Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Women of Kenya Have Launches a Sex Strike-Read From The Kitchen Table

You and I are both deep into the end of the semester's responsibilities...our actual day jobs that pay the bills. But I have to come up for air and just talk a little about our sisters in Kenya, particularly the women of the G10, a Kenyan national women's movement. This coalition of various grassroots organizations in Kenya is driven by a mission to empower women in politics, by giving voice to women's social and economic concerns and redefining what "political space" means in Kenya. And our dear sisters have just ended a 7 day long boycott that began on April 29th: it was a sex strike.

To protest the politics of their bickering leaders, to compel them to do something instead of just arguing, a group of women in Kenya (including the wife of the prime minister, Ida Odinga) withheld sex from their husbands as an act of protest. By striking, these women resolved to draw attention to brutal national politics, stalled government reforms, sexual violence, and other causes. In addition to boycotting sex for a week, the women of the G10 also offered to pay local prostitutes to refrain from having sex with the local men. The women in these grassroots organization have made it clear that this sex strike is not about punishing men, but about getting them to focus on the political and economic issues at stake, as well for these men to take seriously women's agency and political power.

Now Melissa, you know that there are many places I could potentially go with this information (we have got to have lunch next week), but let me offer these thoughts: sex strikes are nothing new. Women, individually, have used this as a negotiating tactic since the beginning of time. But is it different when a collective group of women use a sex strike as a particular means of bargaining? Does this action symbolically reduce women to sex objects? Or does it reveal that women have a collective strength in a very particular form of female power? Why is it the assumption that it is the men who suffer because sex is being withheld? Or are we forced to think about the differences between male and female sexual control (i.e. Eliot Spitzer or Kwame Kilpatrick)? Can a sex boycott be an effective means of non-violence resistance, especially for a protest that is, in part, about the prevalence of sexual violence? Can sex change the political landscape of any country?

Melissa, when I first read this story, I had to laugh. I wanted to tell my Kenyan sisters, "good luck with that," while shaking my head in disbelief that a week-long sex boycott would accomplish anything of note. But over the past few days, I'm thinking about the broader implications. Sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender, and romantic relationships find their way into the political process all the time. Sexual activity has humbled many and has literally changed the course of government and politics (think former president Bill Clinton). In today's news, Elizabeth Edwards is publicly bemoaning her husband's affair while he was on the campaign trail, and the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is calling for a public apology from his wife who has accused him of having an affair.

So while I am still skeptical about a sex strike, no one can deny the power of sex in its potential to change the political landscape around us. I'm thinking about how our Kenyan sisters are using all the tools in their arsenal to draw attention the issues of violence and poverty and hunger - issues that dispropotionately affect women. And I feel a powerful solidarity with their causes. So I'd love to hear from our Kitchen Table readers: can a sex strike potentially change the political climate of a particular community? Can collective abstinence work where personal indulgence has failed?

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