Anti-abortion activists have been bashing away at abortion’s legality and accessibility for decades, but the past two weeks have been especially dramatic. On May 15th, Alabama passed the most restrictive law in the nation, which would grant no exceptions for rape or incest victims; this on the heels of Georgia’s so-called “heartbeat” bill that aims to ban abortions after six weeks, before the vast majority of people will even realize that they’re pregnant.
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Inside this maelstrom of terrible laws came Alyssa Milano’s ill-conceived and not even real sex strike, which continued to show up in news stories and across social media as Missouri passed its own near total abortion ban. Milano’s announcement (which can be read in its original tweet form here) justifiably set off an avalanche of angry (and witty) rebukes, most of which lodged the same objections: such a strike is predicated on heteronormativity and gender essentialism; it positions sex as labor, as though we have sex with as our bosses; it doesn’t account for the striker’s own desire for sexual pleasure and intimacy; and it flirts with the conservative talking point that fertile cis women shouldn’t have penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex unless they intend to carry any resulting pregnancy to term.
But Milano’s reaction, uninformed, impulsive, and unhelpful as it was, pointed to something important that her critics, strangely, largely ignored.
Historically, the call for a sex strike addresses cis women who have vaginal sex with cis men. Cis women are not the only group of people who can get pregnant—nonbinary people and trans men can, too. But cis men, notoriously, cannot, no matter who they’re fucking. This point (that cis men cannot get pregnant) should matter exponentially more than it does, which is not at all; the laws regarding abortion are, and for centuries have been, determined and enforced by cis men. This doesn’t excuse anti-choicers who aren’t cis men, especially not the primarily cis women who terrorize, deceive, and harass abortion-seekers. The urge to depict anti-abortion policies as the exclusive work of old white men renders us unable to effectively fight white supremacy, class-based oppression, and the patriarchy.
But we’re similarly ill-served by equivocation. Because they wield an inordinate, unjust amount of political power, white cis men—who, may I remind you, cannot get pregnant—are the single biggest reason why abortion in the United States is unaffordable, stigmatized, intentionally difficult to obtain, and increasingly criminalized (as in recent instances of self-induced abortion.) If every cis man decided tomorrow that abortion was an inalienable human right, we’d be freed almost immediately from the hell of the Hyde Amendment and TRAP (Targeted Restriction on Abortion Providers) laws. If every cis woman decided tomorrow that she believed the same, we would still have a long, bitter battle ahead.
A sex strike is an inexpert attempt to highlight this fact, which should be a fundamental and inoffensive concept for anyone who calls themselves pro-choice. Cis men are the greatest enemy of abortion rights, and it’s maddening that they monopolize so much energy and space while their actions belie their professed moral duty to protect fertilized eggs. Abortion providers, along with anyone in possession of common sense, have long known that people who call themselves pro-life (sometimes the very people protesting outside the same clinic they’ll use) don’t hesitate to avail themselves, their wives, their daughters or their mistresses of the same medical procedure they’d like to outlaw.
As someone who has been pregnant and someone who could be again, I’m furious to know that the vast majority of cis men in my life just can’t be bothered to do anything about abortion accessibility, not even when they’ve benefitted from the procedure in the past and may benefit again in the future. The men I know are, theoretically, pro-choice—even my Trump-adoring father has taken at least one reluctant woman (my mother) to get an abortion, yet in true Republican form never hesitates to vote for anti-choice candidates—but there’s no urgency behind the position; their stance never manifests into any form of political action.
Cis men don’t have to exist under the possibility of being forced to carry a life-threatening, life-altering pregnancy for nine months and then being forced to give birth. They don’t have the specter of this biological conscription hanging over them whenever they have PIV sex, with the attendant anxiety nudging an orgasm just out of reach—according to available research, no one has fewer orgasms during partnered sex than straight women. They don’t even have a legitimate fear of being roped into onerous child support payments.
What cis men do have is a network of impregnate-able people—family members, partners, coworkers, fellow organizers, and friends—who continue to love, cooperate with, and care for them, in spite of their complicity with this grotesque injustice. The majority of cis men don’t care about the rights of people who can get pregnant: not enough to demand and vote for the politicians who would protect them, not enough to agitate for immediate change, and not enough to lend even the most modest amount of practical support. (It’s remarkable to see how few snarky, leftist media men deigned to retweet a link to an abortion fund, or write an original 280 characters about the developments in Alabama, Ohio, Missouri, and Georgia.)
Yet the overwhelming majority of straight cis men engage in, solicit, expect, demand, and sometimes compel sex that can result in pregnancy. And if they were denied PIV sex from their partners, they might react in ugly, abusive, and violent ways. This tragedy is the anguished intuition underneath Milano’s clumsy gesture, and it’s also a crucial part of why such tactics would never work. We live with and among cis men who don’t care about our oppression, the oppression they helped to create and still maintain, through action and inaction alike. Since they can’t arrive at caring on their own, how are we supposed to “make” them care?
I don’t have an answer for that—and no feminist, to my knowledge, has ever come up with one. But it’s impossible to stop asking the question because it’s inconceivable that we’ll achieve reproductive justice without the close involvement of many cis men.
Solidarity can’t be coerced from someone like they’re a donkey being led by a carrot (or a cis man being led by a raging boner) but, with direct guidance, it might be awakened inside someone where it’s dormant. There are advocates among us, including truly heroic cis men, who’ve been working on abortion access for decades, literally giving their lives to the cause, and there are concrete and immediate ways we can support them. While we keep demanding the most from those speaking out—rigorously inclusive langauge; a refusal to code abortion as shameful and undesirable; an analysis that accounts for white supremacy, capitalism, and the predictable tyranny of anyone with ordinate power—we also need to make cis men around us as uncomfortable as we possibly (and safely) can. We’ve let them exempt themselves from meaningful involvement in the fight for reproductive justice for far too long.
Charlotte Shane is a cofounder of TigerBee Press. Her next book, Tell Me You’re Happy To See Me, will be released by Simon & Schuster in 2020.