Sex Strikes, Fear, and Autonomy

One of the oldest surviving pieces of literature in the Western world is Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a play about women who go on a sex strike to end a war. The result is a ‘war between the sexes’ which is usually played as a comedy—and it’s a comedy that’s endured through the centuries through numerous performances and retellings of the story, as well as entirely new versions of the sex strike narrative. In most cases, the setup is eerily similar: women inform the men in their lives that they plan to withhold sex until the men do what they want, and the plan backfires on them, creating more problems than it was supposed to solve.

There’s something about this story that I keep coming back to, because it speaks of so many interesting and complex things about the West and the way we view women—and certainly about how the Greeks viewed women in their society. There is, to begin with, the fundamental idea that sexual autonomy is an absurdity, something to be made into a comic play rather than a serious subject of discussion. The thought of women having control over their bodies is almost quaint and cute, but it also carries an undertone of patronising threats.

This is a fictional world where women are ‘allowed’ to withhold sex, but it doesn’t work out for them, so they’re really, ultimately, punished for it. Their beliefs about their level of power over the men in their lives are also disrupted by the outcome of the sex strike; instead of giving in, the men find other ways to amuse themselves. What is meant to be a display of female sexuality and an assertion of control over dominant masculine society ends up ultimately as a humiliation. Either the women give in to temptation (unable, being women, to maintain self-control), the men don’t miss them as much as they expect, or the men simply force the issue (sometimes very graphically), reminding the women that they never had any control in their relationships from the start.

This is also a world in which sex becomes a bargaining chip, a tool, and a transactional object. While transactional sex is nothing new (and certainly not wrong), the stark reductionism in sex strike narratives is troubling as a metacommentary on sexuality within relationships. Is sex something that people in committed relationships only engage in when they want something, or as a transactional reward when something has been done for them? Is this how people want to depict such relationships and how members of such relationships feel?

The sex strike narrative also makes a rather gross comment about women: that the only bargaining tool they have is their sexuality. Strikes and mass actions can take a number of forms, but it’s sex strikes that people seem to find titillating in both fiction and media; when women organise themselves in their communities and protest in other ways, they rarely make the news, even if their work is ultimately more productive. Instead, it’s the idea of the sex strike that reporters and the like find fascinating, even if the strikes fizzle out (for a variety of reasons).

Clearly, observers are fascinated by the concept and to some extent also buy into the idea that women’s bodies are bargaining tools, leaving women with limited social and political autonomy. Let alone the fact that many women in nations where modern day sex strikes have occurred have been active in politics and their community, have organised much more far-reaching activist campaigns that involve a variety of activities (including striking in factories, boycotting, sit-ins, and so forth), have taken a very dynamic and fierce role in creating change in a variety of ways. No, what’s apparently of interest is the sex strike.

As a media strategy for getting attention for a cause, a strike might work a treat, but it tends not to in practice, highlighting the absurdity of the phenomenon. It doesn’t even accomplish the stated goal: what does, it turns out, is grassroots work on the ground in other ways, something we already know. In other words, the myth that women are all-controlling sex demons who manage to manipulate the world with their sexuality is, astonishingly, untrue, and women cannot actually lead men around by their peters to make them do as they please.

The narration surrounding sex strikes often presents them in a paradoxical way: as a show of power on the part of women, and also as a fruitless exercise being undertaken by airheaded ninnies who can’t possibly think what they’re doing will matter. This is a curious testimony to the fear of female sexuality that dominates a lot of cultures, and to the way people want to simultaneously turn it into something more than it is—everyone knows that once women go on sex strike, vagina dentatas (dentatae?) are only a few steps away, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve their ruthless aims—and demystify it to make it less terrifying. To make the fact that women are sexually empowered individuals less scary.

Perhaps the enduring legend of the sex strike speaks to a sort of primal fear, that women might choose to rise up not just in bed but in other areas of life to advocate for themselves and their communities. The fact that sex strikes are often ruthlessly put down in fiction indicates that, culturally, these stories are told primarily for the purpose of keeping women small, helpless, and unimportant: the poor dears couldn’t even get what they wanted when they withheld sex. The reminder that sex strikes can and should be dismissed to disempower women trying to assert control is also a word of advice to those foolish enough to allow themselves to be influenced by the women in their lives; because it would be the height of dreadfulness for women to actually play an active role in society.