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Thursday, Sep 6, 2012, 3:13 pm

Sex Strikes: Is This Feminist?

By Rebecca Burns

Just when it seemed that, in the age of Occupy's decline, activism was no longer sexy, women in Togo last week announced that they were launching a “sex strike” to force the resignation of President Faure Gnassingbé. The female wing of the organization Let's Save Togo, a coalition of opposition and civil society groups, hoped that by calling on women to abstain from sex with their husbands or partners for one week, they could highlight the urgency of the human rights situation in the west African nation. The same family has ruled Togo for four decades, and the organization is protesting reforms that they say will make it easier for Gnassingbé to once again win reelection in October.

The one-week strike is now winding down, with little apparent effect as of yet. But it's sparked ire from some feminist commentators understandably unsettled by its implications.

Jen Thorpe, editor of the popular South African feminist blog, told the Daily Maverick:

[The sex strike] reinforces the idea that sex is an instrument. In South Africa sex is used as a weapon via rape and sexual violence. I think narratives that say 'We'll take your sex' or 'We'll take sex away' reinforce that sex is an acceptable transaction point in an effort to achieve a particular end. And it reinforces problematic narratives about women who withhold sex for whatever reason, suggesting that they're doing it to control men. These are some of the narratives we hear in sexual violence culture to legitimate rape.

All of this is true. The problematic idea that sex starts wars, or that withholding sex can stop wars, has been around at least since the ancient comedy Lysistrata, which portrays a group of women “striking” in order to end the Peloponnesian war.

But similar strikes have also been used to push for legal abortions in Poland and improve conditions in rural Colombia that made childbearing dangerous—actions in which women dramatized their ability to withhold not just sex, but reproductive labor, unless the conditions of that labor were improved.

Here's the other thing about sex strikes: it's doubtful that they're primarily about the sex, or lack thereof. A single week of abstinence hardly seems sufficient to make hardened dictators and their cronies cry “uncle.” (Though western media outlets end up perpetuating both racist tropes and shallow politics by inevitably quoting your average, oversexed Togolese man who thinks that this time, the women have just gone too far). Instead, a sex strike is one way for women to exercise power by invoking the social roles that have been proscribed to them—not a far cry from the movement of mothers in Argentina that in the 1970s began donning mourning garbs and appealing publicly to be reunited with their disappeared children.

This is still a controversial strategy for women's movements, because it requires them to defer to traditional gender roles: they're merely grieving as mothers, or they're merely trying as wives to get their husbands to take notice. What criticism of the sex strike misses, however, is that whether to work within these gender roles or to challenge them outright is frequently a strategic choice—and one that women working in broader political and social movements have long had to negotiate.

Togolese activists cite as inspiration the sex strike that women in Liberia undertook as part of a broader campaign to end the civil war that raged from 1999 to 2003. Leymah Gbowee, leader of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, wrote in her memoir that the sex strike was primarily a media strategy that “had little or no practical effect.” But after organizing women to pressure their husbands and partners privately, the Liberian movement successfully mobilized mass meetings and public sit-ins, and eventually raised funds to travel to the site of stalled peace negotiations in Ghana. There, the women proceeded to surround and barricade the building so that the warlords inside could not leave until a peace deal was finished. Their eventual victory is chronicled in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

Though the Togo sex strike has been praised by nonviolence trainer Daniel Hunter as a refreshing counterpoint to the tired protests taking place at the RNC, it ultimately doesn't make much sense to evaluate the strike on its own. As the “occupy” meme loses its resonance, it’s tempting to search for the next tactic that will recapture the spotlight. But I'd echo here what Bhaskar Sunkara has written previously on Uprising–that fetishizing tactics often overshadows tougher questions about how to build the organizations that can successfully employ them. It also tempts us to try to arbitrate whether or not the individual actions taken by women's movements are "feminist enough," rather than, as Sarah Leonard called for recently in Jacobin, considering how they relate to the broader struggle to end sexist oppression and make all women’s uncompensated labor visible. 

On that note, here's what Let's Save Togo say themselves, in an editorial in the Guardian:

Why a specifically feminine action in response to an issue that affects us all? Because Togolese women are more affected by poverty. They must keep the pot boiling, feed their husband and children who, in disadvantaged communities, remain dependent on them for a long time – especially as unemployment is rampant and the price of food staples is soaring. What are our demands? We asked for the release of those who have been arbitrarily arrested and held in appalling conditions in overcrowded prisons following peaceful demonstrations organised by our Collective. We also want to awaken the national and international community to our plight – too often, they pretend not to see Togo's inexorable descent into hell.


Rebecca Burns is an In These Times assistant editor based in Chicago, where she also covers labor, housing and higher education. Her writing has also appeared in Al Jazeera America, Jacobin, Truthout, AlterNet and Waging Nonviolence. She can be reached at rebecca[at] Follow her on Twitter @rejburns

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