The sex strike shows that even feminists can fall foul of outdated stereotypes
When the news broke that a law had been passed in Georgia effectively banning abortions after six weeks, the internet exploded.
However, one response stood out for the wrong reasons.
The actress Alyssa Milano, long time #MeToo campaigner, called for a “sex strike” to protest against the law, stating: “Our reproductive rights are being erased. 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.”
She added that women had to “protect” their vaginas as “men in positions of power [were] trying to legislate them”.
Her call quickly divided social media, sparking a debate which led to the hashtag #SexStrike trending on Twitter in the US.
The problem is, by calling for such a ‘strike’, Milano seemed to be suggesting women only have sex to please men or to make babies. The subtext says the only power women have is their sexuality and ignores the idea that women get any enjoyment from sex.
This age-old, outdated message is one which feminists have tried to debunk for decades.
And it shows just how much further we need to go if we are to finally free women from the damaging gender stereotypes which surround us every day.
You only need to look at your average home to see how far we have to run.
The domestic sphere has long been seen as a woman’s place and while we might think we’re living in a progressive society which prizes equality, the myth endures.
Caring, whether for children or older relatives, is still thought of as ‘women’s work’ and is therefore underrated and underappreciated.
For years, we have had to listen to the idea that women can have it all. According to this way of thinking, ‘career girls’ – a phrase I hate, coined by men to denigrate successful women by dismissing them as girls – can rise to the top of their chosen jobs while also maintaining a successful relationship and having a couple of kids.
However, in reality, we know something almost always has to give and inevitably, it’s a woman’s career.
We are still notably absent from boards and management roles. Scotland might have a law which sets an objective for public boards that 50 per cent of their non-executive members are women by the end of 2022, but the private sector is another story.
A report by Engender a couple of years ago found progress in increasing female board members in the private sector was “extremely slow” and that women were lacking from almost all spheres of public life.
Women are also more likely to work part time, limiting their career progression and bringing in less money. According to a House of Commons Library paper published earlier this year, in October to December 2018, 6.3 million women were working part time. That’s a huge 41 per cent of women workers, compared to 13 per cent of men.
We all know having a baby takes a person out of the workplace for at least nine months while they are on maternity leave but in reality, it is a lot longer.
Among my friends and acquaintances, I can list on one hand the number of men who stayed at home with the kids while their wife or partner went back to work.
The bulk of the people who cut their hours or gave up their jobs were women. Childcare is hideously expensive which means unless you are blessed with grandparents or friends who can look after your kids for free, it generally costs more to go back to work than not. So many are faced with an unwinnable situation: give up work to look after their children or continue to work but struggle financially.
In my house, after having my daughter, I went back to work part time, partly for financial reasons and partly because I wanted to spend more time with her while she was small. Then last year we moved out of the city and back to the small town where I grew up. This decision was driven by our need for more space and a better environment for our child, but it meant I had to give up my job entirely.
Having a child is one of the best things to ever happen to me and I regret nothing, but it is a simple fact that career-wise, compared to men working in my industry and of my age and experience, I am now on the back foot. As a feminist who has never felt personally oppressed by the patriarchy, I, like so many women, find myself embodying the stereotype. It is an uncomfortable feeling.
Looking at the bigger picture, while there are no silver bullets, what we need is cheaper and more accommodating childcare, employers who understand the importance of flexible working and a total change in how we view carers.
But more importantly, we must keep fighting.
Attitudes don’t change overnight, you just have to look at the ‘sex strike’ commentary to see that even those of us who believe we’re staunch feminists can fall foul of ancient and outdated stereotypes.