Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A nation's sex strike for democracy

updated 7:46 AM EDT, Wed August 29, 2012
A woman confronts police officers outside a gathering in Lome, Togo, of the opposition group Let's Save Togo.
A woman confronts police officers outside a gathering in Lome, Togo, of the opposition group Let's Save Togo.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Activist women of Togo are withholding sex to get men to take action against dictator
  • Sex strike organizers say they will use whatever power they have for democratic change
  • Successful sex strikes have happened many times historically and globally
  • Frida Ghitis: But women need real power to have a fair say and role in political process

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- In a time of global political combustion, with calls for democracy sparking mass demonstrations, self-immolations and civil wars, the women of the small African country of Togo might be the first to try to bring down a dictator by staging a sex strike.

The women, along with many men in Togo, have had enough of one-family rule. President Faure Gnassingbe took the presidency in 2005, shortly after the death of his father, who had held power for 38 years. The country has maintained a thin democratic fa├žade, holding regular elections, but between father and son, the family has not relinquished power in four decades.

Opposition protests demanding changes to the electoral law ahead of the next elections have resulted in clashes with security forces and mass arrests. So on Saturday, in front of thousands of people at a rally in the capital of Lome, the female members of the opposition group Let's Save Togo announced the deployment of their new weapon.

Isabelle Ameganvi, head of the women's wing of the group, called on all Togolese women to "keep the gate of your 'motherland' locked up" for a week. If all goes according to plan, this is the week during which Togo's men are having time to think about the motherland and about their yearning for, well, democracy.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Organizers of the sex strike say they want to bring about the release of prisoners, and they want to motivate the men to take action against Gnassingbe. Ultimately, they want to see a true democratic change and the president to step down.

The idea of using sex for political objectives is not new. Women, who throughout history have found themselves at a disadvantage with men holding most of the power, have long known that men have a special vulnerability when it comes to sex. Withholding sex has been used to achieve political goals before.

As with every occasion when women have resorted to this tactic, the decision was reached after profound frustration with other methods. And it is a sign that women's power remains very limited that their best strategy is to pressure men to take action.

Some women say this tactic harms women by emphasizing their sexuality rather than their humanity. But Togo's activists say they are using their power wherever they can find it.

The idea of a sex strike has a history that goes all the way back to ancient Greece. In the play "Lysistrata," the women of Athens, fed up with the men's endless wars, decide to stop having sex with them until they put an end to the Pelopponesian War. The comedy was performed before Athenian audiences exactly 2,500 years ago.

Interestingly, in the play by Aristophanes, the women do more than withhold sex. They also take over the Parthenon, where the city holds the treasury that funds the war, and they fight to hold on.

It may take more than sex to persuade men to do the right thing, but "Lysistrata"-inspired actions have an illustrious and possibly successful track record.

In the countless times when women have launched sex strikes, it's impossible to know whether it was the lack of sex that ultimately produced the desired outcomes, because by the time women opted to brandish this weapon, they had tried many other ways. And it is also impossible to know just how thoroughly each strike was implemented. Or how many men resorted to sexual violence to break the strike.

Still, there are some interesting examples of women achieving their objectives -- which, incidentally, always seem to benefit society at large, not just women -- after the sex strike was called. Whether one thing produced the other is a subject of debate.

The clearest case of success took place in the Colombian town of Barbacoas, where last year women launched their "crossed legs strike" to demand construction of a road. They would not have sex, they vowed, until the men managed to get a road built so that it wouldn't take 10 hours to reach the provincial capital just 35 miles away.

Moved by the men's unimaginable suffering, the government agreed to build the road.

A few years earlier, also in Colombia, the wives and girlfriends of gang members in the embattled city of Pereira said they would keep their legs crossed unless the men stopped the violence that had killed nearly 500 people. The murder rate reportedly dropped by 26.5%.

But it wasn't ancient Greece or South America or a recent sex strike in the Philippines that inspired the Togolese pro-democracy activists. It was the amazing story of Liberia that gave them cause for optimism.

In 2003, the Liberian people had endured 14 years of a brutal civil war that had torn the country apart. The leaders of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace organized a series of nonviolent actions, including a sex strike, demanding an end to the war. The group's leader, Leymah Gbowe, later won the Nobel Peace Prize, sharing with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, another Liberian woman who was about to make history.

Again, nobody knows just how important a role the no-sex portion of the protests played. But before the year was over, the parties to the conflict signed a peace deal ending the war and laying the groundwork for democratic elections.

When Liberians went to the polls, the majority voted for Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman elected president in Africa's history.

Now that is a success story, because once women hold real political power, they no longer need to resort to sex strikes and other indirect means to express their views and obtain results. In the end, it's about giving all citizens, including women, a fair say in the political process. That's the ultimate goal in the struggle for true democracy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:08 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
updated 12:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
updated 7:40 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
updated 7:46 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
updated 1:33 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT