“But in a place like Barbacoas…” : Global Sex Politics And Worrying Too Much About Stereotypes

3 Aug

A piece from the always fascinating, often challenging GOOD caught my eye yesterday, thanks to smart headline writing: “THE CROSSED-LEGS TACTIC: When Does It Make Sense To Go On A Political Sex Strike?”   Nona Willis Aronowitz (henceforth NWA, to save space) takes the town of Barbacoas, Colombia for a lens in evaluating the political viability and appropriateness of women-led sex strikes.

The women of Barbacoas, Colombia are taking matters into their own, er, vaginas. The Guardian published a piece yesterday about a sex strike on the tiny port village, where women are protesting its egregiously inadequate roads. These prehistoric streets make it so difficult to access the rest of the province that they have caused food costs to soar, and in cases where ambulances get stuck in the mud, many deaths. After tireless political protest and hunger strikes throughout the years, local women are now “crossing their legs” in protest. Their slogan since June? “No more sex. We want our road.”

With the characters and the stakes thus laid out, the writer steps back for reflection, noting that Aristophanes wrote an entire play about a sex strike, and then asks if the ages-old tactic is really such a good idea:

But does abstinence ever make sense as a protest? And are the women who adopt this strategy ultimately undercutting their own political power?

Read the whole thing and you’ll see that her answer to the former is a heavily qualified “yes.”

The second question never gets answered. It hangs in the air around the piece like a disembodied scowl from some disapproving aunt (who might be okay with withholding sex as a political tactic sometimes, but only if you justify it to her with a substantive connection between babymaking and your cause).
Because the piece never returns directly to that important question, you’re stuck interpreting your way to an answer. The worry seems to be that the tactic is too primal, too simplistic, too closely tied to paternalistic gender roles that younger Americans rightly see as silly and stunting. “It paints men as horny brutes and women as sacrificial gatekeepers,” NWA writes. Sex-denying women “feel they can’t control [the group] except with their bodies.” The sex picket line is a last resort, all-in tactic.

That strikes me as oversimple. These women aren’t seeking to dominate or control their men, they’re seeking a concrete political outcome. In a vacuum, the tactic does play to unhelpful stereotypes. But there need not be an analytic vacuum around it! Indeed, as the article itself notes, throwing sex into the mix is a great way to get media coverage for a cause – coverage which should spark a conversation. In that conversation, it ought to be possible to point out that hey, women like sex too! (NWA actually brings this up for one sentence in the third paragraph, but only so that she can swat it aside in the same sentence.) A sex strike by women is, in theory, as much about self-abnegation as it is about “horny brutes” and “sacrificial gatekeepers.” If our conversations about sex strikes don’t get past the lizard-brain stuff, why blame the sex strikers for our own failure of imagination?

The closest NWA comes to directly addressing her own question about sex strikes undercutting female political power is to worry, at the bottom of the piece, that “When used indiscriminately, all a sex strike does is pit men against women and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.” That implies that even a sex strike that’s sufficiently discriminating will undermine the fight to discard outdated ideas about gender roles. We’re back to the first rhetorical from above: “does abstinence ever make sense as a protest?” Here’s that heavily qualified “yes” I mentioned:

[C]ontext is everything. The women in Colombia aren’t simply playing the sex card; they’re connecting their life-or-death struggle to their future children. “We are being deprived of our most human rights and as women we can’t allow that to happen,” Ruby Quinones, one of the organizers, told a local newspaper. “Why bring children into this world when they can just die without medical attention and we can’t even offer them the most basic rights?” Of course, in a country where birth control is accessible (and nowfree!) and abortion is legal, this defense rings hollow. But in a place like Barbacoas, where access to even basic medical care is strained and ending a pregnancy could get you three years in prison, a strike like this suddenly becomes meaningful.

The logic offered by the women of Barbacoas wouldn’t justify a sex strike protest in the first world, the thinking goes, “But in a place like Barbacoas…” As endorsements go, that’s pretty thin gruel. NWA seems to be saying that if first-world women denied men sex to gain leverage to lobby for infrastructure investment (or some other very practical, very un-sexy things that nonetheless benefit the next generation – a more progressive tax code? a working public education system?), and rationalized the tactic by talking about the future they want for their children, that would be “hollow.” Those women would be guilty of setting back gender equality as a cause by reinforcing the image of men as slavering sex-mad “brutes,” and women as sex objects first and persuasive intellectual beings second (or never). “But in a place like Barbacoas,” with its backwards abortion laws and lousy reproductive health care, “a strike like this suddenly becomes meaningful.”

The very structure of the phrase “suddenly becomes meaningful” suggests that this particular sex protest sprung forth from a crowded field of meaningless sex strikes, due to the exceptional circumstances faced by the women of Barbacoas. Those other sex strikes, in Belgium and Kenya and elsewhere in Colombia, meet with NWA’s disapproval because the connection between the political cause and the crossed legs is too tenuous. But this one, in the romantic-sounding hamlet with the fatally dysfunctional roads, gets leeway. What if the Kenyan women who confronted political instability with a sex strike in 2009 had gotten a Guardian writer to quote them connecting the political climate to their fears for the next generation? Would that make it OK? The underexplored distinction between cases allows the interest in Barbacoas from an American writer to feel like a parachute drop, which doesn’t serve the larger questions NWA raises about women the world over.

It’s that parachuted-in feel to the piece that’s ultimately so frustrating. Look, I don’t know about Colombian villages. I haven’t researched Barbacoas closely either. But when you assert that women in the U.S. or developed Europe only employ a sex strike when the cause is very directly tied to reproductive rights or health, while third-world women get the leeway to use arguments that would be “hollow” elsewhere, you’re essentially arguing that as societies advance women should lay down some of their political weapons, and employ a smaller, tidier quiver of tactics to push public policy in their preferred direction. That’s where I get off the train.

Go read the whole thing. It’s provocative and well-written, and not a repudiation of the Colombians, as I carelessly termed it on Twitter yesterday (newsflash: I’m a dick on Twitter). What burns me up here is the notion that women should evolve past sexualized politics when their societies are culturally and economically able to do so. NWA doesn’t repudiate the women of Barbacoas, but her article does discourage women from using sex as politics in the vast majority of cases, regardless of whether or not it would work.

I say, do whatever works. Here in the highly-gender-evolved climes of the U.S., there were no women in the room negotiating over massive spending cuts that will disproportionately affect women. When that’s happening in the wealthiest, most developed country in the world, women ought to be less worried about “undercutting their own political power” and more open to radical steps that might end their political impotence.

This post brought to you by Alan, who is a freelance writer and researcher for PoliticalCorrection.org. The opinions expressed above are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Political Correction or the Media Matters Action Network.

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