Activists all over the world have historically used sex as a weapon to further their agendas.
In 1600, Iroquois women gained the power to veto their tribe's decision to go to war by withholding sex. In 2009, women's movements in Kenya and the Philippines banned sex to stop political violence and in-fighting; in both instances, violence reduced and the local governments stabilized within weeks. In 2017, singer Janelle Monae told Marie Claire there should be a sex strike to support the women's rights movement, saying, "People have to start respecting the vagina. Until every man is fighting for our rights, we should consider stopping having sex." A sex boycott didn't follow the celebrated 2017 Women's March. But recently, in the wake of Georgia's radical new law banning abortion, actress Alyssa Milano took to Twitter calling for a sex strike to protest restrictions on a women's right to choose.
Last week, Georgia's governor, Brian Kemp, signed into law the most radical abortion ban in the country. Dubbed the "heartbeat bill," HB 481 criminalizes abortion after about six weeks, the point at which a fetus has a "detectable human heartbeat." The state's law is an alarming step to restrict women's access to abortion, and it's sparked widespread confusion as to whether or not a woman could be prosecuted for murder for "self-terminating" her pregnancy or even for having a miscarriage. Luckily, there are existing laws that protect women from being prosecuted for losing their unborn children; however, until the law goes into effect on January 1, 2020, it remains to be seen if prosecutors will use elastic interpretations of HB 481 to penalize women for aborted pregnancies (which happened in a 2015 case).
In response, Milano tweeted on Friday: "Until women have legal control over our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy. JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back." The 46-year-old actress followed up with a post about the history of effective sex strikes, such as those in Kenya and the Philippines. "History shows that a #sexstrike is surprisingly effective," she wrote.
However, she also linked to a 2017 Quartz article about sex strikes being a "surprisingly effective strategy for political change"—and the entire argument of that piece is why a sex strike could never work in the States. Historically, successful sex strikes have taken place in relatively small and very homogeneous communities, where women were united by very specific and focused demands. Critics have long argued that the demographics of American women are too diverse and U.S. politics are too divisive for a sex strike to unite people in a similar way.
But fundamentally, how does a sex strike work? Isn't a call for women to treat their bodies as commodities they can withhold just as objectifying as laws telling women what to do with their bodies? Wait, what even technically counts as "sex?" If you're boycotting sex to protest an abortion ban, then doesn't that imply that all sex involves a woman's vagina? Aside from the dubiousness of condoning women using sex as a weapon, recognition of queer identities complicates that logic. After all, how do gay men and women participate in a sex strike to effect change? If we treat sex as political, then sexual orientations become politically charged as well; that's risky because doing so suggests that orientations are held in some hierarchy of power. Does straight sex hold more political power than queer sex? The rabbit hole doesn't seem to end, and it doesn't result in political change.
Accordingly, critical responses on Twitter ranged from condemning sex strikes as treating women like bargaining chips to pointing out that striking for "reproductive rights" misses the underlying issue of Georgia's abortion ban. Writer Kristi Coulter responded, "Living under patriarchy has already robbed me of safety, autonomy, opportunities, and trust in our institutions. Now I'm supposed to give up sex, too, and play into the fiction that it's just a bargaining chip/transaction for women? Love you, but nope."
Oddly, some supporters of Georgia's law agreed with Milano's suggestion, but they pointed out that it lacks a clear target. Lila Rose, president of an anti-abortion organization called Live Action, responded, "I'm totally with you, @Alyssa_Milano, on not having sex. But the issue isn't 'reproductive rights.' The issue is reproductive responsibilities & fidelity. No one should have sex until they're ready to embrace the privilege & responsibility of lifelong commitment & raising a child."
On Saturday, Milano defended her strike to the Associated Press, saying, "We need to understand how dire the situation is across the country. It's reminding people that we have control over our own bodies and how we use them." Despite her good intentions, the best way to protest people telling women what to do with their own bodies probably isn't to tell women what they should do with their own bodies.
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