History shows that sex strikes are a surprisingly effective strategy for political change

Image: AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In a recent interview with Marie Claire, singer Janelle Monáe called for a sex strike in the name of women’s rights. “People have to start respecting the vagina,” she said. “Until every man is fighting for our rights, we should consider stopping having sex.”

It’s not such a crazy idea: Women have withheld sex to protest social injustices and advocate for political reform throughout history. Many of these strikes have proven successful—even if Monáe’s idea would likely fail in the US.

Most people associate the idea of sex strikes with the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, in which women team up to bring about the end of the Peloponnesian War. But sex strikes have spanned hundreds of years and multiple countries. In 1600, for example, Iroquois women refused to engage in sex as a way to stop unregulated warfare. The tactic worked: They gained veto power concerning all future wars and paved the way for future feminist rebellions.

In more recent years, sex strikes have surged in popularity as a means to achieve political ends. In 2003, Leymah Gbowee organized a well-publicized sex strike to end Liberia’s brutal civil war. Not only did warlords agree to end the violence, Gbowee was later awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

Three years later, female partners of gang members in the Colombian city of Pereira withheld sex to demand civilian disarmament and a reduction in violence. According to the Global Nonviolent Action Database, the strike’s results were clear: Pereira’s murder rate fell by 26.5% by 2010, a huge accomplishment for a city that had a homicide rate twice the national average when the sex strike began.

Kenyan women followed suit in 2009, enforcing a sex ban until political infighting ceased. Within one week, there was a stable government. And in the Philippines, a sex strike led to peace in a violence-plagued Mindanao Island village.

This intimate form of protest has drawn criticism—namely, that women shouldn’t have to resort to sex in exchange for power. But there’s no denying that it produces results. (And yes, women should have access to other avenues of power, but systemic and institutional sexism often precludes this from becoming a reality.)

So why does Monáe’s call for a sex strike seem unlikely to work—especially on the heels of the overwhelmingly popular Women’s March and subsequent Day Without a Woman strike? After all, American women’s bodies have long been politicized—and legislated—so it seems fitting to leverage “pussy power” for political gain.

History tells us exactly why Monáe’s plan won’t work: The sex strikes in Liberia, Colombia, Kenya, and the Philippines had very specific demands. Conversely, Monáe’s proposed strike is for women’s rights broadly—which could mean anything from reproductive rights to equal pay to paid maternity leave to ending sexual violence. Without a concrete goal, sex strikes are unlikely to get results.

What’s more, it’s not clear how a sex strike would apply to queer women who don’t have sex with men—or, for that matter, how it would effect gay men who don’t have sex with women, or what “respecting the vagina” means for trans women.  It’s true that the organizers of the aforementioned sex strikes likewise focused on heterosexual, cisgender women—but these were localized efforts among community members who already had relationships with one another, as opposed to a broad national strike.

Calls to end misogyny and sexism will always be necessary—especially while we have a self-admitted “pussy grabber” in the Oval Office. But in order for a sex strike to succeed in the US, it must be inclusive, with a specific goal in mind. Otherwise, we’ll just be treading water.