The Cheat Sheet

Even when a ‘sex strike’ works, it’s not about the sex

Venky Vembu | Updated on May 22, 2019

You do know this is a family-friendly newspaper, right?

Not to worry. We’re not discussing anything prurient; we’re only talking — in very sanitised language — about the sociological aspects of a call last fortnight by actress Alyssa Milano in the US for a ‘sex strike’ by women to protest a strict anti-abortion law passed in the State of Georgia.

In that case, what’s a ‘sex strike’?

In a Tweet, which created quite a storm, Milano exhorted women to deny sex to their (presumably male) partners. “Our reproductive rights are being erased. Until women have legal control over our own bodies, we just cannot risk pregnancy. Join me by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back. I’m calling for a #SexStrike,” she said.

Sounds cuckoo to me.

Milano did get a lot of flak for that call for various reasons, not least the fact that her Tweet appeared to reinforce gender stereotypes: it suggested, for instance, that men are ‘owed sex’, that women typically “put out” for men, and that women see sex not as a pleasurable activity in itself, but as a ‘transactional’ barter deal.

It does feel like that.

Remember, however, that Milano’s call came in response to a Republican-controlled State legislature measure that impinged on women’s right to bodily autonomy. In any case, hers wasn’t the first call for a ‘sex strike’.

There have been others?

Sure, and for far more frivolous reasons, too. Late last year, ahead of the US mid-term elections, a “cultural critic” for CNN called upon women to withhold sex from their male partners to influence them to vote for women’s equality. The columnist wrote: “It’s time for a revolution. At the polls, and in the bedroom. And in our understanding of who women are, sexually and otherwise… Let’s consider what it might mean to go on a sex strike of sorts — to get what we want, rather than give what we think we owe others.” Then again, there have been other more famous campaigns.

Such as?

The most famous of them all is centred around Lysistrata, a fictional character in a Greek comedy by Aristophanes. In the play, Lysistrata undertakes a mission to end the war between Greek city-states by getting the women to deny sex to all the men of the land until they cease fighting. In 17th-century North America, women of the indigenous Iroquois nation similarly denied their partners sex until they granted women veto power over war efforts. More recently, in 2003, women in 59 countries hosted readings of Lysistrata to protest the George W Bush administration’s unleashing of war on Iraq.

And women in a few African nations — Liberia, Togo, among others — have resorted to denial of sex as a form of non-violent protest in the cause of peace.

But do ‘sex strikes’ work?

Activist Leymah Gbowee, who organised the sex strike in Liberia to end a civil war, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her pacifist work. However, as she argued in a 2010 article, it was the media attention surrounding the ‘sex strike’ that effectively ushered in peace. Similarly, even the Iroquois women did not just boycott sex, they refused to grow crops, make clothes, or supply men with food — without which men could not go to war.


‘Sex strikes’ may work, but not always for reasons of sex, however much the issue may be ‘sexed up’ by the media.

A weekly column that helps you ask the right questions

Published on May 22, 2019

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