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A Modern-Day Lysistrata: Sex Strikes, Diffraction, and Enabling Disability

Shlomo's picture

Dear friends,

Allow me to preface this web event with a brief description of what is to come, and what my motives are for presenting it.  I’ve always been fascinated by the idea behind the famous Aristophanes play Lysistrata, in which one woman convinces all the women of Greece to refuse their husbands sex until the men end the Peloponnesian War.  Would a plot like this work in the real world?  Has anyone ever tried such a thing?  I wondered how I could relate a real-world Lysistrata to this class, and in particular this class’s ideas of diffraction, enabling disability, and intra-actions of sex and gender with other social categories and events.

I will begin with a discussion of Lysistrata in real life, as it turns out there are several recent examples of sex strikes being used to end war.  I will then analyze these sex strikes in light of our class work and discussions.  Finally, I want to leave you with some questions.  I still have a lot of questions, and I intend for this web even to mark the beginning of a dialogue, not a lecture.  If you have any thoughts on anything I say, I would love to hear them.  Thanks for listening.




 . . . if we were to sit at home painted, and approach [our men] lightly clad in our vests of fine linen, having the hairs plucked off our bosoms, the men would become enamored, and desire to lie with us; and if we were not to come nigh them, but abstain, they would quickly make peace, I well know (Aristophanes 396). 

So begins Lysistrata’s fight to end the Peloponnesian War by denying sex to all Greek men.  Aristophanes’s play is a comedy, filled with playful banter, lewdness, and slapstick.  But for all its crassness, it is still an inspirational story for women, and several groups of women worldwide have taken it upon themselves to mimic Lysistrata.  These heroic women are flipping the normal intra-actions of war and sex on their heads, both by enabling disability and through diffraction.

            First, let us examine the case of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a group whose efforts helped bring an end to the 14-year Liberian civil war.  It was a brutal war that utilized 15,000 child soldiers and resulted in 200,000 casualties (Takahashi).  In addition, it is estimated that 60-90% of the country’s women—of all ages—were raped in the course of the war (Wiltz).  But, as mentioned above, the women fought back.  The grassroots actions of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace included daily protests, a sit-in at peace talks, and a 2003 sex strike(Linden).  In the following video, Leymah Gbowee, who led the sex strike, describes it eloquently:

            This sex strike is of course reminiscent of Lysistrata, but so is the sit-in enacted by the same women.  They used their bodies as barricades to prevent the men from leaving the peace talks until peace was achieved.  Gbowee was even prepared to strip naked, which horrified the men.  In her words,

When people snap, it’s either they do the worst of they do the best.  At that moment for me, the worst was stripping naked and letting them know that there was no more degradation, there was no more humiliation that we could feel as women of Liberia.  There was no more pain that we could feel for our children(Linden).

The actions of Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace aided in ending the bloody Liberian conflict.  These extraordinary women and their work are memorialized in the recent movie Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

            Another example of Lysistrata coming to life occurred in Pereira, Colombia, in 2006.  Although Colombia was not technically at war at the time, Pereira was caught up in vicious gang wars and had the country’s highest murder rate.  The wives and girlfriends of gang members began what was dubbed “the strike of crossed legs.”  In this sex strike, the women refused all conjugal activity until their husbands and boyfriends surrendered their guns and enrolled in vocational training.  It was an ingenious strategy, because according to Julio César Gómez, the security secretary of Pereira, surveys of gang members indicated that most men joined gangs for sex and power, not for money (Brodzinsky).  In 2010, Pereira’s murder rate went down 26.5%, the greatest drop of any city in Colombia (Cochrane).

             A third and final example of a real-life Lysistrata situation is the sex strike initiated by women in the Philippines.  The (very recent) video below concisely and informatively sums up this strike:

            What is particularly interesting about these real-world manifestations of Lysistrata is the way they directly counteract the traditional interactions between women and war.  War is, by its very nature, violent and disabling.  Throughout history, women have borne much of this violence, particularly when it comes to rape.  Rape is an almost perfect method of terrorism, because it dehumanizes and violates women and shames their husbands and lovers.  It also leaves deep emotional (and sometimes physical) scars that will haunt the victims for the rest of their lives.

            The women involved in sex strikes are taking their bodies, which are usually harmed in war, and using them to stop war.  In other words, these women are taking their womanhood, which may be seen as a disability in wartime, and enabling it.  One could even argue that because war disables both nations and people, these women are disabling disability by disabling war.  Whether or not that’s true, they are without question empowering themselves and their own bodies, and using their possible disability (womanhood) for good.  Their actions show a direct role reversal of the normal power structure of war, where women are weak and terrorized and military men hold all the cards.  Leymah Gwobee summed this argument up nicely when she said, regarding the Liberian civil war,

Little girls were raped.  Even older women, older men were sodomized.  It was just like hell on Earth.  As these stories kept coming back to us where perpetrators rape and sexual violence against women, we decided we’re going to do something.  So for us, we didn’t have the power to go to peace talks, so we just thought, what else do we have to lose?  Our bodies are their battlefield (Martin).

            Women reclaiming their own bodies during wartime is a dramatic shift in war protest movements, and as such it is an example of the diffraction we have discussed in class.  To elaborate, anti-war movements have established ways of operating: protests, boycotts, etcetera.  Feminist activists also have similar established operations: protests, letter-writing campaigns, etcetera.  But when anti-war activism and feminism are combined, an entirely new form of protest is born: the sex strike. 

            Women play a special role in war because of their sex.  They are more likely to survive a war, but also more likely to be raped.  Sex strikers from across the world are changing these intra-actions between war and women.  They do this by enabling the wartime disability inherent in their sex, and by diffracting peace and feminist movements.  Connecting sex strikes with these notions we have discussed in class is helpful for understanding sex strikes, but it also raises questions.  How does the idea of the body as home relate to the idea of women using their bodies to end war?  Are women and their roles in society entangled with wartime rape?  Are discussions like these, using learned theories, important, or is activism our true purpose?


Works Cited

Aristophanes.  Lysistrata.  Trans. William J. Hickie.  Google Books.  Web.  2 October 2011.  <>.

Brodzinsky, Sibylla.  “Wives tell gangsters to lay down arms or go without sex.”  The Guardian.  The Guardian, 12 September 2006.  Web.  2 October 2011.  <>.

Cochrane, Kira.  “Do sex strikes ever work?”  The Guardian.  The Guardian, 9 February 2011.  Web.  2 October 2011.  <>.

Linden, Sheri.  “Once again, they won’t be ignored.”  Los Angeles Times.  Los Angeles Times, 16 November 2008.  Web.  2 October 2011.  <>.

Martin, Michel.  “Liberian Women’s Fight For Peace Brought To Film.”  NPR.  NPR, 22 January 2009.  Web.  2 October 2011.  <>.

PeaceIsLoud.  “Pray The Devil Back to Hell: ‘Sex Strike.’”  6 May 2008.  Online video clip.  Youtube.  PeaceIsLoud.  2 October 2011.  <>.

unhcr.  “Philippines: Sex Strike Brings Peace.”  14 September 2011.  Online video clip.  Youtube.  UNHCR.  2 October 2011.  <>.

Wiltz, Teresa.  “Rape Counseling for an Entire Nation.”  The Root.  The Root, 9 December 2010.  Web.  2 October 2011.  <>.


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Cassandra's picture

Well done

I found your blog after a friend told me the story of Gbowee. I said, "wow, that sounds like Lysistrata." She laughed and asked
"Lysistrata?" And here we are ... Great piece; I had not heard of either the Columbian or Philippino movements. Thank you

Anne Dalke's picture

Diffracting Disability


I began laughing when I read the first line of your paper; one of the texts we considered for this course was the libretto for Les Mamelles de Tiresias, an opera bouffe Kaye saw in Colorado this summer, in which women engage in Lysistratian activities. We eventually decided that the opera, originally set in Zanzibar, would be too distant from your all's concerns… Turns out, maybe not!

There's a great deal to like in your project, beginning w/ your framing it as a letter to your viewers and readers, and ending w/ all of the questions your analysis has raised. In between, I tripped over a few technical problems (I'd like to help you learn to embed the videos, or @ least to activate the links to youtube, and also to do more work in setting them up and explicating them, rather than expecting them to be self-explicating, i.e. saying that they "concisely and informatively sum up the strike"). You might try using videos and images as quotes, explaining to your audience, @ each insertion, what work you see them doing, what contribution they are making to the argument you are exploring.

(While I'm quibbling, I'll ask, too, how the cultural markers of your username and avatar function in this paper: What do they signal, about you as a writer on this topic? How do "Shlomo" and the image of that little orange animal place you, intellectually?)

But! Really! What I like best here is the remarkable illustration you give of the concept of "diffraction": the "disability" that is being a women becomes diffracted as the ability to refuse sex--and so stop war; the combination of anti-war activism and feminism "diffracts" into sex strikes; in a double turn of the screw, "disabling disability by disabling war." Wow.

I think I mentioned to you, when you first suggested this project to me, some of the remarkable work Cynthia Enloe  has done around questions of women and militarization. If you'd like to explore this nexus further, you might track down some of her work about the ways in which, historically, women's suffrage was enhanced by militarization, by claims that those who contribute to war-making deserve the rights of citizenship. (Does suicide bombing operate in this way?) She's also done some particularly interesting work around the need for sharing information (for instance, if women married to soldiers--encouraged to take on extra burdens in the service of patriotism--compared notes and made alliances w/ women living around military bases: would it be more difficult to realize the imperial project? What happens when men seeking sex seek out women who are hungry, or women who are seeking citizenship: how do both parties enable each other to achieve their ends?)

But these are not the questions w/ which you end, and I'd like to turn there now. The last of your questions--"Are discussions like these, using learned theories, important, or is activism our true purpose?"--seems to me a red herring; as I hope we'll see during the last section of our course, theorizing can inform activism in some very useful ways, and I think your work here is exemplary of that (you'll see I recommended it to one of your classmates for that reason). Your two other questions--"How does the idea of the body as home relate to the idea of women using their bodies to end war?  Are women and their roles in society entangled with wartime rape?" seem to me possible sites for working out such questions. Do you want to go on exploring them here? (there's a nice comments section available….;)