Chiraq and the 'Sex-Strike' Myth

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Spike Lee went on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last Tuesday to discuss his movie Chiraq. In the course of doing this he made some rather unfortunate comments. Chiraq, a cinematic retelling of the classical play, “Lysistrata,” has already raised eyebrows for seemingly endorsing the notion that a “sex strike” could quell inner city violence. Lee has noted that the movie is satire. Perhaps so. But when it comes to the efficacy of sex-strikes, Lee seems dead serious:

What’s happening on college campuses today, you know, what happened at the University of Missouri where the football players got together and said unless the president resigned they weren’t going to play, I think that a sex-strike could really work on college campuses where there’s an abundance of sexual harassment and date rape.  College campuses and universities, I think that’ll work.

The audience then applauded this comment. I’m not sure why. Claiming that sex-strikes can stop rape  is premised on the idea that rapists are somehow concerned with the thoughts and opinions of their potential victims. There is very little evidence support this contention.

Much like advising women to combat rape by wearing longer skirts, the sex-strike solution holds that there is something in the behavior of women that might alter the calculus of predators. This seems unlikely. Rape is plunder of the body. It relies on the individual power of the rapist and also on the tolerance of institutions which have a heritage of either endorsement or looking the other way.  The notion that individuals, themselves, should be expected to successfully combat not merely the power of individual rapists, but rape as heritage, which is to say  the predilections of courts, colleges, churches, fraternities, societies etc. is rather incredible.

One might as well claim  that sharecroppers could have ended debt-peonage if only they’d refused to pick cotton. But the kleptocrats of Mississippi did not serve at the pleasure of sharecroppers. And rapists don’t ply their trade at the leisure of women. They ply their trade through great violence--a tactic shown to be quite effective against any manner of “strike,” no matter the genre.

Even the more narrow claim that “sex-strikes” can somehow stem the violence in the inner cities is wrong. It is wrong morally, because it rests on the notion that women, as a class, are somehow responsible for the kind of socially engineered violence you find in cities like Chicago. But it is also manifestly false. Lee cited Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee in his comments, asserting that she’d won a Nobel Peace Prize for using a sex-strike to end violence in Liberia. It’s certainly true that Gbowee received a Nobel Peace Prize and made incredible contributions in her country. It is also certainly false that sex strikes were the method by which she made those contributions. The sex strikes “had little or no practical effect,” Gbowee has written. “But it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention."

That sex strikes are more effective at attracting media than curbing violence should not be surprising. Indeed these stories turn heads for reasons not wholly disconnected from our long heritage of rape.