Lysistrata’s direct action

An interesting piece of news today: women in Columbia have been engaging in a “crossed legs” protest, refusing to have sex until a road into their town is repaired.

The method of protest itself is not new at all: sex strikes have happened in many places, including Naples, Kenya and Belgium. The reasons vary: sometimes it is to end a war. Others, it is to stop men letting off illegal fireworks. It is an established form of protest: Lysistratic strikes are included on the seminal list “198 Methods Of Nonviolent Action“.

The term “Lysistratic strike” comes from the Greek comedy Lysistrata, in which the women on all sides of the Peloponnesian war decide to stop having sex with their husbands until peace has been negotiated. Although the play was written by a man, there are several woman-positive themes in the play. It is, essentially, a story about female solidarity. In order for the strike to work, all women must be involved–scabbing is simply not acceptable. When the women unite, they are incredibly powerful: their actions end a long and fruitless war. The message is empowering; it says, stand together, sisters, and you will prevail.

A second incredibly likeable aspect of Lysistrata is that it accepts that women enjoy sex. For a play that is two and a half millennia old, this is fairly advanced thinking. The women in Lysistrata are portrayed as having just as much difficulty with not having sex as the men. They are devastated to have to do without the lioness on a cheesegrater position.* They miss sex, because they really like it. Unfortunately, this kind of admission that women enjoy sex is sadly lacking from a lot of drama, even today.

Lysistratic strikes themselves have two huge positive points going for them. They are entirely peaceful, and they require a lot of solidarity with fellow women, as demonstrated in Lysistrata.

There are, though, problems with Lysistratic actions from a feminist perspective: there is a vast degree of submission to the patriarchy. When women go on a sex strike, two admissions are made:

  1. That men have all of the power
  2. That a woman’s only tool for negotiation is her body

The sex strikes that have occurred throughout history never address either of these issues–they focus, instead, on the issue of protest, be it war, or government formation, or fireworks. Once the fight has been won, the women return to relative powerlessness, their bodies returned to their husbands. It is this that differentiates Lysistratic strikes from more familiar labour strikes. In a labour strike, the workers withhold their labour until certain, labour-related conditions have been met. In a Lysistratic strike, women withhold sex until certain, non-sexual conditions have been met.

The word “withhold” is a loaded term itself: to use the term “withhold sex” implies that this is something that the women should usually be distributing: it is their role to fuck, and to refuse is an act of strike. It is seen as remarkable, that women are not fulfilling the traditional duties of marriage, their jobs. I am therefore relieved to see that Lysistratic strikes are not treated in the same way as labour strikes, where the full force of the establishment conspires to push workers back to work. I have seen no reports of systematic rapes following Lysistratic strikes.

It is not surprising, then, that Lysistratic strikes tend to happen in more patriarchal spaces, as they require patriarchy to be effective at all. It is also worth noting that heteronormativity plays a part in such actions: in a more queer community, wives refusing to fuck husbands would be far less noteworthy.

While it is pleasing for me to see women standing in solidarity in an attempt to make the world a better place, this is tinged with the foul taste of patriarchy which detracts heavily from the beautiful female empowerment it could mean. Lysistratic strikes are not about a woman’s control of her own body. It is a temporary withdrawal from a heteronormative, patriarchal role to make a point, and then a return to those conditions.

Lysistratic strikes cannot, by their very nature, overthrow patriarchy. So I will eschew this method of direct action, and instead continue my quest to understand the lioness on a cheesegrater position.


*If anyone works out what the lioness on a cheesegrater position is, please let me know. It’s been bothering me since I saw the bloody play.

7 thoughts on “Lysistrata’s direct action”

  1. Finally, a second year Greek history module I chose, called ‘Drama and Athenian Democracy’ comes in handy.

    The ‘Lioness on a Cheesgrater’ position is basically on all fours, head down, arse up. I think it generally referred to anal, which is why it’s specifically mentioned (ie you can’t ‘cheat’ by doing it up the bum).

    The reason it’s called what it is, is that the handles of cheese graters were usually animals, portrayed crouched over so as to make it work as a handle.

  2. Sounds kind of boring!

    What I thought ‘lioness on a cheesegrater” was.

    The women on top of the guy, her groin stroking the guys groin in ‘cheesegrater’ like fashion.

  3. ‘Submission to the patriarchy… baa… female solidarity… baa… traditional duties… baa…’

    If women diverted the energy and time they currently devote to bleating (verbally and in writing) into attaining senior jobs, many more of them would become business directors in time. They might even achieve gender equality in the boardroom though merit rather than through manipulation.

    Women stop bleating? Ha! A cheesegrater will have anal sex with a lioness called ‘Candy’ first.

    Have a nice day.

    Mike Buchanan

  4. I appear to have reverted to my ‘gender equality in the boardroom’ obsession there… apologies. Still, at least I didn’t mention Harriet Harman… oops!

    So… women ‘en masse’ withholding sex as a way of protesting. It’s simply a broader manifestation of what many women do in their intimate relationships anyway, to get their way. It’s childish manipulation – nothing more, nothing less. I wonder how’s that working out for those women’s relationships? Darla Shine has some good advice on this subject in her commendable book, ‘Happy Housewives’. Which begs an obvious question – why ARE housewives so much happier than feminists, as a rule?

    Mike Buchanan
    Author of ‘MY BUM ATE MY WILLY’

  5. Great post. I had exactly the same thoughts. On one hand, good for the women for getting together and protesting in a way that works. But on the other hand, they are using the fact that they are sexual objects to do this, which is a notion enforced by patriarchy. Therefore this kind of protest only serves to maintain patriarchy. I also wondered how the strike is ever enforced. For example, there is no proof that some women aren’t cheating and giving their men sex. Who would know? And, more worrying, some men may be raping their wives and again this would be hushed up.

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