In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the escalating tensions in the region, some Ukrainian women are calling for an unusual addition to a widespread boycott of Russian goods. The new campaign, “Don’t Give It to a Russian,” is encouraging Ukrainian women to withhold sex from Russian men as a method of fighting the enemy “by whatever means.” The organizers have created shirts with logos that resemble the female genitalia to spread their message.
The creative campaign — which borrows its name from a 19th-century Ukrainian poem that encouraged young women to “fall in love, but not with the Moskaly [Russians]” — has already spread quickly among Russian internet users. It’s also been getting some predictable backlash; a few Russian bloggers have already denounced the organizers as “prostitutes.”
Of course, this is hardly the first sex strike in history. This tactic can be traced back to the fifth-century Greek play Lysistrata, in which women withhold sex from their husbands to convince them to end the Peloponnesian War. Since then, women in Liberia, Colombia, the Philippines, Japan, Kenya, Italy, Togo, and here in the United States have attempted to use abstinence as a tool to enact social change. It’s not even the first time organizers have tried to rally Ukrainian women to withhold sex — in 2010, the activist group Femen called on women to launch a sex boycott over sexist statements made by the prime minister.
Sex boycotts are definitely good at grabbing headlines. But are they effective tools to accomplish policy goals?
It depends. As Slate notes, this tactic tends to have the most success under specific circumstances: “When the women involved have little economic autonomy, when their demands are specific and realistic, and when they possess endurance and strength in numbers.” For instance, 300 women in rural Columbia withheld sex for months, demanding that the government pave a road to their isolated town — and government officials eventually gave in. And a group of women in a Filipino village successfully convinced their husbands to stop fighting with each other after they withheld sex for a week.
On the other hand, bigger political demands tend to fall short. Activists in Togo called for a sex strike in 2012, arguing it represented the “best weapon against dictatorship” in their nation — but the same ruler remains in power today. And when U.S. women called for a sex strike to help curb the War on Women, it didn’t have any effect on the mounting number of state laws enacted to chip away at reproductive rights.
Sometimes the media attention itself can help further activists’ ultimate goals. Leymah Gbowee, who led a group of women in a sex strike to help end a civil war in Liberia, acknowledges that the protest had “little or no practical effect,” but was invaluable in helping to raise attention for the cause. “We withheld sex from our spouses to get attention, and our husbands obviously noticed what we were doing. We said, ‘we need you to take a stand.’ And they did,” Gbowee explained in an interview with the Huffington Post.
In countries where withholding sex is perhaps the only political capital available to women, it can be inspiring to see individuals using the tools at their disposal to fight for social change. But wielding female sexuality as a weapon has consequences, too. It furthers the worldview that men are entitled to sex, and essentially have a contractual relationship with the women who provide it for them, rather than approaching a sexual relationship on equal and consensual grounds. It also reinforces the message that women’s power must come from their bodies, and particularly the way they use those bodies in relation to men.
And it’s perhaps important to remember that in many instances of conflict, women don’t necessarily have the bodily autonomy to use sex as a weapon. Much more frequently, their bodies are used against them, as girls and women across the globe are raped as an act of warfare.