Alyssa Milano's sex strike plays right into the hands of misogynists
The activist’s proposal dances perilously close to the argument that if women could only stop having sex for pleasure, we wouldn’t need to terminate pregnancies at all
I don’t usually believe in a hierarchy of oppression, or putting one struggle ahead of another when they’re ultimately aiming for a common goal of gender equality. But there is one exception. One issue so grossly misogynistic, cruel and dangerous that it matters more than everything else – and that is the rollback of abortion rights.
This is a global concern, with right-wing political parties in countries including Spain, Poland and Ecuador recently gaining momentum in the race to legislate away women’s rights to their own bodies. But it’s the US leading the way.
Because this topic is so viscerally vital for so many women, I understand why, in the heat of the moment, Alyssa Milano got it so wrong.
Her disastrous tweet was posted in response to the grotesquely named “heartbeat” law which was passed in Georgia last week. It banned abortions after six weeks (before many women even know they’re pregnant) and threatens women with life in prison should they get an abortion any later. Milano films her Netflix show Insatiable in Georgia, so has a personal tie to the state which just betrayed women in such an unthinkably dangerous way.
But her solution was all kinds of flawed. In a tweet posted on Saturday, she urged the women of Georgia to go on a “sex strike”, refusing to have sex with men until women’s bodily autonomy is returned.
Almost immediately, she was called out for her suggestion, with women pointing out that actually they enjoyed having sex, and it seemed problematic for them to be expected to give up something they want to do in order to protest against something that is done to them. It’s almost like the puritanical monsters trying to control our vaginas and our wombs would win.
Milano seemed deaf to criticism though, doubling down in her responses, saying things like: “We have the power of choice before pregnancy. I’m going to exercise that choice”, “it’s just too dangerous to have sex with men nowadays”, and “be super careful. Sex is extremely dangerous for women.”
While it’s true that women who don’t have sex with men may be less likely to require abortions, Milano isn’t really offering a pragmatic solution to the problem of misogynists in congress trying to force us to have children. She’s suggesting that women refusing to have sex is in some way a protest, akin to workers striking for higher pay or fairer conditions, withholding their labour because they are not being adequately rewarded for it and pressuring for change because their collective bargaining power is so much stronger.
This is not a case where people coming together will have an impact. Women are not about to achieve the power of 1970s trade unions any more than we can bring Lysistrata to life. To suggest this as a solution is not only misguided, but also dangerous in itself.
The analogy fails to acknowledge the possibility that women derive any standalone pleasure from sex – something feminists have been fighting until very recently to even have acknowledged by the social and medical establishment (the clitoris was essentially erased from female anatomy until 1998).
Women still struggle to advocate for their own autonomy, consent and pleasure when it comes to sex with men. They’re still constantly judged on their sexual appeal to men. The idea that all women’s power lies in their sexuality is one of the most pervasive evils of a patriarchal society – and this is exactly what Milano is reinforcing.
She also ignores the reality that anti-abortion laws affect us all, including LGBT+ women who don’t have PIV (penis-in-vagina) sex with cis men; including women too young to get pregnant, postmenopausal women, trans women or women medically unable to conceive for any reason.
It also ignores sex workers – who cannot go on a sex strike if they want to pay their rent – and women in abusive or sexually coercive relationships for whom saying no could be life-threatening. As long as our political structure allows men in power to force women’s bodies to do what they want, we are all in danger, regardless of whether we are directly affected.
Perhaps most importantly though, Milano’s sex strike narrative dances perilously close to that of anti-abortionists who argue for abstinence-only education (which we know categorically does not work) and claim that if women could only stop having sex for pleasure, we wouldn’t have any abortions.
If we begin to argue that women have it in their power to not need abortions, it naturally follows that those who do should be perceived as responsible for their indiscretions, and punished for them.
Some women get pregnant as a result of rape, and others because a condom broke, or they were drunk and couldn’t be bothered to use one. None of these women are more deserving of abortions than others, but Milano is flattening out this reality, and presuming that every woman’s experience is akin to her own, leaving other less privileged women out in the cold to deal with the consequences of a high-profile feminist saying that if women just kept their legs shut we wouldn’t be in this mess.
It’s hard to tell if Milano truly believes that this sex strike would make a difference or whether she’s being facetious to make a point. If it’s the latter, there are plenty of other thought experiments around how sexual politics could affect our attitudes around female reproductive freedom. My personal favourite is the suggestion that for every unwanted pregnancy, the sperm-haver should be forced to have a vasectomy – a procedure which is safer and has much less of an impact than giving birth.
If it sounds extreme to you to think that men should have to give up their rights to do what they want with their genitals and to choose when they want to have kids, simply for making one mistake – good. That’s exactly the point. Vasectomies are the absolute best way to lower abortion numbers, if that’s really want we want to achieve.
And in an overpopulated world, this would actually be helpful to society, as opposed to the puritanical obsession with forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, which hurts literally everyone involved – the men, the women, the healthcare system, the environment and the foetus.
But while the people in power continue to be men, women’s bodies will always be perceived as objects for men to enjoy, control and discard at their will.
I applaud Milano for using her platform to speak up about this issue, but there is a danger when a high-profile person makes a huge statement without thinking it through. We don’t want young people who look up to her growing up believing that sex is transactional, that women withholding it is the only way to achieve equality, and that not doing so is somehow a moral failing. This plays right into the hands of the people we should be fighting against.