20th Century Africa, 20th Century America, Aristophanes, Charles Taylor, Chi-Raq, Chicago, Leymah Gbowee, Liberia, Liberian Civil War, Lysistrata, Nobel Peace Prize, Peloponnesian War, Spike Lee, Teyonah Parris
The plot of Chi-Raq (2015, dir. Spike Lee) involves the women of Chicago going on a sex-strike in an effort to get the gangs of their district to stop engaging in senseless gun violence. The strike spreads to the strippers, prostitutes, and gay men on the down low, and eventually to women across the country and the world (the wives of the mayor of Chicago and the US president both take the oath). And ultimately, the plan works. The two rival gangs lay down their weapons and everyone, including the large corporations who have been ignoring the south side of Chicago economically, sign a pledge to deal with the roots of the problem as well as its manifestations.
Chi-Raq is based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, first performed in Athens in 411 BC in the middle of the Peloponnesian War between the Athenians and the Spartans. In this case, the story was pure fantasy. Greek women did not go on a sex-strike, and the war only came to an end in 404 BC, following the disastrous defeat of the Athenian navy at Aegospotami, which ensured that the Athenians would be starved into surrendering. But has the strategy been used successfully somewhere else?
Lee himself seems certain the answer is yes. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Lee suggested that such a tactic might be an effective response to sexually harassment and date rape on college campuses. See for yourself. The comment comes at about the 3:55 mark.
This implies that rapists are worried about what their victims think and want, which seems unlikely in most cases, and it suggests that there is a direct connection between women’s actions and rape, which there isn’t. But let’s assume that Lee was simply speaking carelessly during the pressure of a nationally-televised interview, and that he was intending to be empowering to women. But he says something else during the interview that is factually problematic.
Shortly before the comment about date rape (about the 3:10 mark), Lee mentions Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee and claims that she used a sex-strike to bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War. He’s quite specific about this, and in fact, during the movie, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) googles Leymah Gbowee and learns that Gbowee used a sex-strike to end the war in her country.
The Second Liberian Civil War erupted in 1999 against president Charles Taylor and ran for four years, being brought to an end in 2003 by the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (ACPA). In 2002, activist Gbowee helped found the Women in Peacemaking Network (WIPNET), and Gbowee used this group to organize Christian and Muslim Liberian women to publicly protest for peace, defying orders by President Taylor to stop.
WIPNET used a number of tactics. They staged pray-ins at churches and mosques. They occupied a soccer field that President Taylor’s motorcade regularly drove past. They wore white t-shirts to make themselves more visible. And they initiated a sex-strike. According to Gbowee, the strike lasted on and off for a couple of months. As she said in a book about the protest, “It had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.” Some of those involved were beaten for refusing to have sex (which again underlines the fact that it’s not a tactic likely to solve a problem like rape.)
During the peace talks, WIPNET staged a sit-in of several hundred women literally right outside the meeting room (which had a glass wall, making the sit-in visible to the negotiators), essentially holding the negotiators hostage, and refusing to let them get food or go to the bathroom. When the negotiators tried to leave the room, Gbowee and her supporters threatened to rip their own clothes off, taking advantage of a powerful African cultural taboo against female nudity; the action essentially threatened a curse on the soldiers who tried to physically move the women. After a few weeks of this, Taylor agreed to resign. Two years after the war came to an end, WIPNET helped orchestrate the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female African head of state.
Gbowee’s efforts were considered so instrumental to achieving the ACPA that she, along with Sirleaf and a third woman, received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for their work.
So by Gbowee’s own account, the sex-strike did not have any direct effect on the effort to stop the war. If that was its purpose, it failed. But the fact that it was an off-and-on affair suggests that it wasn’t actually intended to stop the war so much as to garner publicity and raise awareness, which it did a good job of. So while in Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, the sex-strike ends the violence directly, in Gbowee’s approach it was a way to strengthen the movement.
Other Recent Sex-Strikes
Liberia is not the only place sex-strikes have been attempted. Twice in the space of two years from 2011 to 2013, the women of Barbacaos, Colombia, led a Crossed Legs movement as a protest against the lack of a paved road leading to their community. They argued that the lack of adequate roads presented a serious health hazard and an economic obstacle for women who needed to get inland from the small port town. The catalyst for this as a woman’s issue was the death of a 23-year-old pregnant woman whose ambulance got stuck on the way to a hospital. Unlike in Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, however, the men of the town quickly came to support the Crossed Legs movement, presumably because they saw the road as something they wanted as much as the women did. The Crossed Legs movement raised enough publicity (something previous protests had failed to accomplish) that the government vowed to pave at least half the 57-kilometer road. But by 2013, the women decided that the last 30 kilometers also needed paving and resumed the strike. (I haven’t been able to find anything about how effective the 2013 strike was.)
Poor roads were not the only reason that Colombian women have tried sex-strikes. In 1997, a male military official called for a sex-strike to try to get the various guerrillas and drug lords to work for peace. That effort failed. So too did a 2006 attempt by the wives and girlfriends of gang members in Pereira in an effort to get them to surrender their guns. That strike was called off 10 days later. It was claimed as a success, despite no evidence that it actually reduced homicides.
However, in 2011, a sex-strike in the Filipino town of Dado succeeded in ending separatist violence on Mindinao after just a few weeks. In this case, it was not simply a sex-strike though. The women of Dado maintain a sewing collective that was unable to deliver its products because of violence on the roads outside of Dado. So in addition to withholding sex, the women also withheld their income from their husbands. In Kenya and Togo, week-long sex-strikes were held in 2009 and 2011 as a form of protest, but the brief duration seems unlikely to have done more than demonstrate that women cared strongly about specific local issues.
From this survey of recent sex-strikes, a few things seem clear. First, sex-strikes are useful for attracting attention to a problem. The outlandishness of the gesture garners media attention, which shines a spotlight on a major issue. So when they are used as a tool to focus attention on an issue, they stand some chance of bringing results. Second, sex-strikes don’t seem very effective when used on their own to directly address violence, for the simple reason that a man who is willing to be violent will presumably consider using force against his wife or girlfriend, or else will simply seek out a prostitute or another willing woman. Third, they are more likely to succeed when they are combined with other incentives. The modest success of the 2011 sex-strike in Barbacaos was actively supported by the men of the town because they wanted the road too, and the Dado sex-strike was used to reinforce the fact that the violence was hurting Dado economically.
So Lee is wrong when he claims that Gbowee’s sex-strike ended the war in Liberia, and he’s probably wrong when he suggests that the tactic might be effective against date rape, unless he meant that it might be useful in raising awareness about what date rape is and why it’s wrong.
But Chi-Raq is clearly a fantasy. I don’t think Lee is suggesting that a sex-strike would actually work to end violence (although one Chicago woman has decided to organize an actual sex-strike in response to the film). Too many scenes in the film are obviously unrealistic, such as the scene where Lysistrata seduces a National Guard armory general by getting him to strip down to his underwear and then dry hump a cannon while blindfolded and handcuffed, or the scenes where women across the world jump onto the sex-strike bandwagon. Instead, I think that what Lee is doing is what Gbowee actually did with her sex-strike, using it to generate media attention for a deadly serious problem. Lee’s a smart guy (as he reminds Colbert in that interview, he’s a tenured professor in film studies at Columbia), and it’s clear that he sees his film not as a literal solution to the problem but as a wake-up call to the nation. Let’s hope that his cinematic sex-strike has the same sort of success that WIPNET’s did.
Want to Know More?
CHI-RAQ [DVD + Digital]is available on Amazon.
Lysistrata is a classic, and definitely worth reading. The Penguin edition of Lysistrata and Other Plays (Penguin Classics) would be a good place to start.
If you want to know more about the remarkable Leymah Gbowee, she tells her story in her book Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. There is also a documentary about her, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.