, we need our pleasure more than ever. And we need to feel pleasure in community — with a lover, in our homes, with friends, and in our work lives. While pleasure may feel antithetical to quarantine and physical distancing, sexperts know that it is no less vital, imperative, and instructional. And they’re working to adapt, learn, and spread the love.
When the first shelter in place order for Oakland, California, was extended for a second month, I was already paying close attention to how local sex-positive community was keeping joy alive — and our sex nerd world has been on fire. Groups are reaching out to each other in new ways and around the world. Bawdy Storytelling has transitioned from a live stage show to a livestream show, upping their virtual game from podcast and YouTube videos to full-blown Saturday night events. The Bonobo Network is putting on a full weekend (August 14-16) of activities to support people in getting reconnected to their bodies, and reconnected socially, in an epic event they’ve dubbed Pleasure Fest. Perhaps in the same family as Dawn Serra’s Explore More Summit, Pleasure Fest brings the goodness of sex and sexuality to the forefront. Kinky Salon launched KS+, a private social network and video party portal for members.
Because human sexuality and gender identity have been throughlines for oppressive forces in countries like the United States, sex activists are also often at the frontlines of upending systemic injustice. From miscegenation laws to widespread killing of Black trans women to not having a female president, and many, many more violences that have been committed against our humanity and against our bodies, deep harm to our Black and Brown and most vulnerable communities is often and grossly treated as normal. That’s no less true during shelter in place orders, where marginalized folx are being targeted and Black and Asian people are experiencing heightened bigotry and xenophobia. Yet, adrienne maree brown’s book Pleasure Activism helps locate wellbeing and pleasure in the context of social change movement work, giving voice to the role of positive emotion and desire in organizing against oppression. You see, we have to unlearn and relearn not just how to experience freedom from our individual experiences of sexual repression, but also collective freedom from systemic oppression and caste systems like white supremacy that quash everyone’s joy in the name of maintaining strict differentials of wealth.
While I struggled at first as a sex-positive artist with how to address the pandemic in my own art practice, I eventually landed on a series of #QuarantineCompersion cartoons. Taking the specific term compersion from polyamory lexicon, I have been studying various forms of shared joy for over ten years, and applying it to multiple areas of my life. I now believe that joy resonance is key to tapping the power of pleasure, individually and collectively. Both intrapersonal and interpersonal joy and pleasure — that is fleeting, distributed joy and abundant, awake pleasure — are the hallmarks of human positivity and of healthy and whole people and communities. And so I also believe that practicing joy resonance is necessary for ending white supremacy.
As a psychotherapist concerned with people’s freedom to build the intimate and sexual relationships that work for them, I know firsthand the importance of my clients’ having the space and the skill to share joy with others. Because I am committed to following and sharing joy in my practice, both for and with my clients, I’m also always looking for new ways of talking about, understanding, and supporting my clients’ practice with joy resonance and compersion.
In order for me to be able and ready to help others learn to share joy, I know that I have to keep learning myself as well. I find others who are practicing and I study their work. I’m a fan of Irenosen Okojie’s proclamation on the need for widespread celebration of Black joy, Shanelle Mathew’s permission to dream Black futures, the hope of Joy Harjo, Sins Invalid’s reclamation of sexy as inclusive, the modern Israeli concept of firgun, Barbara Fredrickson’s science-driven celebratory love meditation, and Gene Lushtak’s dharma talk on leaning away from (white, male) possessive joy.
My husband and I have some similar ideas about how to make the world better. Though, the way we support positive change can look very different from the outside. These days, I’m usually sitting one-on-one with a client on screen, or with a couple, and collaborating with them on ways to heal old hurts and gain new positive relationship and intimacy skills. As a community builder, he’s more often at the front of a large group of people calmly waxing annoyingly eloquent about how to grow consent-forward culture and capacity in sexually liberated connections and communities. Yet, in either setting, our focus is often the same: What happens when we notice and follow pleasure and joy? I’m able to enjoy his way. He’s able to enjoy my way. We’re both practicing appreciating and enjoying the pleasure and joy of the people we meet through our work, especially in the challenging effort of working with people in embodied ways while physical distancing, as well as remembering to appreciate the fortunes of people we’ll never know. And right now sex-positive communities — our communities — are digging their feet in and committing to bringing pleasure forward as a pathway to social transformation in our times.