Abortion, America and a history of #sexstrikes

Re-sisters: “I’m calling for a #SexStrike. Pass it on,” tweeted Alyssa Milano this month. © Getty

Earlier this month, the movie star Alyssa Milano suggested that women go on a #sexstrike in response to new laws restricting abortion in Georgia. But is it really a good idea?

“Our reproductive rights are being erased,” the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted on 11 May. “Until women have legal control over our own bodies, we just cannot risk pregnancy. JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back.”

It has been retweeted 15,000 times, and sparked a global debate about the effectiveness of a sex strike.

Milano — who is also a vocal supporter of the #MeToo movement — was responding to new laws restricting abortion in the US. This month, Georgia became the fourth state to pass a “heartbeat bill” which bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Alabama passed a law which made it illegal for doctors to perform abortions at all unless the mother’s life is in danger.

The laws are designed to be challenged in US courts. The idea is that they will eventually make it to the Supreme Court. This will give judges the chance to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision which legalised abortion across America.

“This flood of anti-abortion legislation is completely outrageous and an equally bold response is required,” argued Milano in a piece for CNN. “A #SexStrike is another way for people who have the potential to get pregnant to call attention to this systematic onslaught, and assert the power to change our own destinies.”

A sex strike is not a new idea. In fact, it is ancient. The Greek comedy Lysistrata was first performed in 411 BC. Its eponymous heroine convinces the women of Sparta and Athens to withhold sex until their husbands agree to end a 20-year war. They are eventually successful.

In the 1600s, Iroquois Native American women boycotted sex until they were allowed a say in whether to go to war.

More recently, Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize after she convinced women to campaign for an end to Liberia’s civil war in 2003, in part by suggesting a sex strike.

It was unclear whether Liberian women actually participated, just as it is unclear whether US women are forgoing sex. But the threat was useful in “getting people’s attention”, Gbowee explained later.

Strike out

So, could a sex strike help to reverse the abortion bans in America? Many have ridiculed the idea, from both sides of the argument. Anti-abortion campaigners point out that a sex strike will ultimately mean fewer abortions overall. Meanwhile, feminists have argued that it perpetuates the idea that women only have sex for men, or to make babies.

The lawmakers banning abortion are already trying to control women’s bodies, argues Milano. Why shouldn’t women take back that control in order to make a point? Besides, the aim is not the strike itself, but the attention it has brought to the issue. In that sense, it has already been a success.

You Decide

  1. Is a sex strike a good idea?
  2. Is abortion wrong?

Activities

  1. When does life begin? The “heartbeat” laws are based on the premise that it begins when the first flutter of a heartbeat can be detected. Some argue that it begins at conception; others say it starts at birth. Discuss as a class.
  2. Which other countries have bans on abortion? Choose one and write a fact file on the country and its laws surrounding the issue.

Some People Say...

“I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born.”

Ronald Reagan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision protects a woman’s right to have an abortion, but it is up to individual states to legislate on the specifics. For now, women can still get abortions in Alabama and Georgia — the new laws will not come into effect immediately, and are likely to be blocked by the courts as unconstitutional anyway.
What do we not know?
Whether the Supreme Court will decide to reconsider Roe v. Wade in the near future as a result of these new laws. If it did, we also do not know what the judges would decide. Although the court has a conservative majority, that does not automatically mean they want to remove abortion protections. According to a recent poll by Politico, about 55% of Americans are in favour of upholding Roe v. Wade.

Word Watch

Six weeks
This is the earliest point at which doctors can detect the beginnings of a heartbeat in a fetus.
Roe v. Wade
The decision was made based on the 14th amendment to the US constitution, which protects the right to privacy. The judges ruled that this gave women the right to choose to have an abortion without government interference, effectively legalising abortion across America.
Lysistrata
The play was written by Aristophanes. “Until the 20th century, it was considered too raunchy to be translated into English by any but the bravest translators,” writes classics scholar Donna Zuckerberg in The Washington Post.
Iroquois
A group of Native American tribes from Northeastern America. At the time the men decided whether to go war with other tribes, so women restricted their access to sex, as well as supplies like food and clothes. The men eventually gave them veto power over war.
Liberia’s civil war
This was the African country’s second civil war, and it lasted from 1999 to 2003. The women’s non-violent peace movement also helped to elect Africa’s first female president.

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