By Sophie Mainz
“Don’t give it to a Russian!” reads the slogan on the white T-shirts of three Ukrainian activists. Above the slogan, two hands form the shape of a vulva. The women who called for a sex boycott against Russian men want to demonstrate their disagreement with the occupation of Crimea. For this reason, the activists launched a Facebook page inviting Ukrainian women to deny their bodies to Russians, especially to those soldiers stationed on the peninsula.
What seems to be simply another form of digital activism on social media is by no means a new idea. Catchphrases such as “No sex with Nazis!” have been around for years. In fact, one of the earliest cases of sex strikes is found in an Ancient Greek anti-war comedy. In the play, female characters refrain from sex with their husbands in order to secure peace between Athens and Sparta. A more recent example is the Colombian ‘Huelga de las piernas cruzadas’ (the strike of the crossed legs) that was initiated in 2006, as a response to gang crime resulting in 480 deaths that year. The strike was launched to protest against gang violence that connoted the use of arms with sexual attractiveness and status. By denying their bodies, the women sent a sign to uncouple these ideals and advocated for weapons to be turned in. Similarly, the non-violent protest by the ‘Woman of Liberia Mass Action for Peace’ that mobilised in 2003 included sex strikes as part of their peace strategy. And in 2016, in a small village near Antalya, Turkish women agreed on a sex boycott to pressure the repair of the local water system. Prior to this, the women had to carry water over long distances on several days a week.
What some anthropologists analyse as a form of collective resistance to rape and rape culture seems to share one common ground: it is mostly women who refrain from sex to achieve a certain goal. Philosopher and journalist Margarete Stokowski points out that this form of activism contains an inherent problem: it reproduces the ideas of gender roles that push both men and women into certain behaviours. While women act in the role of the powerless and defensive, men are thought of as impulse driven and subject to their sexuality. Both images are false, both are dangerous. But by repeating such ideas and by working with such ideas, we give them meaning over and over again.
Now we are left to wonder if the body as a political weapon that each and every one is given by nature, must always be seen as flawed. When considering other forms of resistance through and with the human body, we find that this is not the case. The probably best-known example is the feminist organisation Femen. The movement, that originally formed in Ukraine, aims to fight the misuse of power imbalances and sexual violence. Transforming their bodies, and most strikingly their breasts, into a billboard to convey these messages, the women have repeatedly caught attention, often being answered with resentment or non-understanding. Still, their messages have spread around the world and enacted a much more powerful picture of women than sex boycotts do.
Other fruitful applications are sit-ins and chaining. These forms of political action involve the occupation of a certain place to advocate for social change, sometimes involving the chaining of the body to solid objects. Famously, these practices have been employed in the US civil rights movement, mostly in areas that were affected by segregation laws. But also movements for the rights of people with disabilities, protests against the gun lobby in the US, sit-down labour strikes, protests for environmental protection, the occupy movement against social and economic inequalities or LGBTQI+ movements have also made use of sit-ins. The legal status of such practices is disputed and varies between cases and countries. Yet, what is unquestioned is the attention that follows sit-ins and chaining, and the power it gives to protesters that otherwise would not gain exposure for their cause.
More radical, and thus, more dangerous forms of using the human body as a mean for non-violent protest are hunger strikes. Fighting for the independence of colonised India, Mahatma Gandhi made use of protest fasting. Advocating the rights of lower castes and against the division of the country by religions, he achieved that the British opened Hindu temples for members of lower castes in 1932. Without a doubt, the practice can be deadly, and therefore represents an extreme form of its kind. At large, however, the examples emphasise that the body is a powerful tool that, if employed carefully and with consideration, can be a game changer in the fight for social, political and economic change.
Sophie Mainz is a postgraduate student in political science. She’s dedicated to topics such as migration, human and animal rights, and keeps moving around the world herself. If you feel like having a lengthy conversation, go talk to her about rock climbing, yoga or meditation, and voilà, your evening plans are set.
Illustration: Adrian Kartoffel