American anti-choice politicians and activists have long tried to overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion in the United States. States with Republican majorities have attempted to come-up with backdoor bans to reverse Roe and restrict women’s access to abortion.
With states like Missouri only having one abortion clinic, Texas defunding Planned Parenthood in 2011, and women going into abortion clinics being heckled and attacked; Roe has been under attack for long, but now with two of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country and a Republican-majority in the Supreme Court, Roe is endangered.
Georgia signed into law the ‘heartbeat bill’, which would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which would be after about six weeks of conception. To put that into context, that is the same amount of time as a period delayed by merely two weeks. At six weeks, most women would be unaware of the pregnancy, so in effect, Georgia completely banned abortions.
Following this, Alabama proceeded to ban abortion from the moment of conception–even in the cases of rape and incest–which is the most restrictive abortion law in the United States. Doctors performing abortions can be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty.
In response to the abortion bans, Alyssa Milano, an American actor and activist, called for a sex-strike. Milano’s calls for a sex-strike garnered mixed responses online, with people both lauding the idea and criticizing the sexist and exclusionary implications of such a strike.
Although Milano’s suggestion did bring into focus the lack of responsibility attributed to men who contribute to unwanted pregnancies–which is completely lacking in the anti-choice discourse–and women being held accountable for all unwanted pregnancies and slut-shamed for them, it still does reinforce sexist ideas and offers potential solutions that are exclusionary.
A sex-strike by women being considered an effective response to the abortion bans reinforces sexist assumptions about women and sex. If a sex-strike is assumed to be crucial in regaining our rights and control over our bodies, sex is being treated as an output which women put out in the world, for the sake of men. It is no longer something women engage in for themselves and their own pleasure. It becomes something they are givers of, not participants of.
Treating sex as an output that only concerns men is going back to the same sexist stereotypes about sex and pleasure that we are fighting to eliminate. Sex as the domain of men and women as unwilful participants have long dominated our conversations about sex, sexuality, and pleasure. Milano’s sex-strike reduces the only valuable output women are capable of to sex. Getting men–be it lawmakers or any other men who don’t support a woman’s right to choose–to take notice of the gross injustice being done to women across America by depriving them of sex perpetuates the patriarchal idea that women only have value when they are useful to men. Women’s value isn’t in relation to men or determined by what they can do for men.
The sex-strike also overlooks the fact that abortion is a trans and queer issue, as well. The conversation around abortion cannot be limited to heterosexual and cis-women. Suggesting a recourse that excludes trans/queer/non-binary folks and is indifferent to the stakes they hold in this discourse is exclusionary and un-feminist, and at this moment it is of paramount importance that we stand united in our feminist values and create a truly diverse and intersectional space, that amplifies the voices of even the most marginalised among us.
These abortion bans are the foundations being laid to deprive a whole country of women control over their own bodies. Pre-Roe era didn’t see any fewer abortions like anti-choice advocates want everyone to believe, what it saw was women receiving unsafe, back-alley abortions, it saw women dying. There is a plethora of evidence to suggest that criminalizing abortion doesn’t deter women from seeking abortions, it only coerces them to get abortions that can kill them.
Roe must be protected to save the women of America, but that isn’t going to happen through a sex-strike that reinforces sexist notions and is exclusionary, and by that extension, unfeminist. Milano’s intentions might have been well-meaning, but when women’s right are allowed to be legislated into oblivion, more needs to be done, and whatever the answer, it must include everyone who has stakes in this dialogue. Our feminism cannot abandon its principles and exclude the most marginalised among us. If women have to be protected, Roe has to be protected. And for that, America’s women need to fight in unison.
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