The complicated success of sex strikes

Withholding sex as a form of protest has been effective throughout history, but it has also contributed to the objectification and oppression of women.

Sex strikes have been used by women as a nonviolent tactic to protest war and other violence for centuries. The idea for this form of resistance came into the collective public psyche through the ancient Greek play “Lysistrata, written by satirist Aristophanes in 411 B.C. The comedy centers around the main character Lysistrata and her campaign to bring the women of Greece together by withholding sex from their husbands until the men agreed to end the years-long Peloponnesian War. Aristophanes’ raunchy writing, focused on playful, teasing wives and erection jokes, has faced controversy but continues to be popular and relevant. Over time, as classics scholar Helen Morales has noted, “Lysistrata has become the go-to trope for any women’s activism involving the withdrawal of sex.” In fact,“Lysistratic non-action” is the preferred term for many scholars studying this form of resistance — with political scientist Gene Sharp helping to codify the term by listing it in his widely-cited “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.”

There’s a darker side to the general idea of Lysistratic non-action and its success, some of which is rooted in the term’s origins.

According to Morales, the generally accepted definition of a sex strike is “the temporary withdrawal of sex until certain demands are met.” Sex strikes organized and carried out by women, often simultaneously accompanied by other forms of action, have in fact proven to be effective tools for protesting violence and working toward peace. That said, a growing number of scholars and activists have begun to challenge the tactic’s generally favorable view. In fact, some have argued that women’s political action based on withholding sex may actually perpetuate the very violence it seeks to oppose by emboldening patriarchal power and heteronormative oppression. This view is a far cry from the lighthearted plot of “Lysistrata,” which may also be part of the problem.

Before criticizing this nonviolent tactic, however, it is important to analyze some historic cases of Lysistratic non-action. By doing so, we can better understand the violence that sparks its use, the variety of ways in which it has been successful, and the cultural structures in which it has been situated. These case studies provide the foundation for analyzing and questioning the underlying motivations for sex strikes and why they have been so effective within our global society.

Iroquois childbearing boycott

In the 1600s, men commanded raging, unregulated warfare among the Native tribes of what is now called North America, including the six tribes that make up the Iroquois Nation, also known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Iroquois women wanted more power over warfare decision-making, so they decided to put a boycott on sex and childbearing into place. This boycott was a particularly powerful tactic in the Iroquois Nation because of the cultural belief that women held a deeper knowledge of birth and its secrets than men ever could. The men responded to the boycott by giving the women the power to veto any wars. 

The modern-day political system of the United States was modeled after that of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, with the exception of the matrilineal structure and the much more even allocation of power in decision-making that have always been part of Haudenosaunee society. The significant power held by the Nation’s women, both before and after the boycott, eventually influenced the non-Native women at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to assert their autonomy and fight for their rights. The Iroquois women’s nonviolent sex boycott is considered to be the first feminist rebellion on the land that is now called the United States.

The crossed legs movement

In August of 2011, women in the small town of Barbacoas, Colombia organized the Crossed Legs Movement to demand that the government replace the highly dangerous road connecting the town to the rest of the province. In an interview about the movement, one of the women stated: “We just decided to stop having sex and stop having children until the state fulfills its previous promises.” The movement gained significant media attention and, ultimately, the support of men as well as an agreement from the state to fund the safer road. Furthermore, there was a reported 26.5 percent decline in the homicide rate five years after the strike, and the women involved in the movement reportedly did not anticipate rates of domestic partner violence to rise as a result of the men’s sexual frustrations.

Nude protest 

Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a medical anthropologist in Uganda, has — according to Phil Wilmot and Johncation Muhindo — “tapped into the historical power of taboo in igniting social change” by participating in nude protest. Nyanzi, a critic of misogyny and Ugandan politics, is not the only woman to utilize disrobing as a protest tactic. On top of being a bold practice that attracts plenty of attention to the issue at hand, disrobing has cultural reasons for being effective. As Wilmot and Muhindo explain, “First, there is the gravity of a cultural omen… Then there is the employing of forbidden means, which inevitably results in highly polarized dialogue, which tends to support the victim and ostracize the oppressor.”

The taboo of nudity and the implications it holds for the onlooker make nude protests a much more effective form of political advocacy than they may be in cultures lacking a strong foundation of such a physical taboo. In addition to capitalizing on the presence of taboo, a nude protestor named Barbara Allimadi characterized her action as “a way to say that we respect our bodies and are in control, as opposed to any cultural beliefs.”

Women of Liberia for Mass Action for Peace

Perhaps one of the most well known examples of Lysistratic non-action occurred in Liberia during the second civil war that broke out in 2000. President Charles Taylor’s military regime fought against male militant rebel groups including Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, which were led by warlords. Christian social worker Leymah Gbowee decided in 2003 to mobilize the women of her community to pray for peace and an end to the war. Joined by Muslim women led by Asatu Bah Kenneth, the women staged a week-long peace protest at the fish market in Liberia’s capital of Monrovia, effectively beginning a movement that would later be called Women of Liberia for Mass Action for Peace, or WLMAP. 

The comedic teasing of men by women in “Lysistrata” is not comparable to the rampant sexual abuse women in Liberia endured that ultimately helped motivate them to take action against the civil war.

Although the fish market protest successfully gathered 2,500 participants, the women decided to go even further in their fight against the war by initiating a sex strike. Since men were the perpetrators of the violence the women were protesting against, the women — according to Kylin Navarro — “felt that if they were to withhold sex, their partners would also pray for peace and support an end to the war.” The sex strike alone did not end the war, but it did lead to further protests by the women and calls for peace talks that were successful with President Taylor. The talks took place in Accra, Ghana, and many protesting women were there to ensure that the men actually negotiated peace. WLMAP women staged a sit-in outside the negotiation meeting, and when guards attempted to arrest them, according to Navarro, “Gbowee threatened to remove her clothing, an act that would shame the men. Her threat prevented security from removing the women.”

The threat of taboo nudity, as seen in the Uganda case study, is another related tactic that was very successful in this case. The negotiations eventually led to the resignation and exile of the president and the formation of a peace agreement. Although there was a lot of violence in between the events that led to peace, the sex strike and other protests by WLMAP were clearly catalysts for social change in Liberia.

Although the Western media continually assert that the WLMAP movement was directly influenced by “Lysistrata,” Leymah Gbowee insists it was not informed by the play or by any other sex strikes in history. Gbowee once stated: “The message was that while the fighting continued, no one was innocent — not doing anything to stop it made you guilty.” The movement was about more than just the sex strike; it was a way to unite the women of Liberia together and utilize, according to Gbowee, “moral clarity, persistence and patience” to affect lasting change in their country. Regarding the community awareness and unification of Christian and Muslim women in the fight against violence, Gbowee said, “A single straw of a broom can be broken easily, but the straws together are not easily broken.”

Leymah Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in ending the second civil war in Liberia. And today, through various projects, she teaches girls in West Africa how to be leaders for a peaceful future and helps build networks of women in cross-national peace-building.

Successful protest tool or tool of oppression?

With so many examples of successful sex strikes, it’s easy to see why civil resistance scholars are interested in the tactic — it shows yet another way traditionally marginalized people can use pre-existing structures within their communities to build power and affect change. However, as stated earlier, there’s a darker side to the general idea of Lysistratic non-action and its success, some of which is rooted in the term’s origins. For example, classics scholar Helen Morales asserts that the comparison of the Liberian women’s movement to “Lysistrata” is inappropriate because it trivializes a situation in which women’s lives were at stake fighting for the end of a war that was also threatening their lives. The comedic teasing of men by women in “Lysistrata” is not comparable to the rampant sexual abuse women in Liberia endured that ultimately helped motivate them to take action against the civil war. Not only is this comparison outrageous and insulting, but the focus of change needs to be on the conditions that call for a sex strike in the first place, as well as the conditions that reduce women’s power to being solely concerned with their ability to please their husbands and bear children. With regard to the Liberian sex strike, Gbowee said that the women collectively thought: “What else do we have to lose? Our bodies are their battlefields: Let’s just put our bodies out there.”

What structures do we need to address to understand why a woman’s body can be blatantly disrespected to the point where using it as a protest strategy gains widespread attention?

In fact, none of the sex strike movements throughout history should be compared to “Lysistrata.” Most of these case studies take place on land in the Global South, and the strikes in these communities are discussed through an assumed lens of violent conflict instead of the comedic lens through which we read “Lysistrata.” According to Morales, one reason for this is “unwitting racism, in the willingness of Western journalists and their readers to believe that sex strikes are an effective political tool of other cultures, supposedly more primitive than theirs.” It is inappropriate and irresponsible to compare actual nonviolent action with a historic Western drama. Such comparison is reductive and disrespects women and women-led movements.

In order for sex strikes to be successful, women must have a space in which they feel safe and unthreatened. The mass participation needed in order to provide that space can lead to community-building, such as between the Christian and Muslim women of Liberia. However, women do not always feel safe engaging in protests like sex strikes. Domestic and sexual violence within sex strikes have been almost entirely overlooked in favor of comparing the protests to an ancient play, but the threat of sexual violence that women face when engaging in these protests is real. When women use sex as a persuasive tactic, they risk a backlash of violence by their male counterparts who are generally accepted in the public political sphere and wield power that may not be afforded to women

Women in the WLMAP movement attended meetings with bruised faces after their husbands had raped them, and many reactions to the nude protests of Stella Nyanzi were about her nudity and not about her message. It makes sense that sex strikes allow women to protest using one form of power they have within particular societies, but as women’s movements scholar Marie Principe notes, “The threat of sexual violence during demonstrations inherently establishes a gendered intimidation tactic that discourages female participation in public spaces.” Also considering that at least 35 percent of women experience intimate partner sexual and/or physical violence and 12 million young girls per year are married throughout parts of Africa, the “threat” is formidable.

Modern-day sex strikes are also often rooted in heteronormative misogyny. In Toronto, Canada in 2012, Nicole Osbourne James started a blog that initiated the movement “Guns Get None,” a sex strike protesting gang-related gun violence. Although the degree of its success is not widely known, the general idea, according to the Center for Homicide Research, was that “the responsibility of men should be to their families — not a gang.” Protesting gun violence is certainly important work, but the general idea of this strike enforces harmful and oppressive gender roles. As Maureen Shaw of Quartz notes, it is unclear how a sex strike like this “would apply to queer women who don’t have sex with men — or, for that matter, how it would [affect] gay men who don’t have sex with women, or what ‘respecting the vagina’ means for trans women.” Sex strikes like “Guns Get None” perpetuate traditional, binary gender roles, as well as the othering and ostracizing of women who are not straight and cisgender.

The structures of sex strikes effectively erase not only queer women, but sex workers as well. As Morales states:

Sex strike is, I suggest, a largely bogus category: it is not a meaningful descriptive term or heuristic. It also implies a strange and outmoded view of human sexuality. In contrast to The Guardian newspaper journalist, who lauded the strike in Columbia as a “new interpretation of women’s fight for their rights — one in which sexuality is being used as an empowering tool — a redefinition of what it means to be a feminist in modern times,” many will find the image of women using sex to manipulate weak, libido-driven, men rather tired. The term ‘sex strike’ suggests that ordinary sex is a kind of work, performed by a woman for a man… and that for her to withhold sex is a similar kind of political action to those of labour stoppages by unionized workers.

Underlying this statement is the reality of sex work and its legitimacy as a form of work. Sex strikes allow for the perpetuation of stigma and oppression of sex workers because in many cases, sex workers are still “available” for men regardless of the presence of a sex strike, putting them at risk of being labeled traitors by striking women. Even within the plot of “Lysistrata,” the ignorance of other outlets of sexual relief for men, according to Donna Zuckerberg of the Washington Post, “effectively [erases] the existence of sex work and same-sex activity.”

Even further is the misogyny and gross irony behind sex strikes for women that have been organized by men. In the early 1900s, a healer named Nyamutswa led the Bakonzo people of present-day Uganda in a liberation movement to resist double-colonization by the Toro Kingdom and the British empire. He thought that resistance would be easier if the Bakonzo were not a minority, so the movement was a kind of reverse sex strike; he encouraged women to have as many children as possible, ideally bearing twins. The intense population increase was a success, but it is difficult to ignore the absence of women’s opinions or testimonies in research detailing the movement. It is unclear whether or not Nyamutswa or anyone else in power took the Bakonzo women’s opinions into consideration when launching this particular act of resistance that appears to reduce women to childbearing machines, or simply, a means to an end.

Although we should not overlook the power of women to choose to engage in a sex strike, we must also be aware that its necessity stems from the objectification and oppression of women that continues to ravage societies around the world.

The assertion that stripping naked is effective according to its classification as “taboo” is made by protesters and researchers alike. But analysis of this idea raises questions: Why are women’s bodies considered to be taboo in particular contexts? What structures do we need to address to understand why a woman’s body can be blatantly disrespected to the point where using it as a protest strategy gains widespread attention? How do we unravel the deep-seated misogyny that has allowed the female body to become so hypersexualized? In 2011, Belgium Parliament Sen. Marleen Temmerman suggested a sex strike for wives of politicians until they could finally form the coalition government they had been working toward since the previous year. After significant backlash, she described her statement as simply a joke. And perhaps she actually was joking, but it is difficult to ignore the possibility that backlash against her suggestion caused her to retract her idea out of embarrassment.

In 2019, actress Alyssa Milano suggested a sex strike as a way to fight for women’s rights to bodily autonomy in the form of access to abortion, citing “Lysistrata,” the Iroquois sex strike, and the Crossed Legs Movement in Colombia as examples showing how it could be effective. In response, legal analyst Imani Gandy tweeted: “Lysistrata is not an effective organizing tool. Instead, [have sex with] whomever and support abortion funds.” Today, sex strikes rest on the idea that women need to assert their power of protest through, as Zuckerberg notes, the “domestic sphere,” because — since they are not “full political actors” — their power rests solely in their sexuality and ability to reproduce.

Nevertheless, sex strikes, or Lysistratic non-action, have been successful protest tools for communities of women for centuries. From the vast differences in strikes throughout the world, it is clear that the withdrawal of sex as a political statement is not, as Morales explains, “a universal, ahistorical act, easily transferrable from one context to another.” Instead, sex strikes are complicated and effect change in many ways. They also contribute to the perpetuation of women’s oppression, harmful heteronormativity, marginalization or erasure of both sex workers and LGBTQ+ women, as well as the reduction of women to sexual objects and reproductive machines. Although we should not overlook the power of women to choose to engage in a sex strike, we must also be aware that the necessity for Lysistratic non-action stems from the objectification and oppression of women that continues to ravage societies around the world.

This story was produced by Baker Institute at Juniata College

The mission of The Baker Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Juniata College is to apply the resources of the academic community to the study of warfare and deep-rooted conflict as human problems and to the study of peace as a human potential.

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