Last week the US state of Georgia passed abortion laws that wind back some of the hard-fought reproductive; rights won through America’s landmark abortion case Roe v Wade. The new legislation restricts abortion once “cardiac activity” can be detect. 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, 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 “sex strike” in protest. While the call to arms over reproductive rights is laudable, Milano’s approach is a deeply problematic one.
1. It doesn’t address structural issues
Milano’s response illustrates some of the worst tendencies of “white feminism”; with a focus on individual choice and failure to take an inter-sectional perspective. The idea that women should deny men sexual “choices”; frames the issue of reproductive rights in an individualized way. In this case, the “solution” 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 it’s largely unclear, in this case, how the proposed individual action translates; into the collective mobilization required to challenge political and legal institutions.
2. It frames sex in hetero-normative ways
By suggesting that women avoid sex because they cannot risk pregnancy; Milano frames “sex” in limited and heteronormative ways. “Sex” is construct as involving penis-in-vagina penetration, reproducing the idea that only heterosexual; penetrative sex is “real” sex. This leaves little space for other forms of sexual expression 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.
3. It reinforces harmful stereotypes
Suggesting that women shouldn’t have sex until their sexual autonomy is regain 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 “battle of the sexes”. Women are stereotype as the “gatekeepers” of sexual activity, who either say “yes” or “no” to men’s sexual advances; but never actively desire sex or initiate it themselves. Sex is position 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 will not fulfill their role as sexual gatekeeper that is, they didn’t say “no” 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.