Sex! Now that I have your attention, allow me to confront you with this question: what would you give up sex for? And for how long?
A successful sex strike brought peace to a village in the midst of a separatist rebellion. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the modern day Lysistrata unfolded in Dado village on the Filipino island of Mindanao where insurgent violence closed the only road between the village and outside markets. Confronted with a lack of food, supplies and the prospect of dependency on humanitarian aid, the women of a sewing cooperative banded together to withhold sex from their husbands until they agreed to no longer fight. Refusing sex, the women thought, would urge the men to think twice about picking up arms if they thought doing so would imperil their relationship. The goal of restoring road access to markets in other, more peaceful towns, then would be attainable.
The strategy worked! The sex strike lasted just a few days before the men of both armies agreed to negotiate terms that settled the dispute. It seems that to the men of Dado, sex, like power, is most important to those who do not have it.
Though not historically new, this strategy brings up interesting implications about the power of sex in peacebuilding. The women’s strike is a form of resistance and a step in the direction of creating lasting peace. Despite being mired in conflict between Christians that align with the Filipino Army and Muslims that support the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the sewing cooperative came together to introduce a superordinate goal to both sides of the conflict: make peace or face celibacy.
A secondary, yet significant, effect of the strike was a new found empowerment. The villagers now provided food and income for themselves with access to markets in other villages rather than depending solely on foreign aid. With the extra money gained from regional exchange, one woman claimed she wants “to help other families who cannot provide for their children.”
Dado, provides an example of a truly grassroots, indigenous method of managing conflict. Whether the women intended it or not, the sewing cooperative served as a space for dialogue and storytelling. With a mutual respect for diversity already in place, the women could then organize around their shared predicament and generate positive change. It seems that Dado makes the case that the most effective strategies of resolving conflict are those that play upon cultural norms rather than importing new and unfamiliar techniques. By recognizing the cultural primacy of the family bond over taking up arms, the women of Dado appear to be the most appropriate conflict resolvers.
The outcome of the conflict in Dado seems to be positive until one irate online commenter laments “the hypocrisy of it all,” suggesting that women “should not be treated like sex objects while they [the women of Dado Village] act like one and wield sex as a tool.” This view seems to miss the point entirely. The commenter confuses the sex strike not as a strategy for peacebuilding, but as a symptom of patriarchy. “Sex as a tool” pejoratively implies that the women are victim to their own success and that they should devise a “less hypocritical,” more chaste means of ending the conflict. Or, they should simply raise their voices higher despite deaf ears.
Before conceiving the idea to organize a sex strike, the women of Dado Village had no say in the decisions for either army to fight. Precisely due to this marginalization, they were freer to think in more radical terms of possible solutions to abate the violence. This commenter fails to acknowledge both the cultural significance of the women’s strategy and the extraordinary risk the women faced. Failure to comply with demands for sex may have been answered with forced submission or abuse.
The women of Dado should be commended for their ability to resolve conflict in a culturally unique way. They make the case that NGO’s working in conflict management should search for and build upon existing norms rather than simply bringing two parties in a conflict together. Furthermore, the women should be lauded for their courage and solidarity rather than put down for calling for a sex strike. Manipulating sex is not inescapably evil; we see here that it can have beneficial impacts on conflict resolution. Having sex to get what you want can be effective, but so can opting out.
This article was originally published on Insight on Conflict. The leading online resource for locally-led peacebuilding.