Love will tear us apart

Jamie Johnson and Helena Peacock debate whether women should participate in the proposed sex-strike against US abortion law.

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Following Georgia limiting abortion to the first six weeks, in effect making it illegal, Alyssa Milano has called for women to participate in a sex strike. The actress and #MeToo activist tweeted “Until women have legal control over our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy”. Should women join this strike, or are its effect more damaging than helpful for their cause?

Yes: Jamie Johnson

We should not understate the significance of recent developments in Georgia. American lawmakers have found and successfully implemented a work-around to Roe v. Wade, the main protection of women’s choice in America since the 1970s. Measures to decrease the number of weeks after which abortion becomes illegal to six is an effective ban for many women.

Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez noted this week that six weeks amounts to a full menstrual cycle plus two weeks. Many women will pass the threshold without even knowing they’re pregnant. This is an assault on the rights and dignity of women that comes as part of a broader problem. The problem of having a man like Donald Trump as president. The problem of having abuse perpetrated systematically by men in positions of power. The problems of limited freedom and unlimited violence that regularly cause women misery across the world.

The potential solutions to this are a constant talking point whenever women’s rights are threatened. Potential legal changes, potential changes in the workplace or even in our political systems themselves are regularly proposed, and of course are often valuable. But the solution proposed by Alyssa Milano is a novel one, and at least in principle worth considering. She argues that ‘until women have legal control of our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy’.

This so-called ‘sex strike’ seems radical, but the principle behind it is a sound one. Men have no right to sex, to use a women’s body in any way and so in that sense there is every right to act this way. Moreover, men in general bear some collective responsibility for these laws; not only are men disproportionately responsible for making these laws, but for voting in the conservative lawmakers who push them.

But more fundamentally, political constraints of this kind which are regularly placed on women are only ever the consequence of patriarchal structures all men are, to a greater or less extent, complicit in. The ‘sex strike’ is, on the most basic level, a universal punishment and potential vector for change. But more than that, it could function as a symbol of change, of the power women have even in societies still dominated by men.

And of course, the practical implications of this kind of shift being adopted widely are hard to predict. The coverage would likely be negative in many instances. Moreover, the increasing trend towards political polarisation within romantic relationships, which in other words means conservative women are more likely to date conservative men, means that the actual impact might be limited. But in reality, of course, a symbol needn’t alter views all on its own – the main problem in modern day America, as in many places, is one of awareness.

All too often, we turn a blind eye to the suffering of women and the consequences they face at the hands of ill thought out or straightforwardly cruel changes in our political system. If this strike can address that wrong, even if it’s only partially, that is worthwhile.

No: Helena Peacock

It was in an ancient Greek comedy, written almost two and a half thousand years ago, that Aristophanes’ Lysistrata encouraged the women of the Greek city states to renounce all sexual pleasure until the men ended the bloody conflict of the Peloponnesian War. The women were frustrated by decisions being made without their contribution, frustrated that their voices were not being heard. In May of this year, Georgia became the sixth U.S. state to sign a ‘heartbeat’ bill into law which effectively banned abortion outright. The response, surprisingly, recalled that of the ancient Athenian woman, with actor Alyssa Milano assuming centre stage and proposing a sex strike of her own: ‘Until women have legal control over our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy’ she wrote, ‘join me by not having sex’.

Milano indirectly invoked Lysistrata’s ancient actions, but she does not, it appears, acknowledge any problem with utilising literally ancient practices, borrowed from societies in which women’s voices and actions outside their roles as domestic and sexual objects were, undeniably, deemed irrelevant. However well meaning, she inadvertently recalls a time when such reduction was unapologetically commonplace, and subscribes to the misogynistic idea that a woman’s contribution to society must be purely sexual. She demands respect, but only for a woman’s sexual capabilities. The person, the voice, is ignored. The strike fails to recognise that our power is not one derived from or confined to our reproductive organs.

Suggesting that women exist solely to engender sexual pleasure in men, the sex strike demands that we reclaim control of our bodies, while simultaneously refusing to see that part of that control should encompass sexual autonomy. Sex is framed as something to which women are subjected. Such characterisation is demeaning to both parties, and structures sexual engagement within a dangerously heteronormative framework.

Feminist activists have long fought, and continue to fight, for the acknowledgement that sex does not exist solely for male pleasure and women can be and want to be active participants in sex. They have been able to rewrite the false narrative that men are like the desperate chorus of Aristophanes’ comedy, baying at the gates of the Acropolis, threatening to raze it to the ground if their needs are not satisfied. Such a victory should not be so easily relinquished.

So yes: reclaim our legislatures from the men who dominate them and who seek to tear our hard won liberties from us, reclaim the bodies upon which they infringe, reclaim our right to choose – but not like this.

Alyssa Milano knows that ‘the stakes are never higher than right now’, but she must utilise the privilege of her position and her platform to transcend the superficial and enact genuine change, to protest, to demonstrate, and even to strike, but not to tell women to refrain from having sex until abortion laws are changed. She must demand that those in power transform the stage on which we are forced to perform. It is nonsensical to sacrifice autonomy of one kind in order to gain another; we deserve both.