Popping up on my Facebook page today was this story about Ukrainian women launching a sex strike against Russian men. The article on The Atlantic recounts that the Ukrainian women are certainly not the first to do it:
Of course, the women of “Don’t Give It to a Russian” are hardly the first to have this idea. Just last month, a group of women in Tokyo threatened not to sleep with any man who voted for a gubernatorial candidate who was seen to have outdated views on gender. In 2003, a group called the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace led a sex strike for an end to the Liberian civil war. And just a few years ago in Ukraine, the feminist group Femen called on the wives and girlfriends of the members of the prime minister’s cabinet to boycott sex in opposition to what they called the prime minister’s “caddish and humiliating attitude towards Ukrainian women.”
It is, in fact, a strategy as old as time. In the Greek comedy Lysistrata, the eponymous character rallies her fellow women to withhold sex from their husbands until they agree to end the Peloponnesian War. For what it’s worth, it worked for the women in the play.
I find it interesting that the article, in a U.S. American magazine, declines to make any connections to similar kinds of resistance within the U.S. Could it be that only folks outside our national borders could make such devious (non-)use of sex? Of course not! Although I’m sure there are many more examples of Lysistrata-style sexual strikes, the one with which I’m most familiar comes from the New York Young Lords.
In 1970, women in the Young Lords began meeting as part of a women’s caucus to discuss issues of racist-sexism (machismo) in society at large and within the structures of their organization. Facing pressure to stop the meetings — they were charged with “talking some of that crazy feminist bullshit” and with being “a bunch of white women” — they considered separating from the males in the organization and, according to one former Young Lord, “rejected that as being counterrevolutionary. We examined it; we talked about it; we critiqued it.” Also considered was the option of joining the Third World Women’s Alliance, a U.S.-women of color feminist organization challenging racism, imperialism, and sexism.
Rather than either disband the women’s caucus or split from the Young Lords, the women instead sought ways to resist. For example, women who were in intimate relationships with Young Lords men held a special meeting to discuss Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. In that meeting, they decided that they would no longer have sexual relations with their male partners until the central committee and organization were reformed. Denise Oliver recalls, “We knew we couldn’t go on strike because that would mean all of the programs for the people would collapse. That would be counterrevolutionary—we were not going to not do our work. And we were certainly going to not have anything to do with them that we were related to at all. ‘Hello. The revolution stops right here at the bedside.'”
While the sexual strikes, which lasted several weeks, weren’t a total success on their own, they played a clear role in heightening tensions within the organization and generating some of the conditions for substantive change. Lysistrata-style strikes aren’t just things that happen somewhere “out there”; they’ve taken place right here along with countless other forms of resistance to racist sexism in our colonial antiblack world. Such stories need to become more commonplace so that young people today have more inventional resources, what some of us rhetorical scholars call touchstones, to stylize modes of resistive engagement in our present(s) and future(s).
Do readers know of any other examples of Lysistrata-style strikes in the U.S.? Feel free to reply on Twitter or Facebook and/or leave them in the comments, here.