On the latest reproductive autonomy attacks & Alyssa Milano’s Sex Strike

By Maya Khamala

Just in case you somehow missed the latest egregious memo generated by the good ol’ US of A’s Republican attack on right and freedoms: Bill 481 forbids abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected except in cases of rape, incest, physical medical emergencies, and pregnancies deemed “medically futile.” Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed it into law on last week, declaring Georgia a “state that values life” and “stand[s] up for those who are unable to speak for themselves.” If allowed to take effect, as of January 2020, the bill will ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, about 6 weeks into a pregnancy—before most women even know they’re pregnant. It also threatens women with possible prison time if they get an abortion any later. 

Naturally, public outrage has followed suit.

Alyssa Milano’s proposed sex strike

Three days after Kemp signed the controversial "heartbeat bill,” actress Alyssa Milano, also known for her vocal role in the #metoo movement, went on Twitter to call for a “sex strike” until women get their bodily autonomy back.

This idea bears uncanny resemblance to Aristophanes’s ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” in which a woman persuades other women to withhold sex from men until they put an end to the Peloponnesian War. 

"These bills make sex and getting pregnant extremely dangerous for women," Milano says. "So at some point, we have to really consider what it means."

Naturally, public outrage has followed suit.

The reaction

First, Milano’s strike is being widely mocked by conservatives and pro-lifers. Appearing on CNN's "Cuomo Prime Time," Milano admitted the reaction had been mixed, but insisted that the greater purpose of her proposal was to raise awareness about the absurdity of the anti-abortion legislation rather than to propose a tactic she felt was possible or desirable to actually implement. She pointed to all the attention her proposal was receiving as an ultimate positive. "These bills are ridiculous," she said. "Most women don't know they're pregnant before eight weeks. I was eight weeks before I found out." When Cuomo pointed out that "a lot of women" are pro-life, Milano argued that she is "pro-life" too. "I don't think there's a human on the planet that is not pro-life. Nobody wants to get an abortion, nobody. We are all pro-life." 

If only that was the widely held definition of “pro-life,” though, right? Sign me up for that world.

Many women, some identifying as feminists, have been critical of the strike idea, pointing out that it assumes sex is only enjoyed by men and that women's bodies are goods that can be denied men as punishment. Some have also pointed out that the sex strike proposal ignores LGBTQ people. Women are of course pointing out that they actually enjoy having sex, and that it seems highly problematic for them to be expected to give up their own pleasure in response to an injustice being perpetrated against them. Indeed, it’s (almost?) like the puritanical right would win if we all decided on abstinence as a solution here. While personally, I get Milano’s inclination to ridicule absurdity with absurdity (and I do respect her for using her fame to speak up), I agree that there are highly problematic facets to the idea, and unfortunately, in spite of such a tweet’s ability to raise the profile of the issue, it seems intelligent, nuanced discussion escapes most. Call me a cynic. 

Sirena Bergamn, writing for for the Independent puts it well:

“Women still struggle to advocate for their own autonomy, consent and pleasure when it comes to sex with men. They’re still constantly judged on their sexual appeal to men. The idea that all women’s power lies in their sexuality is one of the most pervasive evils of a patriarchal society – and this is exactly what Milano is reinforcing. … It also ignores sex workers – who cannot go on a sex strike if they want to pay their rent – and women in abusive or sexually coercive relationships for whom saying no could be life-threatening. …Perhaps most importantly though, Milano’s sex strike narrative dances perilously close to that of anti-abortionists who argue for abstinence-only education (which we know categorically does not work) and claim that if women could only stop having sex for pleasure, we wouldn’t have any abortions.”

Global insanity: the rise of the far right

Make no mistake: this seemingly constant attack on a woman’s right to reproductive autonomy is far from limited to the state of Georgia. No, this is a global issue, with right-wing parties in Spain, Poland, and Ecuador (to name a few) currently making headway in this vein. But the US is leading the charge. The Alabama Senate just passed the most restrictive abortion bill in the country, 25-6. The bill now heading to the governor's desk would give doctors up to 99 years in prison for performing an abortion, even in cases of rape or incest—decades more than the maximum sentence for those convicted of second-degree rape.

Alabama lawmakers are pushing this abortion ban with the ultimate goal of overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. Meanwhile, a federal judge blocked a similar law in Kentucky as unconstitutional, Mississippi passed a 6-week abortion law in March that is also being challenged, and Ohio passed a similar law in 2016 which was ultimately vetoed by the governor. 

Other factors: race, class, privilege

Bills like 481, Milano (and countless women of colour) have pointed out, will affect communities of color more than anyone else. 

"Any woman of privilege that lives in one of these states, if this goes through, they're going to be able to travel to a state to get a safe reproductive healthcare," she told Cuomo. "But for the women of color, for the women that are marginalized, for the women that are (in) low-income communities... these bills are going to be catastrophic.” 

Bottom line: as always, an attack on reproductive freedoms is an attack on women and anyone else possessing a uterus. While we can talk all the sex strikes, contraceptive use, vasectomies (hello!), and other one-size-fits-all “solutions” in the universe, the reality is that one of the ugliest human qualities there is is the need to erase difference, prescribing one route as acceptable and any choice outside of that punishable. For real talk to happen, that needs to change. 

Bellesa is donating 10% of all sales on to The Yellowhammer Fund. They're an Alabama-based organization that provides funding for anyone seeking care at one of Alabama's three abortion clinics and will help with other barriers to access (travel, lodging, etc.). 


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