Sex Strikes Through the Ages:
THE LEGACY OF LYSISTRATA
by Lucy Burns
When Aristophanes came up with Lysistrata's "happy idea" of ending a war with a sex strike, he used it in the same spirit that he would fly the lead character in on a dung beetle in "Peace": part of the fun of old comedy was the far-fetched plots. Audiences would have found the idea of wives refusing their husbands sex laughable. Greek men were justly famous for their homoerotic habits, and wives knew their place. Since then, however, times have changed. During the last century, a number of groups have rallied to Lysistrata's call, invoking her name and spirit in many ways. The most direct appropriation of the strategy took place in Colombia, at a violent moment in the country's drug wars. In October, 1997, General Mañuel Bonnet, chief of the Colombian army, appealed on national television to the wives and girlfriends of the Colombian left-wing guerrillas, drug traffickers, and paramilitaries. He urged them to deny sex to their menfolk until a cease fire was reached. At the same time, the mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus Civicas, declared the city a women-only zone for a night, suggesting men stay at home to reflect on violence. The Communists ridiculed these initiatives, pointing out that they numbered more than 2,000 females among their own ranks. Nonetheless, the measure, combined with democratic and diplomatic approaches, achieved a brief cease fire.
Last year, the women of the Turkish village of Sirt took Lysistrata's message to heart. They had spent years complaining about the lack of a decent water supply, but their men were lazy and the local planning office unhelpful, so in the summer of 2001, they went on a sex strike. "They won't be able to get into our bedrooms until water runs in the taps," said a spokeswoman: within days, the local council granted emergency planning permission and work on a new pipeline began.
Also in 1991, the prostitutes in the red-light district of Amsterdam went on strike to protest the handling of illegal immigrants working in the district. Unmoved, a spokesman for the city council pointed out that "illegal is illegal, and we can't make an exception for prostitutes."
In recent years, many groups have taken Lysistrata's idea of the "women's strike" less literally. The International Women's Day movement, for example, sponsors a Global Women's Strike on March 8 every year, encouraging women to follow the Lysistrata model to gain attention. The day's strike includes time off from paid or unpaid work, accompanied by different kinds of activism in over eighty countries world-wide. The strike aims to highlight how much of the world's work is done by women, and how much difference it makes when this contribution is withdrawn.
This principle was also employed in Iceland in 1979, in perhaps the most successful example of a women's strike. Described as the "women's day off," the day saw over ninety percent of the nation's women on strike. As most women worked athome, nearly every household felt the effects of the strike. This led to some of the world's first equality legislation, and four years later the head of the movement was elected president of the Icelandic Parliament.
One of the most desperate uses of the Lysistrata principle was the impromptu sex strike staged by Polish women. In 1992, a newly elected Catholic prime minister made abortions illegal for the first time since the 1950s: since contraception was not widely available in the country, abortions had traditionally been the most prevalent method of birth control. When this became illegal, birth rates fell dramatically: Polish women refused sex for fear of getting pregnant. Since then, an anti-clerical government has replaced the Catholic one, at least in part as a result of the pro-choice backlash.
Of all the invocations of Lysistrata in the modern world, the one closest to the spirit of Aristophanes was the strike staged by the wives of members of England's Marylebone Cricket Club. Since its foundation in 1787, the club had followed an official no-ladies policy, leaving wives to make tea and sandwiches outside the pavilions as their husbands played cricket. In the summer of 1990, female cricketers and cricketing widows refused to provide tea until they were allowed to attend matches. The strike continued in some quarters until the club overturned the ruling in 1999: however, as in all Lysistratan protests, the work of the activists was heavily undermined by strike-breakers.
Lucy Burns is an A.R.T. Literary Intern http://www.amrep.org/lysistrata/ages.html