CULTURE

Why Alyssa Milano's "Sex Strike" Won't Work to Fight Abortion Bans

Historically, a sex strike is an effective form of activism—but not in the U.S.

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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.


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


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Culture Feature

Drew Brees Exemplifies How NOT to Be a White Ally

The quarterback said "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." And then he tried to apologize. And only made it worse.

Drew Brees, a man who makes literally millions of dollars for throwing a ball, has come under fire for insensitive comments he made about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.

"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said in the interview with Yahoo Finance. He clarified that this was in part because he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II, during the National Anthem. He continued, saying, "And is everything right with our country right now? No. It's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution."

This isn't the first time Brees made it clear that he cares more for the idea of a make-believe unified America than he does for actual human lives. In 2016, he criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem, saying it was "disrespectful to the American flag" and "an oxymoron" because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.


Colin Kaepernick Kneeling Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of racist police brutality


Of course, the flag's alleged ideals have been proven to only be applicable to wealthy, white men—men like Brees. Sure, his grandfathers did a noble thing when they fought under the US flag during WWII, and no one, including Kaepernick, has ever said that sacrifice isn't worth respecting. Thanks to the sacrifices of many people (including the enslaved Black backs upon which this country was built, including the scores of routinely abused Black soldiers who fought for American lives), America has offered opportunity and peace for many, many people. In particular, Ole' Glory has been very kind to men like Brees: rich, white men who still control the majority of the power and the wealth in the United States.

But what about the rest of us, Drew? What about George Floyd whose neck was crushed by a police officer who kneeled on him so casually that he didn't even take his hand out of his pocket? What about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot for the crime of being Black and going for a jog? What about Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was murdered by police in her home in the middle of the night for a crime that had nothing to do with her? What about Tony McDade, Drew–have you heard his name? Have you heard about the 38-year-old Black trans man who was gunned down in Florida last week? Do you understand why these people's family's may harbor just a bit of disrespect for your precious flag?

Is it possible for you to realize, Drew, that your wish for "unity" is not a wish for progress, but a wish to maintain the status quo? When you call for unity under the American flag, you're talking about your flag, the flag that represents a long, sordid history of racial oppression and violence. There is no unity where there is no justice. When you say that "we are all in this together," what you're saying is that we all have roles to play in the version of society that has served you so well. For your part, you'll be a rich, white man, and for Black people's part, they'll continue to be victims of state-sanctioned murders– but hopefully more quietly, hopefully in a manner that doesn't make you uncomfortable?

When you say, "We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution," what you mean to say is that POC and their allies are at fault. Sure, you probably agree that Derek Chauvin took it a bit too far, and you probably feel a little self-conscious that he's brought all this "Black rights" stuff up again. But when you say "all," you place blame on the victims who are dying under a broken system. And what, exactly, do you expect POC to do differently, Drew? Ahmaud Arbery was just out jogging, and still he died. George Floyd was just trying to pay a cashier, and still he died. POC and their allies try to peacefully protest by marching in the streets or taking a knee at a football game, and still white people condemn and criticize. Still the police shoot.

After much criticism, Brees did attempt an apology on Instagram, where he posted a hilariously corny stock photo of a Black and white hand clasped together. His caption, though possibly well-intentioned, made it even clearer that his understanding of the movement for Black lives is thoroughly lacking.


Highlights of the "apology" include his immediate attempt to exonerate himself from culpability, claiming that his words were misconstrued, saying of his previous statement: "Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character." Unfortunately, Drew, white people like you are the "enemy," as you put it, because by default you are at the very least part of the problem. No one is accusing you of being an overt racist, Drew; no one thinks you actively and consciously detest Black people. But your lack of empathy, your apathy, and your unwillingness to unlearn your own biases are precisely what has persisted in the hearts and minds of well-meaning white Americans for centuries.

Next, you say, "I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the Black community in this movement." No, Drew. Just no. Black people don't need white people's savior complexes to interfere in their organizing; what they need is for us to shut up and listen. What they need is for us to get our knees off of their necks.

Finally, you say, "I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy." This, Drew, is suspiciously similar to saying, "But I'm one of the good whites!" The fact of the matter is that feeling the need to prove your allyship is not about helping a movement; it's about feeding your own ego. Not only that, but your emphasis on "ALWAYS" does a pretty good job of making it clear that you don't think you have a racist bone in your body and that you have taken great offense at any accusations to the contrary. I have some news for you, Drew: Every white person is racist. Sure, the levels vary, and while you may not be actively and consciously discriminating against POC, you have been brought up in a racist system, and your implicit biases are as strong as any other white person's. Your job now is to unlearn those biases and confront those subtle prejudices in yourself and in other white people. Maybe the first step in doing so is just shutting your f*cking mouth about kneeling at football games. Maybe you should even consider taking a knee yourself.

For other non-BIPOC trying to be better allies, check out one of these 68+ anti-racism resources.