The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The #SexStrike wasn’t real. Why was there so much coverage?

Actress Alyssa Milano speaks at the State Capitol on April 2 in Atlanta after delivering a letter to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's office detailing her opposition to HB 481.
Actress Alyssa Milano speaks at the State Capitol on April 2 in Atlanta after delivering a letter to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's office detailing her opposition to HB 481. (John Bazemore/AP)
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In Aristophanes’s play “Lysistrata,” the eponymous ancient Greek heroine convenes women from across the Hellenistic world to forswear sex until such time as their husbands agree to end the Peloponnesian War. Along with some other drastic actions, the women’s sexual moratorium does eventually result in a peace agreement, and all ends happily, with pleased lovers grateful for their reunion, so to speak. Of course, “Lysistrata” is a comedy.

The humor was apparently lost on some, including television star Alyssa Milano, who tweeted Friday that she was “calling for a #SexStrike” in response to a new antiabortion law passed in Georgia. Milano advised women to forgo intercourse, as “until women have legal control over own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy.” “JOIN ME,” she said.

It isn’t clear that anyone ever did join Milano in refusing to join their lovers in bed, though she received some scattered support in a handful of tweets. The #SexStrike Twitter hashtag consists mostly of people furious about the very idea of a sex stoppage, or else people cheekily announcing they’ve crossed the picket line. In fact, it’s not even clear whether Milano herself has sworn off sex. In a Saturday interview with the Associated Press, Milano said her tweet was having the intended effect — “which is getting people to talk about the war on women.” When asked how long she plans to avoid amours, Milano replied that she didn’t know. “I sent a tweet last night,” she said, “I haven’t really thought much past that this morning.” 

Yet despite the lack of grass-roots support and the presence of much derision from Milano’s natural base of leftists and liberals (who, broadly speaking, appeared to find the idea ridiculous, insulting, regressive and vain), you have likely heard of Milano’s proposed sex strike as though it were a legitimate phenomenon. It has been especially (though by no means exclusively) well-covered in conservative media, with articles deriding the would-be effort appearing in National Review Online, the Washington Examiner, Fox News, the Federalist and many more.

Why would a strike with no clear purchase receive more media attention than genuinely organized strikes that have really happened, such as last week’s ride-hailing strike and April’s Stop & Shop strike? The answer to that question sheds light on the evolution of items of intrigue and outrage into genuine articles of fake news. In short, while some items of fake news become such because credulous people accidentally buy into intentionally fabricated stories posted online, others achieve fake-news status because it behooves certain media and political actors to pretend they are real, even if they aren’t.

Consider the apolitical media outlets that breathlessly released stories about the sex strike: What’s not to love, from their point of view, about a story that ties together incendiary political news, a Hollywood actress and a punitive sex fast? The words themselves are search-engine-optimization steroids, even if the proposed action at the heart of the story was never really intended or clearly carried out on any kind of scale.

But that’s just business. The other half of the equation concerns politics. For conservatives, the proposed sex strike provided a convenient reframing of the debate about Georgia’s new law, which seems custom-designed to escalate to a Supreme Court battle, by shifting the focus of the conversation to the outrage and sex lives of Hollywood celebrities. It’s easier — and a sight more entertaining — to argue about whether starlets ought to be indulging in intercourse than to attend to the ethical questions surrounding spending tax money to criminally investigate miscarriages. And no day on the Internet would be complete without a surfeit of posts guaranteeing that their authors would never dream of sleeping with any given movie star.  

All this ink and no sign of a genuine sex strike in sight: To trust the general bent of Twitter conversation about the suggestion, Milano’s proposal may have put more love in the air than anything else. But you wouldn’t know so from reading about it, because a sexual embargo led by a former “Charmed” star makes for better entertainment and political optics than the real grind of real politics in the real world, which is generally neither fanciful nor erotic. The entire ordeal demonstrates little more than the fact that fake news isn’t simply the province of misinformation or crossed wires, but also it’s a realm of intentional inflation of minor phenomena for reasons that are much more rational and much less innocent than Grandma getting fooled by an outlandish Facebook headline.

Read more:

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Jennifer Rubin: Abortion extremists make fools of Kavanaugh defenders

Paul Waldman: Republicans have stopped pretending on abortion

The Post’s View: The antiabortion movement has taken extreme — and unconstitutional — measures

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