Alyssa Milano, an actress who has been outspoken on feminist issues, has called for a sex strike in response to restrictive abortion laws.
“Until women have legal control over our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy,” Milano tweeted on Friday. “JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back.”
Milano sent her tweet after Georgia passed a new law banning abortions as early as six weeks, after a physician can first detect fetal cardiac activity. That’s just two weeks after a missed period — which isn’t always a reliable sign of pregnancy — and before many people would even realize they may be pregnant.
Georgia is the fifth state to pass such a law, following Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Ohio. Although none of these states have implemented their so-called “heartbeat bans” because of legal obstacles, anti-abortion lawmakers keep pushing this legislation to give the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority an opportunity to change its course on reproductive rights.
Americans’ access to a full range of reproductive health care options is undoubtedly under attack. But Milano’s sex strike is not the answer.
A “strike” typically refers to a work stoppage used to fight for workers’ demands in the workplace or to bring about broader political change. By calling the decision to stop having sex a “strike” when talking broadly about cisgender women who would presumably stop having sex with cisgender men, Milano is framing sex as an act of labor for these women. (Milano did not specifically refer to cis women who are sex workers, or explain how such a strike would work for them.)
Reducing cis women’s political power to the sex they have with their cis male partners serves to further control women’s sexual autonomy.
Many conservatives already embrace the idea that cis women who don’t want to get pregnant should simply not have sex. In response to Milano’s tweet, several conservatives said they support her proposed sex strike and what it stands for.
The Twitter account for the movie Unplanned, which is about a young woman who decides to become an anti-abortion activist, said a sex strike is a good idea because it would show “sex does result in new human beings.”
JOIN US in applauding @Alyssa_Milano. What do you think? Her #sexstrike actually treats preborn lives with respect. Sex does result in new human beings. Self respect & respect for the preborn people's lives probably includes abstinence in a world that exterminates the #UnPlanned. https://t.co/o0eBFZPQRh
— UnplannedMovie (@UnplannedMovie) May 11, 2019
Jackie François, a conservative singer opposed to abortion, tweeted in praise of Milano for “preaching abstinence.”
.@Alyssa_Milano is preaching abstinence! Our prayers have been working!
Except: Let’s not have sex until we are ready to have babies in a loving, committed relationship because we deserve to be loved and not used like objects for the physical pleasure our bodies can give https://t.co/qXsSLPKzB4
— JackieFrancois Angel (@JackieFrancois) May 11, 2019
Milano’s concept of a sex strike leaves out a lot of people when you consider who she presumes is able to use their abstinence to bring about political change. How do transgender people and nonbinary people fit into her assumptions about all women being able to get pregnant or the idea that no men have their reproductive rights under attack?
Referring to the need for a sex strike, Milano recently tweeted, “Protect your vaginas, ladies.” In response, transgender gay men asked what exactly that means for them.
I’m a man w a vagina & a history of sexual trauma and I’m gay am I allowed to have sex w my empenised boyfriend in this framework please advise https://t.co/UNQTLq23X2
— Stephen Ira (@supermattachine) May 11, 2019
Milano also ignores cisgender bi and lesbian women dating other cis women, as well as people who aren’t sexually active at all and won’t be in the long term. What is their contribution, since they aren’t purposefully withholding sex from men?
Even when it comes to cis women dating cis men, the idea of a sex strike raises a number of answered questions. If the strike is supposed to be aimed at convincing a group of mostly conservative men to stop legislating women’s bodies, the assumption is that conservative women aren’t invested in the same goals. That simply isn’t true. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Republican women were actually more supportive of six-week bans, with 77% of them supporting a state ban on abortions after six weeks compared to 64% of Republican men.
Women across the country are involved in and champions of the fake clinics masquerading as health clinics for low-income people — only to then push a conservative anti-family planning vision on them. These women are as much a part of the fabric of the anti-abortion movement as conservative men are.
It’s unclear whether conservative men would respond to denial of sex by kindly giving people with uteruses their full reproductive rights back. The conservative moment’s approach to gender and power isn’t limited to legislating abortion. Some conservatives are already writing sympathetically about incels, a group of men who think sex with young beautiful women is every man’s right, and many have proudly backed a U.S. Supreme Court justice who was credibly accused of sexually assaulting women.
And, of course, one of the most important questions for a proposed sex strike in response to anti-abortion legislation: What is the metric of success? When Milano tweets “JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back,” how should society measure “bodily autonomy”? Is the protest aimed at Georgia’s new law? All heartbeat abortion bans? Broader legislation on a state and national level attacking reproductive rights?
If the goal is to restore full reproductive health care access across the United States for people with uteruses, regardless of what their income is, that will likely take a very long time. There are many parts of the country where there are just a handful of abortion clinics and people have to plan trips lasting multiple days to get the abortion they need. The Hyde Amendment, which was first passed in 1976, prohibits federal taxpayer dollars from paying for abortions and remains a huge obstacle to full reproductive health care access for low-income people and people of color. Would Milano suggest withholding sex until the Hyde Amendment is no longer in place?
There have been successful sex strikes in the past, focused on the reduction of violence and warfare in places like Colombia, Liberia, the Philippines, and Kenya.
But as Maureen Shaw wrote in Quartz in 2017, after musician Janelle Monae called for a sex strike for women’s rights, the difference between those sex strikes and Monae’s idea is that those strikes had concrete goals. Although Shaw personally supports Milano’s sex strike, Milano’s vague goal of “until we get our bodily autonomy back” is not so clear.
Many critics of Milano’s idea have argued that people who can get pregnant have more political power outside of simply withholding sex. So why limit this activism to sex? Why not just hold a general strike?
A general strike would empower a broader swath of Americans to fight for reproductive rights access instead of trying to use reductive and outdated ideas about gender, sex, and power to fight outdated ideas about gender, sex, and power. It would also rightly place reproductive rights in the arena of economic struggle, because that’s what the fight for reproductive health care access is actually about.