Actress Alyssa Milano this month called for an unusual response to the surge in state-level efforts to restrict abortion rights: Withhold sex to exert political leverage. Milano tweeted : “Until women have legal control over our own bodies we just cannot risk pregnancy. JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back. I’m calling for a #SexStrike.” An accompanying graphic said, “If our choices are denied, so are yours.” She followed this up with an earnest opinion article on CNN.com calling sex strikes “a longstanding, effective and empowering method to fight for change,” pointing back to the most famous literary depiction of such an effort, Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” a comedy first performed in Athens in 411 B.C.
As “Lysistrata” opens, the Peloponnesian War, pitting Athens against Sparta, has been raging for 20 years. The title character persuades the women on both sides to refuse to have sex with their husbands until they end the conflict. After a great deal of innuendo, teasing and debate, the men agree. At the play’s end, Lysistrata summons a naked female figure named Reconciliation, and the Athenian and Spartan delegates use her body as a metaphorical map of Greece to decide which hills and meadows each side will take (“We want the Megarian legs”). Lysistrata may have achieved her mission, but real-life Greece spent seven more years in bloody conflict.