Pleasure Politics Part I: Employment, Economic Justice, and the Erotic

By Taja Lindley 
Originally posted on the Strong Families blog

Too often we are led to believe that work must be something separate from pleasure: that we are to do what we love on the side, in our spare time; that pleasure is an extra-curricular activity, a hobby, a side gig. As if only a privileged few are supposed to do work that is fulfilling and passion-driven. As if pleasure is a luxury, not a necessity.

Know: these are lies.

In the U.S. we have been conditioned to work to survive, to get by, to pay bills, to stay afloat, living a day-to-day and paycheck-to-paycheck existence. We have been conditioned to work most of our lives so we can enjoy pleasurable activities in our free time, pre-determined holidays, limited vacation and, if we’re lucky, during retirement. The U.S. “reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love.”

Listen closely: when policymakers, public figures and the media talk about the current status of the economy and high unemployment, the discussion revolves around jobs. As it should: people are looking for work. But when the narrative around jobs is unconcerned with how work connects to the passion, purpose, ambitions and talents of workers, our economy does a disservice to our humanity and our creativity. The conversation reinforces a narrative that implies that any job will do. What about purpose? What about passion? Yes: we’ve got to feed our families, we’ve got to keep roofs over our heads, and there are bills to be paid. Survival is a primary need.

But we are so much more than our basic needs. In a world of haves and have nots, with widening disparities in wealth and income, the travesty of our global economy makes pleasurable work challenging to access. An economy organized in this way serves only the elite and powerful, whereby the majority of workers are employed and/or exploited to fill the vision and pockets of those who are already in power.

In short: systemic inequality makes pleasurable work more accessible for some than others.

As a policy and research fellow at a grassroots economic justice organization, I witnessed first-hand how this played out for long-term unemployed people on public assistance in New York. The sentiment that “any job will do” pushed many people on welfare into low-wage jobs with few (if any) benefits, and with little to no room for upward mobility. Case-workers were generally uninterested in helping people find the professional development and training programs that could help them move into the careers of their choice, opting instead to fulfill short-term goals of job-placement. Many case-workers were informed by stereotypes of the “undeserving poor,” their job responsibilities informed by public policies concerned with getting people off public assistance, not into satisfying work.

Beyond the safety net, there is still an indoctrination of working for necessity where people are encouraged to chase power, money and prestige and reserve pleasure for happy hours and vacation time. People are encouraged to embrace a lifestyle that costs just as much as their salary. It has its advantages: in exchange for a weekly commitment of at least 40 hours, you can pay off that exorbitant student loan debt and possibly save some money and accumulate wealth. Certainly, a savings account and strategic investments can pay-off in the long run, but high income and wealth does not equal happiness. What is our life worth when we sell it for only a few moments of pleasure?

In her essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde explains that the erotic is neither frivolous nor a luxury. She defines the erotic as:

a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings… an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing it’s power, in honor and in self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

Erotic autonomy, as suggested by Audre Lorde in her essay, is to live a fully embodied life where we are living our purpose and passions, and creating from our unique talents with an undeniable feeling of satisfaction. The erotic is the lens we use to scrutinize our choices so that we make decisions that support the fullest expressions of who we are.

So when we talk about the erotic as it applies to our work, it is about (re)claiming power over our lives and how we operate in this economy. It is a radical notion that values the talents, creativity and contributions of everyone, even those who have been marginalized and deemed unworthy of pleasurable work. Work that satisfies our internal desires and financial needs.

Wealth and purpose-driven hustles are not mutually exclusive. Imagine how different our world would be if people did work they were excited about, and not what they thought they had to do to get by. How might our economy change? What would be the meaning of work? How might there be more support for innovation and entrepreneurship, even amongst historically and currently marginalized and exploited communities?

Creating spaces and products that encourage people to feel good in their bodies is a critical part of my reproductive justice framework and an extension of my life work. So when I founded Colored Girls Hustle, it represented that erotic space for me: a place where I could be my authentic self as an artist and do work that affirmed women and girls of color. Part of Colored Girls Hustle’s work is to redefine “hustle” as passion and purpose driven. We create original media and feature women and girls color who hustle hard for their communities as artists, entrepreneurs, healers and activists. Colored Girls Hustle is actively contributing to a conversation about erotic expression and autonomy being an integral part of economic justice.I hope you’ll join me in defining erotic autonomy within the context of work, prioritizing the erotic in economic justice for women and girls of color, and articulating the financially lucrative and sustainable ways this can manifest.This blog post is the first part of how I want to contribute to this conversation. Stay tuned for the posts that follow and keep the conversation going with me on twitter and tumblr.Taja Lindley blogs for Echoing Ida, a project of Strong Families. She is inspiring and aspiring wellness, creativity, and reproductive justice for women and girls of color. She is the founder of Colored Girls Hustle, a full-spectrum doula, and a visual and performance artist. You can follow her on twitter or tumblr.
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2 Comments

  1. Posted May 21, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    “Many case-workers were informed by stereotypes of the “undeserving poor,” their job responsibilities informed by public policies concerned with getting people off public assistance, not into satisfying work.” Thank You for this! I worked at a community mental health center for people with schizophrenia, and the administrators were constantly pushing us (the case managers) to encourage our clients to take crap jobs washing dishes or cleaning toilets. As far as I could see, my clients already had jobs: they provided tremendous support, insight, and encouragement to their peers.They made amazing contributions to their/our community, and yet those contributions were rendered useless because they weren’t made in the service of a fast food corporation or grocery chain. (oh, yeah – bagging groceries was considered another great use of our clients’ time and energy). Apparently,social service administrators are much more concerned with what looks good on paper than with how people’s lives are actually improved. If x percentage of clients find paid employment – no matter how soul-sucking or demeaning – then our program must be a “success”. Ugh. We won’t be civilized until we stop treating our fellow human beings like farm animals and machines that are valued solely on their ability to “produce”. Fuck productivity. It’s creativity and emotional connection that we so desperately need to survive and thrive as a species.Thank You for your courage and example to others.

  2. a
    Posted May 22, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Reading this article comes at a perfect time for me, when I’m saddled with guilt for being unhappy in a decently-paying job. Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts that I feel like I’ve been trying to articulate to friends and family but not very successfully.

    There is a stigma attached to rejecting a form of work and searching for work that is more meaningful or satisfying – that such a practice is exclusively bourgeoise. Why should it be? Thank you for raising the question: Why should this kind of pleasure be only for privileged people? And furthermore, why should a desire for it be looked down upon, as though such a desire diminishes one’s “productive” value or morals? In such a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” society, where everyone – left, right, center, radical – romanticizes survival and labor, people are made to feel like they are betraying their politics and morals by looking for something else.

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