Alyssa Milano is misguided to call a #SexStrike: Why feminists opposing the Heartbeat Bill must be intersectional and sex-positive

Many people thought Alyssa Milano’s #SexStrike proposal was a joke. But Milano, a prominent actress, known for #MeToo activism, is serious in encouraging women, particularly in the U.S.A., to go on #SexStrike – abstaining from sex until men help us fight for our reproductive rights. Contrary to intentions, however, Milano plays into the hands of conservative feminists and anti-abortionists who seek to limit women’s sexually activity. Here’s how.

Milano’s motives are noble. She wants a movement that will guarantee women reproductive rights. But sex abstinance misses the point. Milano stated that #SexStrike got us addressing the U.S. Republican Party’s “undeniable war on women.” Sure, a conversation arose, but is this really the best way? In fact, Milano’s ideas mimic liberal, progressive messaging, designed to help fight conservatives who police our bodies. But her language reveals something more dangerous.

How Milano’s language really affects women:

“A #SexStrike is a way to target straight, cisgender men so they may feel the physical consequences of our reproductive rights being systematically eliminated”.

This is a sensationalist message, seized upon by “white feminists” and conservative feminists alike. But it harbours a false equivalency. Do we really believe a man denied sex  (which, of course, is not suffering but simply sexual frustration) is the same as a woman forced to carry a pregnancy to full-term, and threatened with prosecution, or worse, if she refuses to under the Heartbeat Bills currently being passed in several U.S. states?

Milano idealistically assumes men will suddenly care about the violent policing of women’s bodies only after they are denied what is most important to them: sex. Are men like this really who we should rely on to defend our reproductive rights? Lurking beneath Milano’s seemingly liberal campaign is the idea that women should use sex for bargaining; that sex is the only leverage women have to start a conversation with the men about their rights being stripped in a Handmaid’s Tale-esque fashion. Even self-proclaimed “male feminists” have systematically enforced laws in patriarchal societies that curtail these rights.

“If our choices are denied, so are yours”.

This line contains a damaging undertone. Subliminally, it suggests only men choose to have sex, leaving women simply passive. It implies a woman refusing sex with a man constitutes punishment, and not her right to consentingly participate in (not to mention, enjoy) sex.

Further, this implies the Heartbeat Bill debate is exclusively pro-choice/pro-life. Of course, to some extent it is, but we should focus on how this archaic policy blatantly attempts to erase women’s reproductive rights, not their choice, to an abortion. A man choosing to have sex is not the same as a woman choosing to have an abortion. When Milano conflates these ideas she erases the severity of how this bill will affect countless women’s lives.

Moreover, #SexStrike is entirely cis/hetro-centric. Should queer women join #SexStrike? Is their sex less valuable because it does not conform to heteronormative ideas of “real” penis-in-vagina sex?  Milano’ dangerous use of language sets the clock back 50 years. Women are not walking vaginas, and having a vagina does not equate to being a woman.

We are not worthy or valued simply because we can have sex. Nor are we sexual objects. The world now accepts (mostly) that some women enjoy and want sex – not a radical idea. There should be enthusiastic consent, willful participation and enjoyment for both parties. We do not have sex for men’s sake. Unfortunately, Milano implies this; sex is commodified, for women to trade, suggesting we should receive reproductive rights or be treated as people simply because we offer men sex.

Milano’s language reduces women to passive bodily functions enforcing the idea that withholding sex, is a form of punishment. Did Milano consider women in abusive and coercive relationships, where denying a partner sex might cost them harm, or even their lives? We wonder if Milano considered sex workers, who rely on sex for their income.

We spoke to a sex worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, and she considered Milano’s feminism opportunistic in “only recognising sex as a form of work now that is supports their narrative.” She said, #SexStrike ignores that “sex workers cannot participate, because it would drastically affect their livelihood, their ability to pay rent, eat, and survive in general.”

Milano will “call on all people whose rights are in danger to participate in a #SexStrike,” without noting how many such people are excluded from taking part. This is inconsiderate of the intersectional identities it alienates from her “movement”. Many sex workers lack the financial means to withhold labour. Additionally, queer women and other LGBT+ identifying people who do not regularly have sex with men, but still need reproductive rights, are excluded and unable to join. Milano has shirked this except by reiterating that #SexStrike is the only way.

Unsurprisingly, Milano is applauded by conservatives and pro-lifers. Numerous tweets compare #SexStrike to abstinence, along the lines of: “No sex = no unplanned pregnancies = no abortions.” Milano, unintentionally, plays into conservative agendas that promote abstinence without safe sex and pregnancy education. Additionally, a misogynistic narrative emerged from #SexStrike; many men tweeting, ludicrously, that women should join because too many women have sex for their own enjoyment, rather than for men.

We need to look at reproductive rights carefully and fight for women’s justice, but supporting this #SexStrike, misattributed to liberals and leftists, is unhelpful. If you want sex, go for it. If you are a sex worker, relying on sex for your livelihood, keep working. If you’re a queer woman who feels excluded, your voice is valid in the fight for reproductive rights. Do not let Alyssa Milano tell you otherwise.

Becca Bashford and Michele Theil are both students at Royal Holloway, University of London

Photo credit: Tom Sorensen, with changes, under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

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