Like it or not, in the war on women’s reproductive rights, women are the first and only casualties. That was made clear again this week when draconian legislation known as the ‘heartbeat bill’ gathered pace in a growing number of states in the US, including Ohio, Georgia and Alabama, which last night passed a near-total abortion ban.
The legislation blocks abortions once the foetal heartbeat is detected in the womb – as early as six weeks – and criminalises the use of abortion as a felony. It is an outright overturn of the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court Roe v Wade decision, which gave women the constitutional right to safe and legal abortion.
In response to this, actress and activist Alyssa Milano tweeted for women to go on a ‘#SexStrike’. In an op-ed for CNN, Alyssa later argues that:
“laws restricting abortion rights and access are a targeted attempt to erase decades of hard-fought gains for women’s autonomy. 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.”
You know what? I get it. In war all bets are off and you bring every tool, advantage or power at your disposal to beat your opponent into submission. I don’t oppose the sex strike but while I nod my head to Alyssa and applaud those women signed up to a sex strike, I don’t think it will work.
If the intended goal of the sex strike is to generate widespread discourse, content-driven debate and garner media attention then it is totally on point and well done. But if it is to quash the rising tide of conservative anti-abortion legislative control of women’s reproductive rights, then it will have little or no practical effect.
Lysistratic protests have been known to succeed but in my view only in controlled contexts such as in Dado, Philippines to end violence and bring peace during a UNHCR sponsored sewing cooperative in 2011; to end Liberia’s second civil war in 2003; and in Barbacoas, Colombia to get a road in an isolated town paved. The same intuitive elements that unified the women to act and the men to respond don’t exist in the United States, which makes it a non-conducive environment for a successful sex strike.
Here’s why. The Milano #SexStrike needs the collective power and participation of most, if not all, heterosexual American women for the targeted heterosexual men to experience a practical impact. As long as other women provide an alternative access for sex to these men, there will be no practical impact. Denying men who have no say or influence in the anti-abortion legislation while the legislators and donors who do are not subject to a sex strike by their wives, mistresses, side-chicks, husbands, boyfriends or whatever else means there will be no practical impact.
However, the bigger issue is the unleashed fury and disgust from feminists who see the sex strike as primitive or regressive, and perpetuates the long-held patriarchal perception of women as sex objects. Dissenters go as far as saying that it is hypocritical, since those in favour of a sex strike argue that abstinence is unrealistic as a way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Others don’t like how it gives the perception of women as passive participants in sex, while some feminists are totally against the idea of sex as a tool to be wielded or withheld for political gain. The mixed reaction reveals deep divide within the feminist movement on what is an acceptable means of fighting the patriarchy, and to get women’s voices heard.
Is sex a powerful tool? Yes, it is. But we know that the control of our reproductive rights isn’t about sex – it’s about power. As a pro-choice black feminist and women’s rights activist, I’m also conscious – and deeply concerned – that the enforcement of these oppressive laws policing women’s reproductive rights will be disproportionately enforced against black women and minorities. In fact, there’s no doubt in my mind that this will be the case.
Sex is not the ultimate tool and power at our disposal to combat this war on women’s reproductive rights. The most effective and impactful tool is our economic power – hit the balance sheet and economic growth of businesses in the respective US states and there will be an immediate practical impact. Commercial power is what men and institutions crave and respect, take that away from them through strikes, boycotts and withdrawal of business and they’ll come crying on bended knees.
Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu is a lawyer, political and women’s rights activist and founder of Women in Leadership