Drop the Sex Strikes and Hollywood Boycotts: We Need to Think More Carefully About Abortion Bill ProtestsPhoto by Julie Bennett/Getty Politics Features Abortion Bills
On Tuesday night, Alabama’s state senate made history by passing a bill that will effectively ban abortion in just about all cases—including rape or incest—proving that this, to quote the great John Oliver, is the hill those senators are willing to die on. The only exception to the ban would be if a woman’s health were at serious risk, which is hardly reassuring given that this vague phrasing doesn’t specify who gets to determine what’s harmful to a woman’s body. Because judging by the demographic makeup of the senators who passed the bill—25 white men—the folks who are actually impacted by this matter won’t get any say at all.
Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill into law on Wednesday night, and its swift movement through the legal pipeline has been something akin to watching a drunk bro crowdsurf: cringeworthy, panic-inducing, and headed toward an inevitable shit show, where somebody gets hurt and no one wants to take the blame. Alabama’s decision also comes on the heels of other headline-making bills-turned-law, most notably Georgia’s so-called “heartbeat” bill, which was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp just last Tuesday and is set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2020. Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio already have similar legislation in place.
Given the apocalyptic nature of these last few days, then, it’s only fitting that those with a platform are trying to find ways to voice their outrage, and to organize movements to show lawmakers that there will be consequences for their actions. Over the weekend, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted to encourage women to come together in a “sex strike” to protest Georgia’s newly passed abortion law. “Our reproductive rights are being erased,” she wrote. “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.”
Though Milano’s intentions were undoubtedly good, her suggestion of a “sex strike” is inherently sexist in and of itself, which is harmful to the idea of gender equality that she’s been pushing for in her advocacy work with the #MeToo movement. What her “strike” suggests is that sex is a thing women give to men as a “reward,” and that they themselves aren’t deserving of pleasure; that in any heterosexual, sexual relationship, a woman’s role is to provide while a man’s role is to receive. Given that the recent bills portray women as little more than sperm depositories and baby-making machines, it’s not exactly progressive to suggest that women feed into this reductive narrative. Women do not exist solely for procreation or the pleasures of man. “Self-denial and abstinence for some sort of gain is the antithesis of a sexually empowered world,” one commenter wrote.
Another highly publicized protest has come in the form of a Hollywood boycott on TV and film production in the state of Georgia, with aims to hurt the state government financially. Currently, major Hollywood studios spend several billion dollars in Georgia each year due in large part to the generous tax breaks the state offers. Withholding that steady cash flow into the state would, these boycotters believe, persuade Georgia legislators to rethink their decision to pass anti-abortion legislation. The problem here, however, is that those who will likely be most impacted by such a boycott are the lower-income, already marginalized folks who might depend upon TV and film production jobs to get by—not the Republican senators who are calling the shots. NARAL Pro-Choice Georgia is one of the many local groups that are opposed to the boycott, which they argue could cause more harm than good.
On Thursday, May 9, the nonprofit retweeted a Twitter thread by Dope Girls that listed the names of Georgia-based organizations to which distant supporters could donate, rather than “smugly tweeting from a distance about how fucked up Georgia is or how certain industries (that hire a ton of women, poc, and queer people) should abandon the state entirely.” Re-investing money into the state so that advocacy organizations have a shot at enacting change would be infinitely more helpful to those who are already on the ground doing the work than trying to wring the state dry, is what they’re saying.
And those who are enraged by the latest passing of the Alabama abortion bill would do well to listen before reacting. Because while these protest tactics—sex strikes and boycotts—have worked in other instances, for other causes, in the past, their success does not guarantee that they will work in this particular context. It is commendable that those who have the platform to reach a large number of people are taking a stand; in this day and age, to not use one’s privilege in that way is inexcusable. But the next step in terms of enacting an effective course of action will also necessitate that these very A-list power players take a backseat to those who have been elbows-deep in the work for months, years, decades.
Failing to do so could lead to catastrophic outcomes, a la the Women’s March fiasco, the much-maligned 2018 Golden Globes red carpet protest, or any other number of movements wherein those who are most directly impacted are sidelined so that big name, armchair activists can swoop in to deliver a noble but ineffective, or even harmful, solution. No doubt that the ripple effect of the Alabama abortion bill or the Georgia bill or the Ohio bill before that will impact people nationwide when the case inevitably gets taken up to the Supreme Court, but for the time being, if the intent is truly to help those who are made most vulnerable by these policy changes, then it’ll be necessary to listen first before forging ahead with grand gestures.
“Wealthy women in this state, they’ll just travel. We all know this law won’t apply to them,” local protester Lauren Stiller told the Montgomery Advertiser. “For those who are victimized, marginalized, poor, underage, traumatized, the only thing [the passage of the bill] does is jeopardize women’s and infant health. You are creating a culture of shame.”