Last week the US state of Georgia passed abortion laws that wind back some of the hard-fought reproductive rights won through Americaâs landmark abortion case Roe v Wade. The new legislation restricts abortion once âcardiac activityâ can be detected. Since this usually occurs at around six weeks of pregnancy, at which point many are unaware they are pregnant, the legislation effectively outlaws abortion.
The introduction of these laws and similar legislation across Republican-held states in the US, has been met with fierce criticism from feminists, reproductive choice activists and medical professionals alike. In a move reminiscent of her role in the #MeToo movement, Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano took to Twitter encouraging women to go on a âsex strikeâ in protest. While the call to arms over reproductive rights is laudable, here is why Milanoâs approach is a deeply problematic one:
It doesnât address structural issues
Milanoâs response illustrates some of the worst tendencies of âwhite feminismâ, with a focus on individual choice and failure to take an intersectional perspective. The idea that women should deny men sexual âchoicesâ frames the issue of reproductive rights in an individualised way.
In this case, the âsolutionâ to repressive legislation is individual women denying men (who may or may not be anti-abortion) partnered sexual activity. Of course, individual action is both a necessary and powerful component of generating broader political change. But itâs largely unclear, in this case, how the proposed individual action translates into the collective mobilisation required to challenge political and legal institutions.
Access to abortion is a complex social, structural and institutional problem. Limited reproductive choice is rooted in legislation, other regulation and access to affordable health care. Likewise, access to abortion and womenâs experiences of accessing it, are shaped by a multitude of factors: race and social class. These underlying causes are unlikely to be shifted through a âsex strikeâ.
It frames sex in heteronormative ways
By suggesting that women avoid sex because they cannot risk pregnancy, Milano frames âsexâ in limited and heteronormative ways. âSexâ is constructed as involving penis-in-vagina penetration, reproducing the idea that only heterosexual, penetrative sex is ârealâ sex. This leaves little space for other forms of sexual expression â particularly those that are unlikely to result in pregnancy (such as oral sex or masturbation).
While clearly relevant to the issue of abortion, linking sex to a need to avoid pregnancy also implies that all women are in heterosexual partnerships with cisgender men, that all women are able to fall pregnant, and that only women can become pregnant, excluding trans and non-binary people.
Given the diverse repertoire of sexual acts available to us, itâs not clear why women (and others) should have to forgo ethical, pleasurable and wanted encounters. While the sex strike aims to regain bodily autonomy, this method of protest in fact further limits it, simultaneously perpetuating the âsex-negativeâ ideology that often underpins the logic of anti-abortion proponents.
Â It reinforces harmful stereotypes
Suggesting that women shouldnât have sex until their sexual autonomy is regained reproduces the trope that women use sex as a bargaining chip or tool to manipulate men. This reduces a complex structural and political issue to a tiresome âbattle of the sexesâ.
Women are stereotyped as the âgatekeepersâ of sexual activity, who either say âyesâ or ânoâ to menâs sexual advances, but never actively desire sex or initiate it themselves. Sex is positioned as something that women do to please men, rather than something they actively enjoy or find pleasurable.
This is concerning given that these stereotypes can be used to excuse sexual violence or to place blame on victim-survivors. For example, survivors are often blamed for sexual violence because they have not fulfilled their role as sexual gatekeeper, that is, they didnât say ânoâ clearly enough. At the same time, reports of sexual violence are often dismissed as accusations from a woman scorned. In other words, the sex strike reproduces many of the stereotypes that enable and excuse sexual violence, running the risk of further compromising bodily autonomy.
There is also an assumption that women are able to freely negotiate or refuse sex without consequence. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Most obviously, this occurs in cases of sexual violence through the use of force or coercion, or where submitting to a perpetrator may be the safest option in the moment. It assumes that women are situated in a world where the utterance of a ânoâ is heard in a meaningful way and that saying ânoâ is safe in the first place.
Just âgenerating debateâ?
Ultimately, Milanoâs approach offers women a reductive level of âcontrolâ: sex or no sex. Encouraging women to forego sex in the face of restrictive abortion laws does little to transform how we approach sex and reproductive rights at the social, structural and institutional level.
Milano has defended her sex strike on the basis that it has generated widespread public debate about the issue. At best, this âdebateâ distracts from the collective political action and structural change needed to truly challenge threats to our reproductive autonomy. At worst, it actively reproduces some of the conditions it seeks to disrupt, with the potential to exacerbate harms to already vulnerable and marginalised groups along the way.
*The article was originally published by The Conversation Global Perspectives.