The first recorded instance of a political sex strike—when women actively withhold sex from men as a temporary means of political action—dates back to 411 BCE in Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. The comedy displays an effort by Lysistrata to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing all the women of Greece to refuse sex with their soldier husbands until a peace treaty is signed. The impact of the sex strike is felt by the men of both Sparta and Athens, who quickly organize a meeting to reach a peaceful armistice. The war ends, and the men are finally able to have sex with their wives again.
Some hail the play as a feminist text for asserting that women have as much political power as men. Others believe it suggests that women’s only source of influence is the sexual pleasures their bodies provide. It may be tempting to dismiss these debates as unimportant given that the play is a farce primarily meant to show the futility of war. However, sex strikes have been used as a viable political strategy across the world. Thus, it is important that we study when and where sex strikes succeed. Analyzing their history, I find that sex strikes are an effective political tool when the community is small enough, the women are steadfast in their beliefs and actions, and the demands of the strike are tangible and practical. However, even when these conditions are not met, withholding sex as an unconventional and aspirational means of political action can increase some women’s understanding of their own power.
To see a successful sex strike in action, look no further than Colombia. In 2006, the wives and girlfriends of gang members from Pereira, Colombia declared that they would abstain from sex with their boyfriends and husbands until they turned in their weapons to the government and found financial security through less violent means. By 2010, Pereira’s murder rate had dropped by a dramatic 27 percent.
Perhaps inspired by this achievement, in 2011, Colombian women from the small town of Barbacoas initiated a sex strike known as the Crossed Legs Movement to convince the government to repair a crumbled, eroded highway that was allowing armed guerilla groups and drug trafficking rings to thrive. Since the highway was the only means for the town to access clean water, food, and medical services, its occupation by criminal groups forced many people to go without such necessities. In protest, women of the city organized behind the slogan “No more sex. We want our road.” Ruby Quinonez, who participated in the strike, elaborated, “We are being deprived of our most human rights and as women we can’t allow that to happen.” Many seemed to agree—notably, even the wife of the city’s mayor participated. After four months of national attention, Colombia’s Transport Minister ordered that road repairs begin.
Elsewhere in 2011, activist Leymah Gbowee executed a sex strike to demand an end to the Second Liberian Civil War as part of the movement Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. The war had increased sexual violence, and sex strikes provided an opportunity for Liberian women to reclaim their bodily autonomy. Of her choice to employ the sex strike as a political strategy, Gbowee explained, “Every man is interested in the act of sex. We withheld sex from our spouses to get attention, and our husbands obviously noticed what we were doing. We said, ‘we need you to take a stand.’ And they did.” Ultimately, Liberian women’s multidimensional, non-violent approach was critical in achieving the end of the war and Gbowee went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her organizing work.
Although withholding sex is not always a safe or viable option for women in sexually or physically abusive relationships, sex strikes have clearly been proven to work in local contexts when tied to specific goals. However, sex strikes face significant obstacles to success in the United States. In 2019, multiple celebrities including actress Alyssa Milano and singer Janelle Monáe called for a sex strike following the passage of several strict abortion laws in multiple states. Their suggestion was not taken up by many and all of these abortion laws remained intact. This outcome was unsurprising because, in order for a sex strike to work, the community it takes place in must share the same goals. American culture is far more individualistic than that of Liberia or Colombia; its culture of every person for themselves is not compatible with the core tenets of a sex strike. The diversity of thought amongst Americans is one of the country’s greatest strengths, but it also makes it difficult for activists to deploy protest strategies that require all members of a community to engage.
This challenge can also be seen in the struggles encountered by advocates of political lesbianism. Springing from second-wave feminism, political lesbianism is a theory that encourages women to permanently abstain from sexual activity with men as a radical method of challenging the patriarchal sexual hierarchy. The concept rests on the understandably controversial theory that sexuality may not actually be as inherent as we believe, but rather is a political and social choice. Lesbian feminist scholar and academic Sheila Jeffreys, who first made the case for political lesbianism, explains, “all feminists can and should be lesbians. Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.”
In light of Jeffreys’ definition, we can understand political lesbianism as a manifestation of sex strikes; like the women in Colombia and Liberia, political lesbians withhold sex in order to work towards a less patriarchal world. However, in contrast to targeted sex strikes, political lesbianism is generally not tied to a concrete, local goal. Consequently, it has struggled to gain traction despite decades of feminist theorizing. Moreover, many women may find a lifelong commitment to political lesbianism inaccessible relative to other sex strikes, which are temporary.
However, the fact that some sex strikes, including political lesbianism, are unlikely to create material political change does not mean that they are without merit. As Thérèse, a self-identified political lesbian, explained, “Being lesbian is a choice, I made that choice to stand outside of patriarchy.” For women like Thérèse, it can be individually empowering to believe so deeply in a cause that you are willing to change your behavior to align with your beliefs—even if you know that behavior cannot be viabley scaled up.
This possibility is also demonstrated by Spike Lee’s 2015 adaptation of Lysistrata: Chi-raq, a tale of gang violence in modern Chicago. Unlike the original Lysistrata, the sex strike in Chi-raq is ultimately not enough to end the violence. However, it is nonetheless a catalyst for the women of the community to become more involved and to understand their political power. Chi-raq thus demonstrates that even in contexts in which sex strikes are difficult—if not impossible—to execute because of intangible goals or insufficient participation, they can still be politically empowering for the women who do choose to engage in them. These types of women-led initiatives are necessary for actionable change regarding gender justice. Women must be able to recognize the power they hold both in their sexuality and beyond it in order to seek—and ultimately achieve—their unique version of justice.