In Lysistrata, that bawdy old Greek comedy, scantily clad women fed up with the Peloponnesian War lured their warrior husbands home, then slammed shut the bedroom doors, so to speak, promising to open up when peace was declared.
This week, writing a chapter about women’s use of sex strikes, I learned that, ever since Aristophanes’ heroine proposed the idea in 411 B.C.E., women around the world have occasionally withheld sex or childbirth for the purpose of making an impact on society.
Hysterically funny on stage, it’s not always so funny in real life. Here’s a sampling of actual Lysistrata experiments:
● 1530, Nicaragua — Indigenous women proclaimed a “Strike of the Uterus” after the Spanish governor established a slave trade, vowing to prevent children from being born into slavery.
● @1600, Iroquois Nation — Noting that they produced the warriors, women threatened to forego childbearing until men conceded some decision-making powers on the war council.
● 1919, France — Feminist socialist Nelly Roussel called for a “Strike of the Wombs” to counter post-war pro-maternity propaganda.
● 1940s, China — When women in one village were denied suffrage, the Women’s Association declared a sex strike. A second election was soon called, and women were allowed to vote. They promptly elected a woman as deputy village head.
● 1979, West Germany — On Mother’s Day in Lower Saxony, over 1,000 women joined in a nationwide antinuclear campaign, pledging not to bear anymore children until the ruling powers give up nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.
● 1985, India — In New Delhi, female students at St. Stephens College vowed to avoid relations with men until the end of the semester, to protest harassment and frequent “panty raids” by male students.
● 1986, Finland — Women collected 4,000 signatures on a petition announcing, “No Natal for No Nukes” promising to withhold sex until the government of Finland changed its pro-nuclear policies.
● 2001, Turkey — Women in rural Sirt endured months of inadequate water supply, forcing them to wait in long lines at a fountain. Fed up, they declared, “No water, no sex” and called for a Bedroom Boycott. The men soon petitioned the local governor for assistance and got the 27-year-old water system repaired. (Movie still: “Absurdistan” — see below.)
● 2003, Liberia — In a successful campaign to end a 14-year civil war, Leymah Gbowee led a coalition of Christian and Muslim women in a variety of nonviolent tactics, including a sex strike.
● 2003, Global — As the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq, Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower organized the “Lysistrata Project: The First-Ever Worldwide Theatrical Act of Dissent.” On March 3, there were 1,029 readings of Aristophanes’ play in 59 countries — a megaphone for antiwar protest. Unfortunately, no one in the Bush administration was listening.
● 2006, Colombia — Proclaiming a “strike of crossed legs,” women in Pereira withheld sex to stop gang wars and drive home the point that violence is not sexy. The ten-day strike may have worked. By 2010, Pereira’s murder rate declined by 26.5 percent.
● 2009, Kenya — Thousands of Kenyan women called for seven days of chastity to force the President and Prime Minister to talk with each other, speed reform, and end months of stalled negotiations. WIthin a week, the leaders talked.
● 2011, Philippines — Women in a sewing cooperative on rural Mindanao Island were unable to sell their wares because violence between men in rival villages had closed the main road. They called for a sex strike. Within a few weeks, the road was opened and deemed safe for travel.
● 2011, Togo — Inspired by the successful nonviolent campaign by Liberian women in 2003, Togolese women vowed to abstain from sex for one week to protest the 45-year military rule of the Gnassingbé family, their use of torture, and the lack of human rights. It took courage to publicly condemn the ruling family, but the sex strike had little impact beyond making headlines.
● 2012, USA — The Texas-based Liberal Ladies Who Lunch set up a Facebook page urging women to withhold sex for a week, not as a weapon against men, but as a reminder that “if women lose our hard won rights to medical care, birth control, and pregnancy choice, it won’t only affect women.” The strike proposal was made somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but the demand that congress and insurance companies cover contraception was serious.
● 2014, Japan — A website threatening a sex strike against men who voted for Yoichi Masuzoe, reportedly received 75,000 hits a day. Despite objections to his misogynist comments, Masuzoe was elected governor of Tokyo.
● 2014, Ukraine — After Russia annexed Crimea, Ukrainian women went online to launch the “Don’t Give It to a Russian” campaign, encouraging their sisters to say “Nyet!” to having sex with Russian men. They wore T-shirts bearing a logo of two “praying” hands held to resemble female genitalia. The group’s Facebook page immediately got over 2,300 “likes” and made headlines in Russian newspapers.
To Go Deeper
Musical & Theatrical Sex Strikes:
Modern adaptations of Lysistrata include the Western musical The Second Greatest Sex (1955), another musical The Happiest Girl in the World (1961), and Broadway’s recent sports-themed musical Lysistrata Jones (photo). While literary and theatrical treatments of the story are almost always comedic, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia rock band song “Lysistrata” concludes with the refrain, “I won’t go to war no more.”
The 2001 Turkish sex strike inspired two modern films. The 2008 award-winning German-French comedy Absurdistan, directed by Veit Helmer and filmed in Azerbaijan, tells about two young lovers in a remote Soviet village, caught up in a sex strike for repair of a water pipeline. Absurdistan (2 min trailer)
The 2011 French film, The Source, directed by Radu Mihāileanu, is set in a small Arab village in North Africa, where women go on a “love strike” to protest their hard labor carrying water from the mountains. (2-minute trailer)
Real Life Sex Strikes:
2011, Philippines — Women’s sewing collective in 2 villages used a sex strike to stop men from fighting and open a much needed road. “Sex Strike Brings Peace” (3.5 minutes United Nations film)
2011, Colombia — News report on women’s “crossed leg strike” to demand a useable road after a woman and her baby died in labor because the ambulance couldn’t get to her. The report also touches on other recent strikes. (4.5 minutes)
2003, Liberia — Clip from Pray the Devil Back to Hell, about the sex strike in Liberia (1 minute)
2009 Kenya — News report about women’s 7-day sex boycott protesting poor leadership and demanding a national discussion of crucial issues. (2 minutes)
Featured poster by Shayna Pond for the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma’s theatre arts production, March 2013
Lysistrata meets The Graduate by okhanorhan for the Dawson Theatre Collective, March 2012