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Sex Strikes Have a Long and Controversial History as a Tool of Women's Protest

Alyssa Milano's proposal was unpopular, but the practice of sex strikes goes back to the dawn of humanity.
Activist Tamara Stevens with the Handmaids Coalition of Georgia leaves the Georgia Capitol after Democratic presidential candidate Senator Kirsten Gillibrand addressed an event to speak out against the recently passed "heartbeat" bill on May 16th, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Activist Tamara Stevens with the Handmaids Coalition of Georgia leaves the Georgia Capitol after Democratic presidential candidate Senator Kirsten Gillibrand addressed an event to speak out against the recently passed "heartbeat" bill on May 16th, 2019, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Earlier this month, amid a flurry of restrictive abortion bills passed by emboldened Republican legislatures across the country, one celebrity tweeted out a clarion call: "Our reproductive rights are being erased," wrote Alyssa Milano, an actress perhaps best known for her roles in Charmed and Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later. "JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back. I'm calling for a #SexStrike. Pass it on."

The proposal was not well-received. It was immediately denounced as misguided-at-best and deeply harmful-at-worst by a wide-ranging coalition of leftists, progressives, and liberals. Many criticized its heterosexual framing of sex, its perceived implication that women have sex to please men, the fact that its target was mostly not the legislators in power, a lack of clear demands, and the strike's top-down disconnect from any grassroots organizing. Plus, "it isn't clear that anyone ever did join Milano in refusing to join their lovers in bed," Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in the Washington Post. "In fact, it's not even clear whether Milano herself has sworn off sex." ("I sent a tweet last night," Milano told the Associated Press, when asked how long she was striking from intercourse. "I haven't really thought much past that this morning.")

While, most everyone seems to agree that Milano's proposal was an undercooked failure, sex strikes have a long and successful—though not uncontroversial—history as a tool of women's protest and solidarity. Some anthropologists even identify sex strikes as playing a fundamental role in organizing the earliest human societies, and helping to create symbolic language and morality. These contemporary examples are "an echo of something which was much more regular in the evolutionary past" says Chris Knight, an anthropologist at University College London.

Sex strikes involve "women banding together to refuse to give anyone sexual access to their bodies in order to achieve political/social gains," says Breanne Fahs, a professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University. "These have been used throughout the world in numerous countries and for numerous ends." Well-publicized sex strikes in recent decades have occurred in Nigeria, Liberia, Colombia, Kenya, and Iceland.

However, for some thinkers, "sex strike" is an unhelpful and misleading designation. "It falls apart as a category because it means so many different things in different contexts and different historical periods," says Helen Morales, a classics professor at the University of California–Santa Barbara. Morales mounts this critique in her forthcoming book Antigone Rising, which is in part about "the unhelpful and damaging legacy of Aristophanes' Lysistrata," the ancient Greek comedy in which an Athenian woman sets out to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing women on both sides of the conflict to withhold sexual relations from their bellicose and lustful husbands.

Rarely is a sex strike discussed in the popular press without an obligatory mention of Lysistrata, and Morales is troubled by the popular takeaway from the play—"that sex strikes are an effective and viable means of political protest by women"—when it presents an extended, fictional comic tease. "We wouldn't call a striptease club a sex strike club!" she says.

Additionally, the label "sex strike" can be misleading because it presents the withholding of sexual privileges from men as a primary and singular tactic of the relevant protest. But that's almost never the case. Instead, historically, they have occurred as part of a larger women's general strike, in which women would drop out of all kinds of domestic labor for a time. That can include intercourse, but also myriad other jobs that the society or community has assigned to women, including domestic duties like cooking, cleaning, and childcare.

One of the most famous sex strikes was the 2003 action to end the Liberian Civil War, led by Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, and documented by Abigail Disney's film Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The movement helped end the war, and ushered in a period of free elections, earning Gbowee and her collaborators the Nobel Peace Prize, and raising global awareness of sex strikes as a protest tactic. However, Gbowee devotes only a single page of her memoir to the sex strike, describing it as little more than a publicity stunt. "The strike ... had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention," she writes. "Until today, nearly 10 years later, whenever I talk about the Mass Action, 'What about the sex strike?' is the first question everyone asks." The thousands of white-clothed women occupying the Monrovia fish market, marching on the president's office, and staging sit-ins at the hotels of rebel leaders were far more consequential tactics, by Gbowee's analysis.

In Iceland's women's strike of 1975—known as The Long Friday—in addition to abstaining from the homemaking, child-rearing, and sex, women refused to show up for work, temporarily shutting down the local fishing industry, which was primarily occupied by women, Knight says. (Iceland's Gender Equality Act, which included equal pay regulations, was passed the following year.) Sex strikes, and the larger women's protests of which they are so often part, "make visible women's often invisible labor," Fahs says. "When removing any kind of labor through a strike (work, domestic, sexual, etc.), that labor becomes more visible."

Igbo women, in southern Nigeria, have a well-studied history of sex strikes, which were often deployed in response to specific instances of sexual harassment or even tampering with a woman's garden. "The women often acted like a kind of trade union branch," says Camilla Power, an anthropologist at the University of East London. "They'd say, 'we're going to drop everything,' and the only thing they would take with them would be the babies on their breast."

In at least one case, documented in 1940 by anthropologist Jack Harris, Igbo women used a sex strike to earn approval from their husbands for having extramarital lovers, Power says. The terms of the detente also earned the women a large feast of goat and copious apologies from their husbands.

Anti-colonialist uprisings have also featured sex strikes. During the Women's War of 1929, Igbo women (among other groups) incorporated many strategies of their traditional sex strikes to protest British colonial rule, and its sexist organization of colonial government. "They scaled up their usual tactics that they would use against any man that had seriously offended them," Power says. These tactics included singing, dancing, mocking, laughing uproariously, and pouring their morning latrines on a man's home. Igbo women have also often incorporated naked protests into their sex strikes—"a reversal of the male gaze," Power says. These naked protests are still sometimes used today against oil mega-corporations in the Niger Delta.

The first sex strikes date to at least 300,000 years ago, according to Knight, when modern Homo sapiens first emerged. They were a response to what Power calls "a kind of economic duress" that arose out of humans' then-recent evolution of large brains, which are very energy-dependent. Based, in part, on evidence from red-ochre cave paintings, anthropologists who accept the theory of female cosmetic coalition believe that these women built solidarity and community linkages by withholding sex and using symbolic expressions of taboo. This helped develop a sexual morality—a change, according to Power, from the "chimpanzee logic" of males mostly having sex when they wanted.

These early sex strikes developed into a regular, carnivalesque ritual, often connected with menstrual cycles, that helped establish hunter-gatherer societies as some of the most egalitarian to ever exist, with roughly equal division of labor between genders. It also helped develop the system found in these societies known as "bride service," in which "marriage is an ongoing negotiation," Power says. "If he's not successful enough at hunting, the services of the woman will be withdrawn," and the man will be kicked out of the house.

The collective action of sex strikes by early women placed them in a position of relative power, compared to the gender relations of proto-humans and the great apes. "Our ancestor women were going on sex strikes and saying: 'No, you are not getting any sex until you do the job of hunting and bringing it back to us,'" Power says.

This periodic flexing of gender solidarity first appeared in the early human hunter-gatherer tradition, but is still prevalent today in societies with strong collectivist traditions, Knight says. That includes still-existing hunter-gatherer societies and many horticulturalists—any tradition in which women are especially networked and share many activities. For example, some Pygmy groups in Central Africa still perform their Ngoku ceremony, in which women "playfully take over the entire camp space for three or four days, defying male advances and temporarily asserting the rule of women," Knight says, citing the work of anthropologist Jerome Lewis. "During such all-female rituals, there's plenty of intimacy and erotic bonding, but certainly no heterosexual sex going on."

Sex strikes have been relatively infrequent in European-descended societies, Power says, in part because the longstanding competitive individualism of the societies has muddied the memory of this kind of collective action. This tradition was stymied in Europe by thousands of years of livestock-centric economies, which encouraged competition over land-use and strict control of women's sexualities (to control inheritance of land). The resultant inequality also reduced women's solidarity, since they had to compete for men and resources, she says. In some non-Western societies, "there are very long memories of gender solidarity," Knight says, "whereas in most of Europe, for example, if ever there were similar arrangements, it would be a very long time ago."

There is still value in sex strikes when deployed correctly, Power thinks—even in Europe and the United States. However, the tactic needs to account for class, include sex workers, and can't be top down—it should come from collective organizing, not celebrity fiat. It also needs to be public: "It can only work if it takes over public space, dissolving the boundaries between the private activities of husband and wife," she says.

"Sex strikes needn't only be about women and their reproductive rights. They will be a major part of our fight against climate catastrophe—the fight for the planet Earth's reproductive rights," Power says. "The symbolism of menstruation is like the original red flag of the Human Revolution."