When I knocked on the door, a middle-aged man answered. After determining that we were in agreement about needing to end the Iraq war, I launched into a conversation about the organization I worked for and how we were organizing to end the war. At one point he stopped me, saying, “You know what women should do? They should stop having sex with men. That would end the war.” I don’t remember how I responded, but at that point in my life as a young canvasser I was probably just flustered and kept going, hoping to get him to take some kind of action. I do remember that I felt annoyed and deflated. Why was I wasting my time knocking on doors trying to use my powers of persuasion to inspire people to take action when I should just be telling men I wouldn’t have sex with them? While I was passionately sharing my political views, was he just thinking about me as a sexual object?
The idea of a “sex strike” is not new. In fact, it dates back to ancient Greece, in the Aristophanes play Lysistrata. The concept is getting renewed attention as Spike Lee promotes his new film Chi-raq, a satire that transports the Greek play to modern-day Chicago. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Lee said that a sex strike could work on college campuses that are dealing with a sexual assault epidemic. I’m generally a fan of Lee’s work, but every time this concept makes a resurgence, my blood starts to boil.
What message are we sending women when we tell them that the most effective role they play in creating change is as gatekeepers of vaginas? Forget your intellect. Forget your creativity and passion. Rather than inspiring people with your ideas, with your words, with your leadership, the way you should influence the course of the world is to dangle the possibility of sex in front of men, but let them know they can’t have it unless they change their behavior. The sex strike idea accepts a world in which men make the decisions and women, rather than seizing power directly, manipulate men so they can pull the puppet strings. Are you queer or asexual? Sorry, you have nothing to contribute in this scenario.
Proposing a sex strike reenforces tired narratives about women and sex. There’s the eye-roll inducing complaint we’ve all heard from bitter men at some point: “Women are the ones who really have the power, because they control sex.” This narrative doesn’t do men any favors either. They are lapdogs controlled by their biological urges rather than thinking, feeling human beings. It portrays women as manipulative and withholding, and simultaneously projects power onto us while denigrating us.
The sex strike idea also conveniently ignores the fact that sex is not a service women to provide to men. In the 21st century, I would hope that most sexual relationships are enthusiastically entered into by both parties and are mutually satisfying. It’s not something that women begrudgingly perform as a marital duty, but a fulfilling aspect of an egalitarian relationship. That may be an ideal picture and not true in every (heterosexual, as this is a very heteronormative framework) relationship, but it’s certainly closer to reality than an ancient Greek view of sexual relations. One could argue that a woman could still sacrifice something she enjoys for the greater good, but all that does is reinforce the idea of a lopsided relationship and strip women of the other ways they can exercise political power.
Even if you wanted to ignore all of these arguments to focus on efficacy, the fact is the sex strike idea doesn’t work. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that Lee has cited Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee in support of the idea, but notes that “the sex strikes ‘had little or no practical effect,’ Gbowee has written. ‘But it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.'”
I think some men honestly think they’re being empowering or complimentary when they dole out this advice. (In general, I’m over the experience of men coming up to me and saying, “You know what your movement should REALLY do…”) Would you say that to Malala Yousafzai? To Rosa Parks? To Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi? These and many other influential leaders are powerful examples for how women can make political change. Stop reducing women to an antiquated idea of sexuality, and start recognizing us for the badass organizers that we are.