Although I'm not usually surprised to see the sex scandals of politicians making headlines, this week had a different ring to it: the focus of two such stories was on women, not men. From huge feminist protests in Italy, to a much quieter suggestion of a sex strike in Belgium, women's bodies have become contested during the past two weeks in Europe. Angry Italian women are protesting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's ongoing debasement of women, while in Belgium a female politician is attempting to use male tendencies to objectify women as a means of power. The former represents justified outrage at yet another sex-scandal for a national leader; the latter a potential method of channeling the same kind of objectification into a positive outcome. I'm not predicting that Belgium will regroup after a sexless week, or even that the proposal was anything more than a joke, but instances of these strikes are peaceful, easy to employ and somewhat effective (though obviously they're difficult to gauge or enforce). Given their benefits, "closed-leg" protests are a useful tool. We at least need to give them a few tries to gain evidence for either side.
I don't like to resort to stereotypes, but I can say from experience that Italian men are not always sensitive to feminist discourses of bodily objectification. When you get tens of thousands of women protesting your attitude toward them, however, they're difficult to ignore. At 74, Berlusconi is no stranger to sex scandals. So far he has dodged the consequences of each one, but accusations of his relations with 17-year-old Moroccan night club dancer "Ruby" won't be easy to slide under the rug. Calls for Berlusconi to resign and for his imprisonment (the sentence for sex with a minor could be up to 15 years) are accompanied by claims that "Italy is not a brothel," by women embarrassed at having such an unenlightened prime minister. Although I'm annoyed at certain male politicians' sex lives, maybe it's time to redirect their objectifying tendencies and use it for political advantage.
Meanwhile, in Belgium, Senator Marleen Temmerman has called for all politicians' spouses (read "wives") to start a sex strike to persuade politicians to come to an agreement and finally form a government (absent for eight months now). A spokesman from the New Flemish Alliance party called the sex strike "extremely stupid" and other male commentators have dismissed it from being a viable solution. One disdainfully responded that there were important issues at stake and that the politicians had larger problems to deal with. Even Ms. Temmerman, a gynecologist, claims she has little hope of it working and that she merely suggested it in jest.
Why has Temmerman's proposal been met with such scorn? And why is she skeptical of its efficacy? Could it be that, in a male-dominated political sphere, men are concerned about their sex lives being thwarted? Other signs of civil unrest in Belgium include marches in Brussels and a comedian's suggestion of indefinite beard-growing (a form of protest exclusive to the male population). Why, then, are these considered acceptable methods of gaining attention and perhaps progress, while strategically-aimed sex strikes are either laughed off or discounted as stupid? What sounds "extremely stupid" to me is abandoning a national government for eight months. We shouldn't dismiss alternative forms of political action -- especially those that have been effective in the past or abroad.
Worldwide, sex strikes are rarely implemented. When they are, the situation is typically desperate due to a lack of government control. In 2009, for example, 11 women's-rights groups in Kenya called for a week-long sex ban to force a leadership agreement and were eventually successful. Pereira, one of Colombia's most dangerous cities, also saw a women's no-sex policy for certain men in 2006. Pereira's women attempted to aid the government's disarmament policy and help end the four-decade long internal war by ending sexual relations with armed men. Studies had found that men were not engaging in gang violence because of economic necessity, but because they thought it made them more sexually attractive. Women in the town began the sex ban to show gang members that violence is not sexy.
The point is, we should recognize that sex is a powerful motivator. While I wouldn't recommend sex strikes to solve most political problems, it's certainly worth a shot when times get desperate. In Kenya, a disputed election led to 1,000 deaths before womens' rights groups took a stand. In Pereira, the murder rate was around 500 people a year. Sex strikes can be an effective way of ending that kind of unrestrained violence or political unrest. They should be taken seriously by men and women.