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Sex Strikes

Sometimes you just have to use what you’ve got. When Liberia’s 14-year civil war tore her family and native country apart, mother-of-six Leymah Gbowee organized a women’s peace movement. She led sit-ins. She led pickets. And when all else failed, she launched a sex strike.

“What does it take to make those who fight listen to reason?” she asks in her new memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War. “As a woman, you have the power to deny a man something he wants until the other men stop what they are doing.”

Widowed and raped and too often ignored by war, women have the highest stake in it, argues Gbowee, who’ll discuss her book at a free event Sunday, October 2, at 4 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall.

It’s fascinating to view political unrest from the explicit point of view of mothers, daughters, wives, and lovers. The juxtaposition of the battlefield and the marital bed is startling (one pictures pent-up heads of state imploring stubborn sweatpants-sporting wives for sump’n sump’n). But if tenderness is the opposite of violence, then perhaps shutting down the ole shag factory is a reasonable whack at peace.

The idea isn’t new. The ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata imagines the women of Greece plotting to end the Peloponnesian War by denying their husbands intercourse until the land is at peace. The male characters lumber around with visible erections while the women promise to forgo all sex, including a position called The Lion on the Cheese Grater (it’s Greek to me, too).

In 2009, thousands of Kenyan women protested infighting among their nation’s leaders by not only vowing to abstain from sex, but offering money to prostitutes who joined the strike — and imploring the president’s and prime minister’s wives to lock it up, too.

“Great decisions are made during pillow talk,” campaign organizer Patricia Nyaundi told the BBC at the time, “so we are asking the ladies at that intimate moment to ask their husbands, ‘Darling, can you do something for Kenya?'”

Of course, sex strikes have some disturbing implications. They suggest that men are in charge in all arenas outside of the bedroom, that women don’t crave sex themselves, and that a woman’s greatest asset is her poonany. Or the knees that guard it.

Some of those things were never true, and some no longer are. But this is: Sex is a primary motivator for guys. Whether it should be or not, it just is. From the shoeshine guy to the commander in chief, a fella craves clean pipes; and resourceful women never lose sight of that truth.

I couldn’t get a single girlfriend of mine to admit to withholding sex from her partner in order to solicit an apology, a marriage proposal, or even a charming handbag. Officially, it’s considered bad form: wicked, manipulative, and indicative of a dysfunctional relationship. Unofficially, though? Happens all the time.

“I never withhold sex to get something,” says one married friend “… but I certainly offer it up more often if there’s something I want! Manipulate, schmanipulate — we’re both happy in the end.”

Leymah Gbowee was happy in the end, too. Though the sex strike had little effect other than attracting media attention (Yes, I’m here. Did someone say “sex”?), her many forms of passionate protest are credited with helping to end Liberia’s war and elect a new president — Africa’s first female head of state.

I have to wonder what other current conflicts could be resolved with a boycott on boinking.

“Are you thinking of organizing a Lysistrata-like movement to end the wars that are bankrupting our country?” asked a sensible male friend of mine when I broached the subject. “I’d be okay with it. If it would only take a few hours.”

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