Sex striking is a method of passive resistance, a form of peaceful protest, and something attempted by American Indians in the early modern era, First Wave feminists in Europe and America, Bolshevik women in the 1920s, Chinese women in the 1940s, and perhaps most famously, by the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace in the early 2000s. Sex strikes are an effective way for disenfranchised women to make their voices heard but they are a relatively recent phenomenon despite several click-baity articles which argue the contrary. So why are sex strikes portrayed as having a long history? Why don’t they? And why did they burst on the global scene in the 20th century? Is this a form of sisterhood that spans time and space? Or is it an instance of women buying into the patriarchal system? All this and more as we discuss history’s most famous sex strikes.

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Transcript of “No peace, No p*ssy”: Sex Strikes and the Recent History of Global Feminist Protest

Researched and written by Marissa Rhodes

Produced by Marissa Rhodes and Elizabeth Garner Masarik

Marissa: In most parts of the world women have, historically, been active agitators for peace during times of war and violence. Many movements built in opposition to violence owe their existence to women– think Women for Peace during the Vietnam War or the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom during WWI– even in contexts where they were excluded from official avenues of political power. At the same time, gender stereotypes, perhaps unfairly, have pegged men as aggressive warhawks, and women as peace-loving earth mothers.

Sex striking is a method of passive resistance, a form of peaceful protest, and something attempted by American Indians in the early modern era, First Wave feminists in Europe and America, Bolshevik women in the 1920s, Chinese women in the 1940s, and perhaps most famously, by the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace in the early 2000s. Sex strikes are an effective way for disenfranchised women to make their voices heard but they are a relatively recent phenomenon despite several click-baity articles which argue the contrary. So why are sex strikes portrayed as having a long history? Why don’t they? And why did they burst on the global scene in the 20th century? Is this a form of sisterhood that spans time and space? Or is it an instance of women buying into the patriarchal system? All this and more as we discuss history’s most famous sex strikes.

I’m Marissa.

And I’m Elizabeth.

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Elizabeth: Most official pacifist organizations date to the 19th and 20th centuries but women have been resisting war and violence since ancient times, and in all corners of the globe. They’ve resorted to hunger strikes, the taking of religious orders, self-imposed exile, and many other strategies. Perhaps the most controversial method of protest is the sex strike, sometimes called a celibacy strike, sex boycott, or birth boycott. During a sex strike, women organize around a cause and agree to refuse their partners sex until their demands are met. The most famous sex strike of all is a literary one– the story of Lysistrata [lice-iss-STRA-ta], written in the 5th century BCE by Aristophanes [air-is-STOFF-enn-eez]. Lysistrata has been plucked from the pages of Greek classical literature and used by feminists and pacifists throughout the centuries to force political change.

Marissa: Lysistrata was first performed in Athens in 411 BCE during Lenaia, a Greek festival dedicated to the god Dionysus. At this point in history, Athens and its allies (The Delian League) had been fighting Sparta and its allies (The Peloppensian League) on and off for 20 years.  We now know this conflict as the Peloponnesian War. The war had taxed the societies of all Greek-speakers but in the year that Lysistrata first hit the stage, Athens was in a particularly bad state. It had suffered massive military defeats, the overthrow of their democracy by an oligarchy, and then another political coup by the regime of Five Thousand. Aristophanes’s play was being performed for the first time to an audience that was fed up with war and political turmoil.

Elizabeth: The plot goes something like this. An Athenian woman, named Lysistrata, organizes a meeting with women from all the city-states of Greece. She convinces them to withhold sex from their husbands until both leagues agree to sign a peace treaty. She had previously arranged for a group of old women to seize and occupy the Akropolis, and as they hear the Akropolis being taken, they celebrate their oath with a sacrifice to the Gods. A group of old men try to smoke the women out of the Akropolis so they begin gathering wood but the old women foil their plans by pouring water all over the men.

Marissa: A naval commissioner arrives at the Akropolis to do business as

A black and white illustration of a woman with a breast revealed

Audrey Beardsley, illustration for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, 1896 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

usual and finds its taken over by angry old women. He orders Lysistrata and the old women to be arrested but the women successfully face and chase away the police. The naval commissioner tells the men of Athens that they’ve given their women too much freedom and Lysistrata begins a lively debate with him about the impact that the war has had on Greek women. She tells him t

hat Greek women have lost husbands, sons, and that women looking for partners have no men to marry because they are all fighting or dead. The women end this debate by dressing the Commissioner in drag.

Elizabeth: Over time, the sex strike takes a toll on the men of Athens. Lysistrata sees Kinesias [Kin-EE-see-us], the husband of Myrrhine [MERR-een], wandering the city with a giant erection, in search of his wife. She witnesses the couple’s conversation. Kinesias begs Myrrhine to sleep with him and to come home to him and his children. She holds her ground and tells him that she’ll sleep with him once there is a peace treaty between Athens and Sparta. He persists. So she pretends to give in but asks him to think about the peace treaty while she ventures into the Akropolis to get mats and things for them to lie on. She sneaks away, leaving Kinesias to suffer.

Marissa: Meanwhile a Spartan herald arrives, also with a painful erection. The Spartans, he says, are desperate for the sex strike to end and are ready to negotiate peace. As the delegations gather at the Akropolis, the results of the sex strike are hard to miss. All of the men have erections. Lysistrata brings a naked woman to the delegation as a distraction while she lectures the men on the shared heritage and productive relationship between Athens and Sparta. Rather than recoil in outrage at being lectured by a woman, the men feel powerless and agree to settled their disputes. Then everyone parties, and presumably has lots of sex.

The end.

Elizabeth: Now of course, this is fiction. The Peloponnesian War didn’t end for another 6 years after the performance of Lysistrata and the end had nothing to do with a sex strike. The Athenians and Spartans basically destroyed each other’s navies and suffered massive casualties until they had no choice but to lay down arms. But Lysistrata has, in recent history, been used as a sort of feminist guide to protest all over the world. Note that I said recent history, or more precisely the 20th century. Premodern examples are few and far between. The only stories we have come from indigenous American cultures. And even these examples don’t quite fit the Lysistrata example.

Marissa: Around 1530, native Nicaraguan women declared a “strike of the uterus.” There is very little information about this event but it does fit with the historical context. In the 1530s, the Spanish had settled in Nicaragua and were hard at work colonizing the Andes peoples (the Inca). The Spanish and Portuguese began setting up mines around south America, such as Minas Gerais in Brazil. At the same time, Nicaragua and Honduras had massive sedentary populations so the Spanish and Portuguese targeted those inhabitants as sources of slave labor to work in the mines. The local caciques participated in the expeditions to gather more natives for the growing trade. Anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 natives were captured, branded and exported to mines in Peru and Brazil. Many natives died from European diseases (as you’ll recall from high school social studies class) and even more Nicaraguans died performing forced labor on indigo plantations.

Elizabeth: Native Nicaraguans developed several resistance tactics, many of them were forms of passive resistance. So not taking up arms and going on the offense, but rather, they found areas of their lives that they could control and use against the Spanish. This purported strike of the uterus was a form of passive resistance. Nicaraguan women refused to give birth to children whose lives would not be their own. So they staged a sex strike… not with the goal of inducing painful erections in their men folk, but so that they could prevent pregnancy and their captives could not benefit from their reproductive labors.

Marissa: This is significantly different from the Lysistrata story because the Nicaraguan women were not targeting husbands, but rather, a colonial regime that was enslaving their children. Since they called this protest a “strike of the uterus,” we can be sure that the reproductive capabilities of their wombs were the focus of their attention. They wanted to stop births, not deprive their partners from sexual release. Since we have so little information about this strike of the uterus, we cannot be sure of its effectiveness. But it may have allowed for enslaved Nicaraguan women to exercise some control over how much they would participate in the regime that enslaved them. This is similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for celibacy in India in the 1920s. He argued that Indians were birthing children into the colonial system of enslavement (not quite the same kind of enslavement but these were the words he used), so he framed his celibacy campaign not only as a spiritual goal but as a way to undermine the British colonial agenda.

Elizabeth: The Iroquois example is somewhat more similar to the Lysistrata story but it still revolved around the reduction of births rather than the denial of sexual release for their menfolk. I suspect this story comes from Haudenosaunee [Ho-dehn-oh-SHO-nee] (what Iroquois actually called themselves) oral histories. Sometime in the 17th century, Haudenosaunee women began to resent the tolls that wars had on their societies. Traditionally, only Haudenosaunee men had a say in whether the tribe declared war on any neighboring tribes. So, Haudenosaunee women banned together and agreed to withhold sex from their partners until they were granted the power to veto declarations of war.

Marissa: Their boycott was doubly effective because they denied their partners the satisfaction of sexual release, but their strike also prevented the birth of new warriors. The Iroquois believed their women held special bodily knowledge about the miracle of birth (in some ways this is true?) so this staged sex strike was all the more threatening to Iroquois men, many of whom were looking forward to producing progeny.

Elizabeth: They were further indebted to their women because female labor produced the supplies needed for warfare: moccasins, corn stores and other apparel and tools. In a strategic move, the Haudenosaunee women bolstered the effectiveness of their sex strike by withholding the labor and supplies men needed to wage war successfully. So in some ways this was not only a sex strike but a labor strike as well. According to Haudenosaunee histories, the sex strike worked and from that point forward,  Haudenosaunee women had the power to veto declarations of war.

Marissa: Aside from the fictional Lysistrata, there is almost no evidence of a sex strike before modern history. There are several reasons for this. First of all, some women in history actually enjoyed sex just as much as men. Desire for sex, whether it was for pleasure, duty, or to conceive children was not exclusive to men. Historical women wanted all of these things as well. So any attempts at an organized abstention from sex would have been physically, mentally, and emotionally difficult for women. Just like it was for the poor Athenian men with painful erections. A sex strike might not have been something that many women wanted to do. It might have been too much of a sacrifice for some.

Elizabeth: This is probably one of the biggest problems with the concept of the sex strike. It assumes that men want sex more than women. And that women have some super-human level of sexual self-control that men just don’t have. This is a stereotype, one that probably resonated with many historical women, but still a stereotype, so it likely did not represent the realities of many historical women. Many historical women sought personal fulfillment in active sex lives with their partners and by enthusiastically welcoming the role of motherhood.

Marissa: That being said, women have historically been very successful at other forms of peaceful protest that involved incredible sacrifice and self-denial. So even if this is ONE reason why sex strikes are not historically common, it’s probably not the most significant reason. For that, we have to think about the various ways that people were gendered in past societies. This does not hold true for all times and places but in patriarchal societies, there were few times, and few places where women could safely withhold sex from their partners without risking rape, spousal abandonment, shunning, or legal sanction.

Elizabeth: Marital rape is a both an ethical and theoretical problem in patriarchal societies. And it’s one that we’re still struggling with today. In the United States, the criminalization of marital rape was determined by each individual state. It wasn’t until the 1980s that federal courts ruled in favor of wives who had been raped by their husbands and it was not until 1993 that all 50 states had re-written rape statutes to criminalize spousal sexual abuse. Marital rape has been a hotly contested issue for hundreds of years. As we discussed in our episode on coverture and also a bit in our episode on American marriage in this series, married women in England and America were considered property of their husbands. While maidens were considered property of their fathers. In medieval Europe, fathers could sue for monetary compensations if their daughters were raped. The loss of her virginity was a considerable financial disadvantage in a time when making a good marriage hinged on a young woman’s sexual purity.

Marissa: We won’t go into detail since we’ve covered this topic in other episodes but we want to add that the legal and social structures in most patriarchal societies were similar in this regard. In pre-modern Eurasia, India, African empires, and the rest of the Islamic world, wives were the legal property of their husbands. So their bodies were not their own. Women who have no bodily autonomy cannot be raped. In some ways, it’s theoretically sound. Despicable, but theoretically sound, that marital rape was, for millennia, not considered a crime. Only cultures with matrilineal structures or weak conceptions of property were exempt from this reasoning. This is probably why we know of sex strikes among indigenous American cultures. They did not necessarily view men and women as similar or equal, but they had very loose understandings of personal property. When land, and people aren’t viewed as personal property, everyone enjoys bodily autonomy. So an event like a sex strike is more acceptable and less dangerous for women in these cultures.

a book cover depicting a medieval painting of a woman writing in a book

The Book of Margery Kempe | Penguin Classics Cover

Elizabeth: Married women who withhold sex from their spouses were also risking spousal abandonment and shunning. These risks varied over time and space. The Catholic Church’s influence in medieval Europe, south America, and most of southwest Africa may have made the strategic withholding of sex easier for wives who lived here. Because of the influence of the Virgin Mary, Roman Catholic doctrine privileges sexual abstention, even within marriage. Celibacy was always preferable to sexuality, even sexuality legitimated by marriage vows. Margery Kempe, a medieval Christian mystic, abstained from sex for long periods of time, with her husband’s reluctant understanding. There were periods of her life when she herself desired sex or times when her Christian commitment to her marriage outweighed her desire to become a saint. They had at least 14 children. But she constantly struggled with her identity as wife and mother, and the calling she felt to be a chaste saint.

Marissa: The Protestant Reformation may have made withholding sex slightly more dangerous for wives in the Christian world. Protestants valued marriage and family life and encouraged married couples to enjoy active sex lives. In some ways, this was a positive change for female sexuality. Husbands were encouraged to develop romantic bonds with their wives and to please them in bed.  But this emphasis on marital sex made abstention difficult, if not dangerous. When Protestant wives withheld sex from their husbands, they were perceived to be not only bad wives, but also bad Protestants. The functionality of their marriage was an indicator of their state of grace. More liberal divorce laws allowed for the dissolution of Protestant marriages but most women were unable to survive without their partner’s income or social capital. Spousal abandonment, separation or divorce could quite literally kill them. The patriarchal economies of Protestant cultures, therefore, gave wives few choices when it came to withholding sex. Sex striking would have been impractical and almost unthinkable in these contexts.

Elizabeth: The priorities of First Wave feminists confirm that until the late 19th-century, a sex strike was inconceivable for most wives. Nineteenth-century women’s rights activists occasionally staged sex strikes in their struggle to obtain suffrage, temperance and other women-led reforms. But their attempts at boycotting sex magnified some of the personal, intellectual,and  structural limitations that prevented any sustained attempts at sex striking in previous centuries.

Marissa: In some ways, 20th-century women owe their ability to sex strike to the 19th-century radical feminists, the Free Love movement and anarchist Stephen Pearl Andrews (I know.. He’s a guy.. But we’re giving him the title of honorary woman because he was so badass). In his book Love, Marriage, and Divorce and the Sovereignty of the Individual, Andrews argues that what he called “the sovereignty of the individual” was an important aspect of improving the lives of all people. I’m going to read an excerpt because he says it better than I can.

a black and white portrait of a white bearded man

Stephen Pearl Andrews, ca. 1886 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

The third and last basis of the Family is the protection and maintenance of women themselves. Here again, it does not seem to me that the system in vogue, by which the husband and father earns all the money, and doles it out in charitable pittances to wife and daughters, who are kept as helpless dependents, in ignorance of business and the responsibilities of life, has achieved any decided title to our exalted admiration… their liabilities are terrible, and daily experiences are cruel in the extreme…The few who, despite the system, attain some development, are tortured by the consciousness and the mortifications of their dependency, and the perpetual succession of petty annoyances incident to it, of which their lordly companions, self-gratulatory for their own intentions of kindness, are profoundly unconscious… wives have the same motives that slaves have for professing contentment, and smile deceitfully while the heart swells indignantly, and the tear trembles in the eye. Man complains habitually of the waywardness and perversity of Woman, and never suspects that he himself, and his own false relations to her, are the key to the thousand apparent contradictions in her deportment and character. The last thing that the husband is likely to know, in marriage as it is, is the real state of the heart that throbs next him as he lays his head upon his own pillow. Woman, as well as the slave, must first be wholly free before she can afford to take the risk to speak freely. She dare not utter boldly her own complaint, and she will even denounce openly, while she prays fervently in secret for the God-speed of the friend who does it for her.

Elizabeth: So basically he’s saying that until women have autonomy, they can’t be their own agents. Every time they cook dinner for the family, have sex with their husbands, or bear another child, these things are done in a state of coercion. Because there are no other alternatives. If their bodies and their livelihoods were their own, they would have real choices in this world. This ideology was lauded by feminists like Victoria Woodhull– the focus of last week’s episode– Mary Gove Nichols and Marion Craig Wentworth.

Marissa: Nichols was a physician on the feminist lecture circuit in the 1840s and 1850s. She taught women the specificities of female anatomy and encouraged them to exercise autonomy within their marriages. During her first marriage, she suffered abuse and coercive sex that resulted in many difficult pregnancies, stillbirths and miscarriages. Andrews’s ideas resonated with her and she took up public activism and authorship for the rest of her life. Nichols was known for telling her women audiences that they had the right to their own bodies. She encouraged women to withhold sex from abusive spouses to avoid injury and establish their bodily autonomy within the relationship. She also asserted women’s right to withhold sex in loveless marriages, if they found themselves in that difficult situation.

Elizabeth: Nichols went so far as to challenge the institution of marriage altogether. In her 1845 book, she wrote:

“Ladies of the Women’s Rights Movement, you must look this question full in the face. When you demand Woman’s Rights, you demand the abrogation of… marriage. When you declare independence, it is independence of man in the relation of marriage. You can have no right until you assert your right to yourselves.”

Marissa: Now.. most 19th-century women were not ready to swear off marriage entirely. These activists were particularly radical. But Andrews, and Nichols were integral to the reframing of women’s bodily autonomy in their sexual relationships. As radical feminism developed and the 20th century came to be, groups such as the Women’s Social and Political Union contemplated the effectiveness of an organized sex strike. Writing in the 19-teens, Lucy Re-Bartlett praised what she called the “celibacy strike.” This is a quote from her book Sex and Sanctity:

And it may be that some recognition of this need [for a totally different womanhood] forms part of the great force which lies behind the celibate strike. First and foremost that the strike is positive in character, as has been said– it is a direct and indispensable preparation for the new and wider love. But it may be that in lesser degree it has also a negative mission– that it has to work not only as an appeal to the new and higher manhood, but also as a correction and instruction to the old. Against that purely physical valuation of women which amongst one type of man has reigned undisturbed for so many centuries, it may be that no such ‘speaking’ force can to-day be brought as woman’s voluntary celibacy. Let primitive men call such women ‘incomplete’ and abnormal if they will– they may still learn something from them. It is a new incompleteness which they are obliged to take into their consciousness, and in time the new picture may balance and correct the old. Woman purely mental will surely never command full reverence any more than women purely physical but  maybe she has got to have her ‘day’ ere woman complete may rise. And something of this is present, possibly in the hearts of many celibate women to-day, and even on its negative side, yields sanctity to the celibate strike.

Elizabeth: Marion Craig Wentworth was an American playwright and suffragette who wrote an immensely popular anti-war play called War Brides in 1915. In the play, a pregnant war widow kills herself rather than give birth to another child for a nation that required her sacrifices but did not grant her the right to decide its policies. The play was wildly successful and was made into a silent film the next year that made a $300,000 profit. So this was immensely popular stuff. Wentworth became a household name in feminist and pacifist circles. At the height of the play’s popularity, Wentworth was quoted as having said:

The sex strike of a million women would make war by the United States or any other country absolutely impossible. Women hold the gift of life in their hands and they have the right to refuse the gift if life is to be desecrated by war.

Marissa: We can see here that the concept of sovereignty of the individual developed during the 19th century women’s rights movement made sex strikes possible, and not just for 19th century white women. Despite their sophisticated ideology and their ability to export that ideology across the globe, American white women did not stage any systematic sex strikes. Yet, still, the radical feminist influence was a global one. We may struggle with this part, because I think historians generally see American hegemony as a bad thing. But there’s no doubt that these ideas about sovereignty of the individual and bodily autonomy of women were systematically exported to other parts of the world. Of course, these ideas are not white and American in origin but their development of feminist ideology at a critical time in the history of women was still an important event.  Only after this period, do we start to see the emergence of what one might call a tradition of sex striking among women across the globe. And by and large, the women who put these ideas into action were women who did not have the privileges enjoyed by American First wave feminists– many of them women of color.

Elizabeth: In Russia, the Women’s Liberation Movement had its historical moment quite early on. Communists were the first to embrace the feminist agendas of 19th century radicals. This strikes me as interesting because, once again, we see an association between the destruction of personal property rights and the liberation of women. Like the Haudenosaunee hundreds of years earlier and thousands of miles away, the Bolsheviks rejected the entire concept of personal property. This understanding that women could not ever be their husband’s property inspired a thriving Women’s Liberation Movement and allowed the Russian women in the province of Bryansk to stage an organized sex strike. The women of Bryansk were fed up with spousal abuse and their historical lack of recourse. They delivered the following address and publicly pledged to boycott sex with their partners until all the men in their province signed a contract which said they would treat women better. Here’s a tiny excerpt from the speech the movement leaders delivered:

We agree to work at home and be our husbands’ helpers, but demand in return that we shall not be given over to our husbands’ wills, that they shall not be so free with their hands, and call us such names as ‘old hag’, ‘bitch,’ and ‘slut’, and other unmentionable ones. And this too we add– we shall not disperse, and not return to our husbands until they have all signed their names to this paper.

Marissa: Communism also brought women’s liberation to China in the 1930s and 1940s. In an attempt to mobilize as many people as possible, the Communist Party of China executed a deliberate strategy to involve women in politics. Women fought alongside male Communist troops in the civil war with Chinese nationalists. The civil war was suspended temporarily during WWII while the communists and nationalists banded together to stave of Japanese invasions. During this time, areas outside of Japanese control saw an unprecedented growth in women’s organizations. One survey of Chinese socialist organizations found that women were allowed to belong to general peasant organizations but only areas with women-only associations achieved high levels of female participation in the movement.

Elizabeth: Tinghu [TING-hoo] village was one of these places, where women-only associations thrived. When a new village chief was elected sometime in the early 1940s, a woman named Chan Shu-Ying led a successful sex strike against the new elected official. The women of Tinghu had been barred from voting or running in the election. Chan Shu-Ying was in an unhappy marriage and was purportedly a lesbian. This might have just been an attempt at slandering her because of the events that followed but we can’t be sure. Harnessing the resentment from this unhappy union, Chan Shu-Ying convinced the rest of the women in the village (who were also angry about their exclusion from the election) to withhold sex from their husbands in protest. At first the men failed to take the threat seriously but the women of Tinghu held strong. Eventually, the men capitulated and and organized another election, this time granting the women of Tinghu the right to vote. Their turnout was so strong that their candidate won the seat of vice-village-chief.  

A color photograph of Leyman Gbowee giving a speech at a lecturn

Leyman Gbowee, 2013 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Sex strikes have become increasingly common in the last two decades but the most influential example is the sex strike that ended the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. Leymah Gbowee, one of the leaders of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 (she shared the prize with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemeni native Tawakkul Karman). The Liberian Civil Wars are extremely complicated affairs but we want to give you some context in which to understand this very famous sex strike. The Liberian government was overthrown in a coup in 1980 by an army master sergeant named Samuel Doe. A member of his cabinet, Charles Taylor, who was born in Liberia but went to college in America, attempted to take power from Doe in 1989. This struggle sparked the First Liberian Civil War. War waged for 7 years and a quarter of a million people were killed. In 1996, several African notables were able to secure a truce between both sides which ended in Charles Taylor’s election as President of Liberia. His opponent was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Elizabeth: Charles Taylor was a brutal warlord. He committed several war crimes and human rights violations during his rule. Through his connections to powerful and coercive African warlords, Taylor’s power extended beyond Liberia. He provoked the outbreak of the Second Liberian Civil War in 1999. The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy in Northern Liberia invaded the country, followed by a second rebel group whose entry shut down the Liberian government. The death toll for the second war reached 200,000. Social worker Leymah Gbowee [LEE-ma BOW-ee] started a Christian prayer group which focused on praying to end the war.

Marissa: In 2003, a Muslim woman named Asatu Bah Kenneth pledged to join Liberia’s Muslim women to Gbowee’s prayer group. It quickly became an inter-faith women’s group called the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. In the first week of April, the group gathered at the fish market outside of Charles Taylor’s residence. Thousands of women dressed in white rallied peacefully for an end to the war. They pledged to deny their partners sex until the war was over. The group agreed that Liberia’s powerful men were perpetuating the war. They reasoned that if their partners withheld all intimacy, the men may start to take notice and be persuaded to agitate for peace as well. Their efforts continued into the summer when Charles Taylor was indicted on war crimes in a Sierra-Leone court, causing him to flee to Nigeria. The violence of the war was escalating so the women began using as many forms of peaceful protest as they could devise– they staged sit-ins, rallied for peace talks, and occupied the grounds of government buildings

Elizabeth: Taylor’s regime agreed to peace-talks mediated by the Ghanaian [Ga-NEE-an] president. When the talks commenced, the women made a human chain around the building and refused to let the delegation leave until an official peace settlement was reached. Authorities attempted to remove the women from the premises but Gbowee threatened to undress. This caused them to retreat, in fear of the shame that such a scene might bring to them and their families. Their tactics worked and the Ghanaian president agreed to meet with them to hear their demands. Charles Taylor resigned and international peacekeeping troops entered Liberia in August. The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace aided in the disarmament process and guided the transitional government. In November 2005, the Liberians elected their first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Marissa: So the women in Liberia used several different strategies to make their voices heard but in the media frenzy that followed, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace credited the sex strike as the difference-maker. According to Gbowee:

“[Liberian men] were either fighters or they were very silent and accepting all of the violence that was being thrown at us as a nation. So we decided we’ll do this sex strike to kind of propel the silent men into action. So if you had a beer buddy who was a warlord, you needed to encourage him to lay down his arms. And the way we were trying to do that was to pressurize the partners that we had, husbands and partners who were also sometimes silent in the entire scheme of the war..”

Elizabeth: Similar sex strikes have been staged by women in Kenya, the Philippines, Italy, Sudan and most recently, Togo. There has even been a revived interest in Lysistrata in the entertainment industry. Spike Lee’s 2015 film, the critically-acclaimed Chi-Raq [shy-RACK], used the theme of sex strikes to comment on the violent, gun-driven gang culture in struggling inner-city neighborhoods across the U.S. Lee’s modern Lysistrata (played by Dear White People’s Teyonah Parris) convinces the women folk of two rival gangs in Chicago to withhold sex from their partners until the men agree to end the gang violence that is tearing their neighborhood apart. The women eventually realize that gun violence in general has contributed to the problem so, holding signs that say “No peace = No pussy” they storm a military armory and spark a national crisis. Several attempts are made to end their occupation of the armory but the women are persuasive and persistent.

Marissa: Eventually the wife of Chicago’s mayor, and the First Lady of the United States start to take part in the sex strike. After a few sexless months, one of the gangs gives in and agrees to a truce. Their rivals hold out initially but their hearts are moved by the testimony of the mother of an innocent victim of the gang’s crossfire. At the end, all parties agree to new laws designed to curb gun violence and to the funding of new trauma centers to serve the city. So if you’re interested in Lysistrata or sex striking, you may want to check it out.


Adams, Jad. Women and the Vote: A World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2016.

Andrews, Stephen Pearl, Henry James, and Horace Greeley. Love, Marriage, and Divorce, and the Sovereignty of the Individual. New York: Stringer & Townsend, 1853.

Bartlett, Lucy Re. Sex and Sanctity. London: Longmans, Green, 1975.

Belden, Jack. China Shakes the World. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2003.

Cardinal, Agnes, Elaine Turner, and Claire M. Tylee. “Marion Craig Wentworth,” War Plays by Women: An International Anthology. Florence: Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Croll, Elisabeth. Feminism and Socialism in China. London: Routledge, 2011.

Liberian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee: How a Sex Strike Propelled Men to Refuse War.” Democracy Now!  April 27, 2015.

“Liberian women act to end civil war,” Global Non Violent Action Database, 2003, 

Silver-Isenstadt, Jean L. Shameless: The Visionary Life of Mary Gove Nichols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Stites, Richard. The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism 1860-1930. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

The Independent. New York: S.W. Benedict; September 18, 1915, p. 345

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