In Lysistrata, a 2,500-year-old Greek play by Aristophanes, the eponymous heroine convinces the women of Athens and Sparta to withhold sex from their husbands until a peace treaty between the warring city-states is signed. No peace, no piece.
Lysistrata and the new Spike Lee movie, Chi-Raq, are pointed political satire (replete with plenty of blue balls jokes), but sex strikes exist in the real world, and have happened all over the globe. However, these stories are often missing from history. It’s likely more people know the story of Lysistrata (and now, Chi-Raq) than the many real-life examples of women attempting to effect change by withholding their one resource—their bodies.
The strikes are effective in Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, yet in real life, the results are mixed. Often, the measure of success is the ability to attract media coverage. As Leymah Gbowee, the leader of a sex strike in Liberia, wrote in her memoir, the action itself “had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention. Until today, nearly 10 years later, whenever I talk about the Mass Action, ‘What about the sex strike?’ is the first question everyone asks.” Media coverage leads to awareness, coalition building and more traditional methods of pressure, until ideally the issue is resolved.
Here is a short history of some modern sex strikes and their outcomes.
1. 1600s, North America
The first documented instance of a sex strike in the Global Nonviolent Action Database comes from the women of the Iroquois nation, who withheld sex from their menfolk (plus food and other vital supplies) in order to ensure that women had a voice and veto power when deciding whether the tribe went to war. The women finally won their seat at the table, and their effort is one of the first known feminist rebellions in the United States.
2. 2001, Turkey
For years, the women of Siirt, a village in southeast Turkey, complained about the lack of a decent water supply, but their requests were ignored until they enacted a sex boycott in the summer of 2001. "They won't be able to get into our bedrooms until the water actually runs through the taps," said a spokeswoman. The men duly put pressure on the government, and within a month, the Directorate of Rural Affairs agreed to provide five miles of piping.
3. 2002, Liberia
Women from the group Liberian Mass Action for Peace helped bring about the end of a 14-year civil war by organizing nonviolent protests that included a sex strike, sit-ins and mass demonstrations. Not only did their actions pave the way for peace in Liberia, they also helped elect the country's first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (The effort was chronicled in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.)
4. 2006 and 2011, Colombia
The girlfriends and wives of gangsters in Pereira, Colombia initiated a “crossed legs” sex strike in 2006, in hopes of curbing gang violence and the city’s high murder rate (488 murders were reported in 2005). Though it was highly publicized, the strike was called off after 10 days. Some say the movement was successful because the town’s murder rate declined by 26.5 percent in 2010, but it’s a stretch to prove that the 10-day strike had a substantial bearing on the reduced murder rate four years later.
An almost four-month, 300-woman sex strike in the Colombian town of Barbacoas in 2011 produced more measurable results. Women enacted the bedroom strike in order to bring about improved conditions on the roads connecting Barbacoas to the nearest town. It worked, and Transport Minister German Cardona pledged to invest about $21 million to pave the first half of the road.
5. 2009, Kenya
In 2009, post-election violence in Kenya resulted in more than 1,500 deaths and half a million people displaced from their homes. In response, Kenyan women’s groups organized a weeklong, nationwide sex ban aimed at ending the violence, ushering in reforms such as drought relief and food shortages, and a halt to fighting between Kenya’s prime minister and president. The week ended with a prayer session that brought the warring leaders together and created a public agreement to start peace talks.
6. 2011, the Philippines
On Mindanao Island in the Philippines, a women’s sewing cooperative in the rural village of Dado imposed a sex strike in order to end local violence between the Philippine military and rebel forces. They wanted to ensure women could travel safely to the market to sell their wares. Giving up “the goods” so they might sell their own goods had the intended effect: “Within weeks of the strike starting, the UNHCR reports that the main village road re-opened and the fighting stopped.” Women from the sewing co-op and beyond were able to start rebuilding their village’s stifled economy and get on with their lives.
7. 2012, Togo
Inspired by the success of the 2003 Liberian sex strike, the women’s wing of the opposition group Let's Save Togo asked women to refuse sex with their husbands for a week unless the men agreed to become active in protest marches and demonstrations against corrupt president Faure Gnassingbé, whose family has been in power for more than 45 years. Although the tactic proved effective in garnering media attention and helped launch a series of negotiations on electoral reform, Gnassingbé's party won a two-thirds majority in the legislature. “Let’s Save Togo” did win 19 seats, however, including seven out of 10 seats for the capital city of Lome.
8. 2012, Canada
After a gang-related mass shooting in Toronto, Nicole Osbourne James started a blog called Guns Get None to persuade wives and girlfriends of men who owned guns to participate in a sex strike in order to quell gang violence. Its catchphrase was “Got a gun? You get none.” It’s difficult to say whether the campaign worked (or even how many women were involved), but three years later, fatal shootings in Canada are less common (although they are also down in the U.S.).
9. 2010 and 2014, Ukraine
In 2010, the controversial activist group Femen called on the girlfriends and wives of cabinet members to launch a sex boycott over sexist statements made by Ukraine’s prime minister Nikolay Azarov, who said “implementing reforms in Ukraine is not women’s business.” And in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, and amid escalating tensions  in the region, Ukrainian women called for a boycott on Russian men and Russian goods. The campaign was called “Don’t Give It to a Russian” and even had T-shirts. “Sex is known for being one of the most effective elements of [gaining] substantial attention to promo campaigns,” said one of its founders. “To use a provocative message to claim the world's attention and interest to the Russians' aggression was one of [the most] effective ways to be heard.”
10. 2014, Japan
In Tokyo, a group of 3,000 women called for a sex strike to prevent the election of Yoichi Masuzoe, due to a series of sexist comments he had made to a men’s magazine in 1989. The campaign, which originated on Twitter, billed itself as "the association of women who will not have sex with men who vote for Masuzoe." Masuzoe drew fire for saying, among other things: "Women are not normal when they are having a period … You can't possibly let them make critical decisions about the country [during their period] such as whether or not to go to war." Masuzoe won the election.