men, masculinities and gender politics

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Sex strike! (Is the way to a man’s brain through his penis?)

Last week the media picked up on a story about a female political activist in the west African country of Togo who was calling for women there to stage a “sex strike” until the government agrees to release several political activists who were arrested during recent protests.

Isabelle Ameganvi is the woman who called for the strike. At a public rally she said:

"I am inviting all women to observe a one-week sex strike, fasting and prayers to set our arrested brothers and husbands free. So all you ladies have to keep the gate of your 'motherland' locked up to all men from Monday up to Sunday!"

According to CNN, Ameganvi was “inspired by Liberian Nobel laureate and current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2003 called on women in her nation to observe a sex strike to press for peace amid a raging war."

A long of history of women collectively saying “no.” According to Wikipedia, calls for female “sex strikes” have been relatively common throughout history. In modern times, in addition to the recent action in Togo, female “sex strikes” have occurred in Colombia in 1997, in Liberia in 2003, in Kenya in 2009, in Italy in 2011, and in the Philippines in 2011. The reasons for these sex strikes have had to do with community safety (often concerning warring factions of men who refuse to stop fighting) or with addressing government corruption.

The “sex strike” exists in ancient European cultural history, as well. In 411 BCE the Greek playwright Aristophanes staged a production of Lysistrata, a play about a woman who engaged the other women of Greece to withhold sex in hopes of ending the Peloponnesian War.

A sex strike? Really? I find these instances of women collectively deciding to withhold sex from men – in order to accomplish goals that themselves are not at all sexual – fascinating. After all, issues of community safety, responsive politics, and an end to warfare do not seem (at first glance) to be linked to what happens in the bedroom. And I think that the concept of a “sex strike” says a lot about our modern approach to sexual relations between men and women, and speaks volumes about just what men who live in patriarchal societies (including our own) tend to value in women.

As I read about these strikes, I wondered just how it is that human sexuality has become so warped away from what it should be naturally. So far from what it could be. How is it that sex – that most natural of biological acts, something that should be as natural as eating and sleeping – has become so heavily freighted with politics and other cultural baggage?

Ideally, sex should be about pleasure. About the joining together of people in ecstatic communion. Utterly thrilling moments of unbridled passion in the arms of a new lover. Or, in the context of a longer-term relationship, a physically and spiritually transcendent way of re-cementing an enduring bond of great love between two people.

So, what’s politics got to do with it?

Well, it turns out that in a patriarchy, male supremacy inserts itself into everything. Including sex.

(The presumption of heterosexuality. Of course these public calls for sex strikes assume that everyone engages in sexual activity in a hetero way. That men only have sex with women, and women only have sex with men. Obviously this is not true. But it is true that the majority of people do regularly only have sex with someone of the “opposite” sex, so a sex strike by women toward men could have an impact on most of a society – at least for a little while. And it might just be an effective way to get hetero men to finally pay attention to women’s demands.)

The link between political life and sex. While the actual urge to have sex does not seem to be any stronger in males than it is in females, research does tend to support the notion that the frequency of a woman experiencing sexual desire is often linked to the perceived quality of her day-to-day life. In general, a woman who is more satisfied in life is more likely to want to have sex more often.

And if life isn’t going especially well, or if a woman is feeling overwhelmed by the duties associated with childcare and/or other work (either inside or outside of the home), or if she is troubled by something going on in her relationship or in her world – like if the men in her life are behaving badly – then she may be less likely to feel sexual. Stress, exhaustion, despair, and frustration can all work to diminish a woman’s sex drive.

(Want proof that the immediate environment has an impact on female sexuality? Just ask the makers of Viagra, who have finally given up their intense search for a pill to make women more likely to want to have sex. Surprise! Surprise! It turns out that you can’t actually medicate the reality of a woman’s life in order to make it any better! And we all know that the drug company did not surrender their search for “female Viagra” before giving it absolutely their best shot!)

One area of frequent disconnection between a lot of men and a lot of women is that when life feels overwhelming or stressful, many men will pursue sex, while many women will run from it.

Is the way to a man’s brain through his penis? The main message of these public calls for a female “sex strike” is that women feel that things are not going well – and that the men are not listening. The women feel like the men are behaving badly, that they are screwing up the social environment, and the women feel a need to find a way to bring men’s attention to the fact that change is needed.

It is often said that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” But is it also possible -- in our patriarchal context where men all too often just ignore women’s voices -- that the way to a man’s brain is through his penis?

The American tele-shrink “Dr. Phil” McGraw talks a lot about the idea that we all have “a currency.” That we all have something that we value, that we are willing to work for or trade for. Something that will make us behave ourselves in order to ensure that it is not taken away.

It seems like the sex strikers have come to the realization that when men ignore women’s words and actions, another way of getting our attention is called for. And when it comes to women, the only currency that a highly patriarchal male cares about is access to their bodies. Take that away, and you get his attention pretty damn quick!

Eight easy ways men can avoid a “sex strike” -- and promote empowered sexuality. I have to say, I find the idea of a “sex strike” kind of sad. For two reasons. First, we all deserve to be having great, consensual, age-appropriate, super-hot sex. (Unless, of course, you happen to be someone who is asexual, in which case a sex strike would make little difference to you.) But the rest of us all deserve to have sex that completely blows our minds and knocks our socks off! Sexuality is such a beautiful gift -- it is such a terrible shame to leave it unopened. And, second, a “sex strike” suggests that our current patriarchal ideology has warped things so, so far from the easy, natural ecstasy that should define human sexuality.

But I have given this issue some thought, and I think that there are eight things that we heterosexual guys can do to try to reduce the chances of encountering a sex strike, whether it be on a personal level or on a community level:

First, don’t be a jerk. The main reason that these groups of women have gone on “sex strike” is that the men in their lives are behaving really badly. Despite women’s protests, the guys are still engaging in corruption, being irresponsible, and doing really stupid things like killing each other. It’s pretty tough to sleep with a guy whose behavior disgusts you. So, guys, if you want to avoid being “cut off” from sexuality with women, clean up your act!

Second, ease women’s load. We need to lighten women’s burdens. This can be both on a personal and a political level. Throughout most of the world, the expectations that we place on women are almost unbelievable. Women work during the day (either inside or outside the home) to provide and care for their families. And once the sun sets, they do most of the cooking and cleaning and childcare as well. In most hetero households it is the woman who is primarily responsible for organizing and enacting all of these activities of daily life. And in the war-torn regions of the world, it is most often the women who are left to pick up the pieces. After being raped. After watching their children die. It is women who are forced to bear witness to the devastation that we men have wrought.

If you want women to have energy left for sexuality -- and to even feel like being sexual -- then work to ease their load.

Third, listen to women. These women cutting men off from sexual access to their bodies is a form of protest. Frustrated by trying other ways of communicating with men (only to be continually ignored) they use sex strike as a tool to try to get men’s attention. For far too many of us men, we only notice that something is wrong, that our partner is not content, when things in the bedroom grind to a halt.

We men can pay attention. We can “get it” – when we believe that we have an incentive to do so. A number of years ago a study was published called When it pays to understand. In that study, men (who typically are lot less good at accurately reading other people’s emotions than women are) were paid on the basis of the number of times they correctly identified the emotion being conveyed to them. Suddenly, when they were being paid, the men were just as able as women to correctly identify how other people were feeling. When they were paid, they did very, very well. When they felt that they had an incentive to perform.

Women who stage sex strikes have discovered that men who won’t listen to women about anything else will listen to women if they get cut off sexually.

That this tactic seems to be effective – at least in getting men’s attention – doesn’t say very good things about men. But maybe it says just what needs to be said.

Fourth, support women’s sexual empowerment. If we want to take the politics out of sex, we need to work to empower women sexually. Because in a world where women and men have different levels of permission to claim, to experience, and to celebrate their sexuality -- where we continue to have a sexual double standard wherein a “promiscuous” man is a stud and a “promiscuous” woman is a whore -- sex can never be divorced from politics.

And our current ideas on women’s sexuality remain a lot more ideological than they are scientific. A lot of claims get made about women’s “natural” sexual state. But these assertions are driven as much by our cultural sexual double standard as they are by any “hard” science.

Claim: Men are aroused by visual stimuli while women are not. This notion is cited as an explanation as to why so many men use porn while so many women do not. But couldn’t the real explanation have to do with the fact that the images that are presented in pornography typically have a strong male bias? (And what about the fact that a lot of women do find sexual images arousing? What about the fact that at a lot of women do use porn?) So, are women aroused by visual sexual stimuli or not? It turns out that some women are, and some women aren’t! (What a shock!)

Claim: Women are “naturally” monogamous while men are not. First, it is impossible to try to distill what any human being would be like in some hypothetical, culture-free, “natural” state. Humans have never existed in that “pure” state, and we never will. So, as it stands now, just what can we conclude about women being monogamous? The research is increasingly showing that… drum roll, please… yes, some women are monogamous, and, no, some women are not monogamous! (Quelle surprise!)

Claim: Women’s sex drives are lower than men’s. Again, that’s true for some women, not for others. Some women have very high sex drives. Some women have very low sex drives. Same thing goes for men.

Claim: For women, good sex only occurs in the context of deep emotional connection. (The implication here is that women who want to have “no-strings-attached” sex are “nymphos” or “sluts.”) But what if women are a lot more complex than that? What if the very women who typically crave sex only in the context of a deep emotional connection occasionally find themselves wanting something that’s just downright superficial? What about the occasional urge to just get laid and be on their way? Human beings are very complex beings. Let’s not box ourselves in. It has never been asserted that only one kind of sex works for men. So why would we make that same assumption about women?

Claim: Certain sexual behaviors mean that a woman is a “whore.” In order to achieve true sexual parity between women and men, we need to eliminate the whole concept of whore from our language – and from our thinking. Women should be allowed to be as sexually active as they want to be. Just like men. Without judgment. Just like men. Without condemnation. Just like men. And without any name-calling. Just like men. If women want to have numerous sex partners – or just a few, or none at all – what’s the big deal? After all, we have been allowing men these same freedoms for millennia! The attempt to control women’s sexuality is directly related to women’s historically inferior status as chattel -- as being the property of men. It is time to give women their freedom.

Fifth, fight for women’s access to birth control and reproductive choice. It is an unfair reality of human existence that girls and women bear a disproportionate impact for the consequences of heterosexual sex. Girls and women are the ones who get pregnant. And for women to be empowered sexual beings, they need to have ready access to controlling their own reproductive lives. They need easy access to birth control. And if an unwanted pregnancy occurs, women need the ability to exert executive control of their own bodies and to choose the path they will take.

Sixth, supply your own condoms. Do not leave responsibility for contraception and preventing sexually transmitted infections just to women! Because of the “semen depositing” that we men do, females are more likely to contract a sexually-transmitted infection from a male than a male is from a female. But you don’t want to get one, either. So, protect her, protect yourself. Supply your own condoms. And use them.

Seventh, we need to lower the level of sexual trauma that women are exposed to on a nearly daily basis. An essential part of women’s sexual empowerment is the creation of a sexually safe existence for women. For healthy egalitarian sexuality to exist, we need to eliminate the sexually abusive things that occur around us every day. Things like indecent exposure, unwelcome propositions and leers, street harassment, sexual harassment in the workplace, and all forms of unwanted touch, sexual assault, and rape.

Human sexuality will never become politics-free so long as sexual violence continues to serve the larger socio-political agenda of keeping women subordinate to men.

Eighth, don’t be a jerk. Finally, don’t be a jerk. I know, I know, I said that already.

But it bears repeating.