Do Sex Strikes Ever Work?
“Lysistratic nonaction” can be surprisingly effective.
Illustration of Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley, 1896.
A civil rights group in Togo is urging women to participate in a weeklong sex strike to put pressure on the country’s men to urge the president to resign. Do sex strikes ever work?
Yes, but mostly as a means of garnering media attention. The Togolese group cites as its inspiration a strike organized in 2003 by a women’s peace group to encourage the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. (The effort was chronicled in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.) Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace did force an end to the war, but their tactics were more complicated than a simple sex strike: They also staged sit-ins and mass demonstrations, which were arguably far more effective than the sex strike. Leymah Gbowee, the leader of the peace group, wrote in her memoir that the months-long sex strike
had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention. Until today, nearly 10 years later, whenever I talk about the Mass Action, “What about the sex strike?” is the first question everyone asks.
Generally, sex strikes—known in activist circles as “Lysistratic nonaction,” a nod to Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy—appear to be more successful when the women involved have little economic autonomy, when their demands are specific and realistic, and when they possess endurance and strength in numbers. In the tiny, rural Filipino town of Dado last year, women belonging to a sewing collective successfully brought an end to violence on a thoroughfare connecting Dado and a regional market center by withholding sex from their husbands for a week. And a four-month, 300-woman sex strike in the Colombian town of Barbacoas last year succeeded, with local authorities promising to improve conditions on the roads connecting Barbacoas to the nearest town. (Compare this to a highly publicized 2006 sex strike by the girlfriends of gangsters in a violent region of Colombia, which was called off after 10 days with no indication that their demand—an end to gang violence—had been met.)
Recent sex strikes in Western countries have been unsuccessful. A call for a sex strike by a Belgian senator to end a political stalemate last year was widely reported seriously but turned out to be a joke. And a similarly tongue-in-cheek call this spring by a progressive women’s group for a sex strike in favor of reproductive rights did little to quell America’s abortion- and contraception-related political squabbling.
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L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. Follow her on Twitter.