Quick hit: Sex strike as a political weapon

The women of Togo have been called to withhold a sex from their husbands and partners for one week in protest to the power and policy of the current regime:

“We have many means to oblige men to understand what women want in Togo,” Ms. [Isabelle] Ameganvi, leader of the women’s wing of the coalition, told the BBC.

She said she had been inspired by a similar strike by Liberian women in 2003, who used a sex strike to campaign for peace.

Some context: Togo has been ruled by the same family for over 40 years. Recent measures by President Faure Gnassingbe, son and successor to Gnassingbe Eyadema (who ruled Togo for 38 years prior to his death in 2005)
to electoral policy, which the broad coalition of civil activists groups and believe will ensure Gnassingbe to ‘reelection’ in the upcoming October presidential election. Amegavni, inspired by the 2003 month long sex strike by Liberian women to end their civil war conflict, hopes to induce political activism to agitate change in Togo.

I can’t help but be incredibly intrigued by this campaign. In America, I wonder if we could engage in such direct political action. GOP legislators have such a vested interest in what we can and cannot do with our bodies (whole factions within the GOP with their moralizing arcane worldview about choice we can make with our bodies). Could we call for a week long sex strike to encourage men to support (even call their respective congressmen and women) to advocate for our constitutional protected right to choose? To demand exceptions be eliminated from the law? To push for the return of sex education in public schools without an abstinence-only mandate? To make HPV vaccines available to all young girls?

Some in Togo are doubtful that they can abstain for a week. The Liberian women strike was unsuccessful but drew media attention to the cause. Could a campaign like this ever work in America? Could we employ a sex strike to agitate for responsible policy for the health of women?

[photo via AP]

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam Lindsay-Levine

    Here in America, this would be a completely anti-feminist reinforcement of the misogynist view of women as desire-less sexual gatekeepers, who men should interact with solely by giving them something they want as a market transaction in exchange for sex.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mighty-ponygirl/ Mighty Ponygirl

    Sex strikes unfortunately operate on the premise that only men want sex, and that women will simply withhold something that men want until we get what we want. This glosses over the fact that women have their own sexual agencies and desires.

    And like any strike, a sex strike needs to have a very clear goal that can be achieved in a short period of time. It can’t be about “advocacy” or “awareness raising.” You can’t have a sex strike with even a remotely ambiguous goal–“To make HPV vaccines available to all young girls” is ambiguous in a country with a private health care system. A constitutionally protected right to choose might require women go on sex strike for a lot longer than a week or two. And it has to be for a seriously important issue because it’s the Big Red Button of activism.

    Finally, and most importantly, everyone must be on board, because the idea of withholding sex is about creating an uncomfortable atmosphere in the hopes of changing minds and policy. This means that if a vast majority of women must not only agree with your position, but feel strongly enough about it to be willing to sacrifice their own sexual happiness for what might be an indefinite period of time (unless you’re just doing a sex strike for a limited period of time, which is not going to be effective). If you’re advocating for issues that are seen as purely “feminist” issues (and I say this with love), then you’re not going to get average women to jeopardize their happiness and relationships over it, and they have to be able to connect it back to sex and reproduction. In the original Lysistrata, the women were so fed up with the war that they refused to have sex because their bodies were being used as instruments in the war they disagreed with (they were creating the soldiers that were going off to die). The women need to have something very obvious as a reason to hold up their resolve, and not something tangential that they can totes support with their girlfriends, but then throw out the door once they’re behind closed doors. Similarly, if you only get a portion of women who feel strongly about something on board, you’re unlikely to change a lot of mens’ minds, because first of all, those women are already partnered with similarly-feeling men, so really it does little more than punish the good, and second of all, there will be a bunch of gender traitors (think coulter and cupp) making sure everyone knows that the women advocating these policies are a bunch of shrews who hate sex and hate men, not like good conservative women who know their place.

    Ultimately, sex strikes won’t work in the US because we are too fragmented and individualistic, everyone sees themselves as a special exception, and we don’t have a strong enough organizational tool for it. As far as I was concerned, when the late term abortion ban was signed, I saw that as a perfect time for a sex strike because this was literally “ok ladies, having sex could now kill you if you get pregnant and something goes wrong, so let’s shut it down until the legislators get it through their skulls that this isn’t their territory.” But too many women saw it as Not Their Problem (because they were good girls, because they had good genes and a history or healthy pregnancies, etc). It would take something really bizarre and fucked up to make women in the US seriously consider a sex strike, and that’s not going to happen overnight, and we’ve proven we’re basically frogs in a pot of water on issues of reproductive rights.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kcar1/ kcar1

    Considering the rate of voter participation, I doubt that we could get the critical mass necessary to make it work. Add to that the self-sorting that we do, it is likely that those men (it seems somewhat beside the point for most same-sex couples to participate) most directly affected by the sex strike would also be the men most supportive of policies supporting women’s health, comprehensive sex education, protection for the right to choose. Whereas the men who are apathetic probably have partners who are also apathetic/unengaged and men who are actively opposed have partners, I mean wives, who are also opposed.

  • http://feministing.com/members/antitype/ The Antitype

    Yeah… I’m gonna go out on a limb and say no, North American women could not pull a sex strike off.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kellyt89/ Kelly

    I would hope that in America, anyone who a woman would or would not be having sex with would be in consensual terms. My boyfriend and I agree on most political/ethical issues and I would hope that women would have the same situation (and if not, a sex strike would just be more physically and emotionally dangerous for them)

  • http://feministing.com/members/dantsen/ Daniel

    I can only reinforce what the other commenters have said.

    Treating one’s body and sexuality as a bargaining chip is EXACTLY what these foul people expect of women already. It’s playing into the disturbingly prevalent image that women don’t have sex because they want to, because they have the right to, but because it’s their one source of power over those randy menfolk.

    Also, the idea that this is about individual women against individual men is highly oversimplistic. I’m sure Todd Akin’s wife does not give a damn about feminism, or if she does, she has no power to say so. On the other hand, if I were ever in a relationship with someone who felt they had to “go on strike”, rather than be able to talk about the issue and have us come to an agreement, I don’t think that’s a relationship either of us should be in.

  • http://feministing.com/members/merhair/ Merideth

    I think it’s important to remember the extent to which we are all viewing this as Western Feminists. A sex strike in Togo, just like the 2003 sex strike in Liberia, is not about witholding sex from men because women do not enjoy sexual intercourse, that women do not have their own sexual desires etc. In the case of Liberia which I admit to knowing much more about than the current situation in Togo, women were realistically looking at a horrific situation which was killing the people and soul of their country by asking themselves what power as women do we really have?
    If you are not allowed in government, if your opinion in culture is not valued, if your vote does nothing, one must be realistic about what will work. We are looking at an entirely different culture that I think it’s safe to say none of us know much about. A woman’s body is seen very differently in West Africa than it is in the United States. Women also bear breats to protest, this is not used as a distraction but a way to remind male politicians (or whomever is being protested) that they are mothers, and that these men came from mothers, and that they must be respected.
    Before you complain about, disregard, or disrespect a culture and the different ways in which they protest a political regime that you know little about research the meanings behind the protest that you are arguing against. Do not simply apply your Western Feminism to a situation in which it does not connect to.

  • http://feministing.com/members/robbieloveslife/ Robert

    A sex strike wouldn’t work in the US. There are a lot of men (even married ones) that don’t get sex anyway so that wouldn’t affect them. Most guys would just turn to porn or Asian massage parlors until women got bored and let guys in again.