Castmembers take the stage for the "Lysistrata Jones" curtain call at the Walter Kerr Theatre on December 14, 2011 in New York City. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)
Donna Zuckerberg is a Silicon Valley-based classics scholar and the author of “Not All Dead White Men.” She is editor in chief of the online classics publication Eidolon.

Actress Alyssa Milano this month called for an unusual response to the surge in state-level efforts to restrict abortion rights: Withhold sex to exert political leverage. Milano tweeted : “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. I’m calling for a #SexStrike.” An accompanying graphic said, “If our choices are denied, so are yours.” She followed this up with an earnest opinion article on CNN.com calling sex strikes “a longstanding, effective and empowering method to fight for change,” pointing back to the most famous literary depiction of such an effort, Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” a comedy first performed in Athens in 411 B.C.

As “Lysistrata” opens, the Peloponnesian War, pitting Athens against Sparta, has been raging for 20 years. The title character persuades the women on both sides to refuse to have sex with their husbands until they end the conflict. After a great deal of innuendo, teasing and debate, the men agree. At the play’s end, Lysistrata summons a naked female figure named Reconciliation, and the Athenian and Spartan delegates use her body as a metaphorical map of Greece to decide which hills and meadows each side will take (“We want the Megarian legs”). Lysistrata may have achieved her mission, but real-life Greece spent seven more years in bloody conflict.

Since then, sex strikes have sometimes reappeared in political history, often in radically different social circumstances. The play has been studied and performed for two and half millennia, but until the 20th century, it was considered too raunchy to be translated into English by any but the bravest translators. One (heavily redacted) 1837 version by Charles Wheelwright is prefaced with the disclaimer, “Lysistrata bears so evil a character that we must make but fugitive mention of it, like persons passing over hot embers.” An adaptation of the play by Gilbert Seldes in the early 1930s on Broadway drew intense police scrutiny, and when the production toured Los Angeles, officers stormed the stage to stop the show. A 1937 Federal Theatre Project production in Seattle was shut down after one day.

Now the play is among the most popular Greek dramas and has frequently been adapted and reimagined. Among the recent riffs were the short-lived 2011 Broadway musical “Lysistrata Jones” (college cheerleaders refuse to have sex with their basketball player boyfriends until they win a game) and Spike Lee’s 2015 film “Chi-Raq” (the wives and girlfriends of rival Chicago gang members go on a sex strike to end gun violence, under the slogan, “No peace, no piece”). 

As Milano mentioned in her CNN article, sex strikes have been attempted at various points in history, although evidence of their effectiveness is shakier than she lets on. She cites an effort by Iroquois women “in the 1600s” to stop “unregulated warfare” against other tribes, and a 19-day “crossed-legs strike” in 2011 in Barbacoas, Colombia, to get a much-needed road built, among other episodes. The idea comes up from time to time in the United States, too, most notably with the March 2003 Lysistrata Project protests against the Iraq War: More than 1,000 readings of Aristophanes’ play were performed on a single day worldwide to affirm the need for solidarity and peace. In the weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, writers Glennon Doyle and Wednesday Martin both proposed sex strikes as a way to shift the country’s politics to the left.

“Lysistratic protest,” as Milano called it, clearly has some problematic aspects. In 2019, American women can vote, raise money and run for office, so a sex strike seems like a particularly indirect, potentially self-punishing strategy. “Lysistrata is not an effective organizing tool,” legal analyst Imani Gandy tweeted in a response to Milano’s proposal. “Instead, [have sex with] whomever and support abortion funds.” And even within the world of the play, the conceit succeeds only if you imagine that men cannot get sexual relief from anyone except their wives, effectively erasing the existence of sex work and same-sex activity. It’s hard to call the play straightforwardly feminist, too, because in Aristophanes’ day, female characters were played by male actors, and the play’s humor revolves around erection jokes.

In an extended metaphor in the middle of the comedy, Lysistrata likens statecraft to weaving, as a way of explaining that women are well suited to politics. That was a progressive sentiment when women couldn’t vote. But it’s hard to see Lysistrata as truly radical when her mode of activism confirms and strengthens social norms about gendered behavior. That contradiction is even more evident in 2019: A sex strike rests on the premise that women are not full political actors and still need to exercise their influence through the domestic sphere.

Ultimately, the themes that make “Lysistrata” flawed as a model of feminist and pacifist activism also make it compelling as an artistic depiction of social mores. The play takes the way that men treat sex as a commodity and women as sexual objects to its absurd yet natural conclusion. I tend to think it’s funny and disturbing because it’s a dark mirror of patriarchal sexual politics, both ancient Greece’s and our own. We see ourselves reflected in the play, and we laugh — but we also cringe. 

A Lysistrata-style sex strike probably wouldn’t protect reproductive rights in Georgia and Alabama, but this won’t be the last time someone proposes the tactic in a contemporary political struggle. Sex strikes will retain their allure so long as women continue to be defined by their sexual and reproductive labor. And judging from the punitive abortion laws passing in several states, that reactionary view of women remains potent.

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