The sex strike is an age-old form of protest, stretching back to the Ancient Greeks. But should sex ever be used as political barter?
The women of Barbacoas, Colombia are taking matters into their own, er, vaginas. The Guardian published a piece yesterday about a sex strike on the tiny port village, where women are protesting its egregiously inadequate roads. These prehistoric streets make it so difficult to access the rest of the province that they have caused food costs to soar, and in cases where ambulances get stuck in the mud, many deaths. After tireless political protest and hunger strikes throughout the years, local women are now "crossing their legs" in protest. Their slogan since June? "No more sex. We want our road."
The writer credits modern feminism for helping these women find "the courage to remain strong in their demands." The political tactic of refusing men sex goes all the way back to ancient Greece; Aristophanes' comic play Lysistrata features women withholding sex from their husbands as a way to end the Peloponnesian War. But does abstinence ever make sense as a protest? And are the women who adopt this strategy ultimately undercutting their own political power?
At face value, this political tactic is as old-fashioned as it gets. It paints men as horny brutes and women as sacrificial gatekeepers. Sure, boycotts always involve self-denial, but the tone of a sex strike is never mutual sacrifice. It's women fighting against a male-dominated group that they feel they can't control except with their bodies. The basic assumption is that men are so dependent on boning that they'll crack at the slightest deprivation of sexual activity.
But context is everything. The women in Colombia aren't simply playing the sex card; they're connecting their life-or-death struggle to their future children. "We are being deprived of our most human rights and as women we can't allow that to happen," Ruby Quinones, one of the organizers, told a local newspaper. "Why bring children into this world when they can just die without medical attention and we can't even offer them the most basic rights?" Of course, in a country where birth control is accessible (and now free!) and abortion is legal, this defense rings hollow. But in a place like Barbacoas, where access to even basic medical care is strained and ending a pregnancy could get you three years in prison, a strike like this suddenly becomes meaningful.
This tactic has cropped up in the United States, too. Consider Second City's call earlier this year to stop fucking men who support defunding Planned Parenthood. Their logic was simple: men who don't think women's access to health care is important didn't deserve to have sex with women. This wasn't a call for women to abstain from sex in general—just to deny it to men who didn't care about their rights.
But usually, sex (or lack thereof) is disconnected from the ultimate political goal. In Belgium, Senator Marleen Timmerman called for a sex strike during the country's government impasse in February. In an earlier sex strike in Colombia, women demanded that gangsters disarm or face a life of celibacy. A feminist writer described a 2009 Kenyan sex strike as "demonstrating [women's] sexual agency," and indeed, in a nation where rape is so common that it's been called the country's "biggest human rights issue," there's something powerful about using sex as a weapon. But that strike wasn't to combat widespread rape; it was to protest political infighting that is only marginally connected to sexual assault.
Sex has the power to grab headlines, and any press for a protest will only help the cause. A grassroots movement of "Slutwalks," led by young feminists to protest rape and victim-blaming, has the word "slut" in its name for a reason. As feminist activist Jessica Valenti asked while discussing the movement on a national news show, "Do you think I'd be here if they were called 'empowerment walks'?" But Slutwalks celebrate sexuality rather than requiring women to suppress it. And they're not using sex to pressure a group of men about an unrelated issue.
When used indiscriminately, all a sex strike does is pit men against women and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes. For the crossed-legs tactic to be effective, the punishment should fit the crime.