History Content for the Future

ICONIC STRIKES #2: Sex Strikes as Myth and Reality

‘Lysistrata’, a play written by Aristophanes and first performed in Athens around 411 B.C, tells the story of a sex strike where Athenian wives deny their husbands sex until the Peloponnesian War is ended.

Sex strikes are not only made up or mythical though; there are accounts of similar events happening through history. For example, the Igbo people of Nigeria had a type of trade union for the women of the community during pre-colonial times. This council had the ability to call for women’s strikes, refusing to perform domestic, sexual and maternal services if they or any fellow women were being harassed or abused. They would sometimes leave the town, bringing only the babies still being nursed, in protest.

There have also been a number of modern day sex strikes on a smaller scale. Just during the past 15 years they have been organized in Colombia, The Philippines, Togo, and South Sudan.

One of the most notable modern examples is the 2003 Liberian sex strike, carried out as a part of non-violent protests. The actions of the women involved led to peace in Liberia, ending a 14-year long civil war, and also resulted in the election of the country’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. One of the main architects of the protests, Leymah Gbowee, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”.

Women’s sex strikes are almost always protesting violence, conflict, or war; used as a means to achieve peace.

Detail of ‘Ionian Dancing Girl’ by John William Godward, 1902 – Courtesy of Art Renewal Center