The Original “Sex Strike” Was a Farce and This One Is Too

A Classics scholar on the pitfalls—and potential—of basing your activism on "Lysistrata"

Photo by James MacMillan on Wikimedia Commons

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata was first staged in Athens over 24 centuries ago, yet its famous plot has cast a long shadow. In the play, an Athenian woman named Lysistrata organizes a Panhellenic league of wives and successfully convinces them to deny their husbands sex until the men agree to end the protracted Peloponnesian War. This heavily absurd—yet still quite amusing—comedic plot resurfaces periodically (in both life and art) as a genuine call to action. Its latest incarnation is Alyssa Milano’s attempt (on Twitter and in a subsequent op-ed) to rally American women to a nationwide sex strike. Her call came in the wake of Georgia governor Brian Kemp signing a fetal “heartbeat” bill that would essentially outlaw abortion in the state, which was shortly followed by an Alabama law that bans abortion outright, including in cases of rape or incest. These laws have as their ultimate goal the toppling of Roe v. Wade.

Why, women wondered, should we adopt an abstinence approach that anti-abortion advocates would gleefully commend?

Critical responses to Milano were swift to come. Pro-choice feminists rightly criticized the exclusive focus on heterosexual, cisgender women and men to the exclusion of LGBT+ voices, and the (ironic) framing of heterosexual sex as female labor in service to male pleasure. Why, many women wondered, should we give up something we enjoy and adopt an abstinence approach that anti-abortion advocates would (and did) gleefully commend? The strike also defies logic insofar as women are not a homogeneous group—these abortion bans have the support of many women, especially white conservative women, who will have no qualms about crossing this or any picket line. (In fact, most of the men who would need to take action against these laws would likely see little effect from such a strike.) Women sponsor these bills and indeed sign them into law.

Such shortcomings and oversights are in fact already present in Lysistrata’s sex strike—as part of its comedy. The play’s plot has to make some convenient and rather glaring omissions that do not accord with well-documented practices of ancient Greek sexuality. In a city famous for its male homoeroticism and its pederastic relationships, why can the husbands not simply have sex with young men? Classical Athens was also a slaveholding society, and a man had full sexual access to his slaves, whether men or women—but enslaved people are curiously absent from the play. Prostitution, moreover, was perfectly legal, and sex workers—often themselves enslaved and trafficked—would have had virtually no agency to refuse.

Sex with one’s legitimate wife was in truth only one of an array of sexual options that men—at least free citizen men—had. In the courtroom speech Against Neaera, written about 50 years after Lysistrata, the speaker Apollodorus carefully demarcates wives from other women whose sexual use is primarily for enjoyment: “Prostitutes we keep for pleasure, concubines for daily attendance upon our person, but wives for the procreation of legitimate children and to be the faithful guardians of our households.” The idea that men would be pining away sexually for their wives and only their wives is fanciful and, when staged in comedy, highly amusing—as are some of the logical leaps that have to be made to make sense of Alyssa Milano’s sex-strike.

In Aristophanes’ play, the strike is a patent absurdity—it is the stuff of comedy.

In Aristophanes’ play, the strike is therefore a patent absurdity—it is the stuff of comedy, a plot device meant to spill us out of our seats with uproarious laughter. Its absurdity defines its genre; there is a ludicrous, impossible idea at the heart of nearly all Aristophanic comedy. In Peace, the Athenian farmer Trygaeus rides a gigantic dung beetle to Olympus to urge the gods to end the Peloponnesian War. In Birds, a clever man named Peisetaerus founds a bird city in the sky and becomes the new Zeus. In Ecclesiazusae, the women of Athens (gasp!) take over the Assembly and thus political control of the city. The idea that women might similarly take control of their bodies and their sexuality speaks to the topsy-turvy world that ancient comedy performs before setting it right.

As a literal roadmap for 21st century activism, Lysistrata’s sex strike falls short. The play in fact endorses stereotypes about female sexual license that are still invoked by anti-abortion activists. In this view, women are so hypersexual that they can barely restrain themselves from fucking irresponsibly at every turn—they require patriarchal control. This is why, after the women have sworn oaths to abstain, Lysistrata does not let them go home to arouse their husbands with sexy lingerie (the original plan) but instead leads them behind the barred Acropolis. She must keep them away from their men, and even then they hatch plans to escape. As Lysistrata says of the women, “I’ll make it short: they’re dying to get laid.” Much of the play’s humor arises, as the Greeks would have seen it, from watching women attempt to maintain sexual self-control and men, thought to be more disciplined, lose theirs.

This basic premise about the essential unruliness of female sexuality permeated ancient Greek thought and life. It explains why the lives of (especially elite) women were often spent in seclusion within the women’s quarters of the home—this wasn’t to protect women from the outside but to protect the outside from women, whose sexual voracity could lead them into liaisons with off-limits men. A woman who acted on her sexual desires threatened the authority of her husband within the household and the state. In a city wherein citizenship was passed down through both the mother and the father and naturalization was nearly unheard-of, the female womb was subject to intense regulation.

Such fears about female sexuality also motivate many of those opposed to abortion rights today. Their constant advocacy of abstinence-only education and their high valuation of female sexual purity treats abortion as fundamentally a byproduct of women’s dangerous libidos. They constantly suggest that if women would just stop having promiscuous sex outside of wedlock (especially premarital sex), there would be no need for abortion. This is why Milano’s recommendation to abstain gave abortion opponents cause to celebrate, if only mockingly.

In Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata is only successful because she herself exhibits no sexuality at all. She makes no mention of her own husband, and she vocally affirms the play’s stereotypes of women: “Oh, what a low and shameless race we are! / No wonder men write tragedies about us.” She is most likely a human embodiment of Athena herself, the famously asexual virgin goddess and patron deity of Athens. Both Athena and Lysistrata are exceptions to the presumed sexual lawlessness of women—as such, they are in fact gendered as masculine. The play’s male ambassadors hail Lysistrata, for example, as the “manliest” of women.

Rather than affirm the positive potential of female sexual agency, the play repeatedly upholds the notion that women’s desire must be checked by masculine control. Lysistrata’s sex strike ultimately fails to offer real strategies women can adopt today to assert their right to make decisions about their own bodies, and in fact the play echoes long-standing arguments that they should not have this right at all.

There are famously two plots in Lysistrata, and we need to be paying attention to the second.

And yet the play is by no means devoid of lessons for those seeking to empower women politically. They just require us to look beyond the sex strike plot, a gimmick that exists chiefly to elicit laughter. There are famously two plots in Lysistrata, and we need to be paying much more attention to the second, the takeover of the Acropolis.

This second plot is more deeply political, i.e. tied to the inner workings of the polis, the “city.” Aristophanes is perhaps the most political poet from Greco-Roman antiquity, and concerns about war, class, law, and justice permeate his comedies. He knows that for the women of Lysistrata to attain real power, it will take much more than a sex strike. It will require women to organize and take over political realms traditionally controlled and guarded by men. The play offers a lesson in concerted political action.

When Lysistrata takes her fellow conspirators to the Acropolis, it is not only to keep them away from their husbands. It is also because the Acropolis is the center of male monetary power. It is where the treasury is located, which is needed to fund the ships required for the continuation of the war. Asked by a (male) city magistrate why she has occupied the Acropolis, Lysistrata replies, “Confiscation of the money: / thus we put a stop to war.” The sex strike is only one front in a complex plan put in motion to strip official power from the men and put it in the hands of women. As Lysistrata tells the magistrate, “War is strictly for the women.” This alludes to and corrects the magistrate’s earlier use of a saying going all the way back to Homer’s Iliad: “War is strictly for the men.” Lysistrata has effectively overturned a longstanding pillar of masculine control, and she did not need to bargain with sex to do so.

Another realm of male power the women must seize is that of official speech. Throughout the Greco-Roman world, political speech was coded as masculine—women simply had no right to it at all. Only male citizens could speak in the Athenian Assembly, and in fact it was not acceptable for respectable women even to be named in most public situations. Lysistrata’s sex-strikers are aided by other groups of women who are not involved in the strike at all, particularly the city’s female elders, who form half of the play’s chorus and interact again and again with the male elders that make up the chorus’s other half. Their chief point of contention is not sex, but speech: “How’d you like to have your mouth shut?” the men ask. “Two or three punches ought to do it.” The women in turn assert their right to give the city “good advice” and cite their civic and religious contributions as giving them this right.

If sex is one prong in Lysistrata’s plan, it is because she aims to take over all the spheres that men traditionally control.

The traditional silencing of women is also central to Lysistrata’s own complaints to the magistrate: “All along we kept our silence, acquiesced as nice wives should…although we didn’t like it.” But now she has turned the tables on the men: “Want to hear some good advice? / Shut your mouth the way we used to, / let us save you from yourselves.” If sex is one prong in Lysistrata’s plan, it is not because she simply wants to make the men lose their minds with desire, but because she aims to take over all the spheres that men traditionally control—money, war, speech, and sex. And time after time these usurpations elicit male outrage and backlash.

Lysistrata in fact reveals how vigorously those benefitted by patriarchal systems will oppose women who defend their right to take part in the political process. In order to effect change, Lysistrata and her allies must challenge these patriarchal systems on multiple fronts, not through the sex-strike alone. This is true of all of the sex strikes often cited to prove the tactic’s efficacy. One well-known example, whose ties (or lack thereof) to Lysistrata have been nicely examined by Classicist Helen Morales, is the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, organized in 2003 by Leymah Gbowee to end the Second Liberian Civil War. Crucially, this involved not only a sex strike but also a series of non-violent protests by a coalition of Muslim and Christian women. Their actions were effective and helped to usher in the first female head of state in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. As Gbowee would later state, “It took three years of community awareness, sit-ins, and nonviolent demonstrations staged by ordinary ‘market women’….The sex-strike had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.” In the end, it was concerted and wide-ranging intervention by women into the political sphere that affected real change.

What Lysistrata can teach to modern feminists is the urgency of getting progressive women into official corridors of traditionally masculine power. The Georgia ban would have gone nowhere were the governor’s office occupied by Stacey Abrams, whose razor-thin loss likely resulted from a series of massive voter purges orchestrated by her opponent, Brian Kemp, who as Georgia secretary of state oversaw the very election in which he was a candidate. In Georgia’s state senate, 33 of the 56 members are white Republican men, and Republican Renee Unterman was the only woman to vote for the abortion bill. While it is undeniable that conservative white women are helping to enable the abortion ban in Alabama, it is also true that the 25 Republicans who voted for it in the state senate are all white men. Women must loosen the grip of power these men have on state legislatures—and in Georgia it is women of color (who make up 8 of the 13 female Democrats in the state senate) who are especially taking up this challenge.

A more fitting way for women and the men who support them to be inspired by Lysistrata is not to dive into a nonsensical sex strike but to contribute to those organizations that aim to get progressive women candidates elected, organizations such as Emily’s List, Emerge America, Run for Something, the DLCC, and Higher Heights for America. A more fitting way to be inspired by the play is to recognize that money is power and to contribute to the organizations doing the hard work on the ground. A more fitting way to be inspired by the play is to speak up in support of women’s rights rather than stay silent as these rights are chipped away and, perhaps more importantly, to listen when women speak about their reproductive experiences. To quote the play’s chorus of women, “We bear the children and deserve our say.”

But we must also know where to draw the line between the present and the past. Lysistrata may hold lessons for our time, but it is not a play of our time. It assumes patriarchy as the status quo, and once peace has been brokered between the warring (and comically ithyphallic) Athenians and Spartans, the women are again silenced and relegated to the domestic sphere, while male sexual prerogatives are restored. Lysistrata’s last words enjoin each of the men to “take his wife and go on home.” She then simply vanishes, while the men bombastically celebrate for over 130 more lines. The workings of the ancient theater also expose the actions of the play’s women as a clear dramatic fiction. Since women did not have the right to perform in public in Classical Athens, the play’s indelible heroine and her female allies were all performed by men. The protests Lysistrata makes against the silencing of women were authored and spoken by a man. The staging of the play reassured the audience (who were most likely all men) that their political power ultimately remained unthreatened.

The play posits provocative and pointed questions to those worried about threats to women’s rights today. Will we too see so much women’s progress wiped away? Will the old status quo reassert itself here as well? Where will the backlash to women’s political achievements lead? Who will have the last word of this act? I do not yet know the answers to these questions, but I do know that those working to disempower me are far more threatened by my vote and my voice than by anything I do in the bedroom.

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