What’s Wrong With Spike Lee’s Solution To Campus Rape
Spike Lee believes he has an answer to America’s college rape epidemic. In an interview last week with talk show host Stephen Colbert, the director argued that ending sexual assault starts with women denying men sex. “I think a sex strike could really work on college campuses where there’s an abundance of sexual harassment or date rapes,” Lee said. He predicts that we’ll start seeing such protests next semester: “Once people coming back from Christmas and some stuff jumps off, there’s going to be sex strikes in universities and college campuses across this country.”
“Chi-Raq,” the newest feature film from the button-pushing auteur, is an update of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the classic Greek play in which the women of Athens attempt to halt the Peloponnesian War with the only weapon they have at their disposal—their sexuality. Lysistrata is a comedy; “Chi-Raq,” which debuted on Amazon and in theaters Friday, is likewise satire. The problem, however, is that Lee seems to believe that this method really would work, and he reiterated the same sentiments in a recent roundtable discussion with the Washington Post.
The issue is that while it’s debatable whether sex strikes are effective, they’re a poor panacea for collegiate rape culture. Statistics show that 1-in-4 female college students will be the survivor of an attempted or completed rape during their matriculation, and men’s access to sex has little to do with their motivations for sexual assault. Rape occurs as a result of a number of factors—including a psychological need to assert power, the damage caused by toxic masculinity, and the lack of education around enthusiastic consent. The problem isn’t that women aren’t saying “no” but that too many men are unwilling to listen.
Sex strikes can be effective in some cases. In Barbacoas, Colombia, a declaration of celibacy from female villagers helped force the government to build a much-needed road to commute to Pasto, the regional capital located just 35 miles away; without proper infrastructure, a short distance became an arduous 10-hour trip. Another sex strike in Colombia protested the high murder rate in the town of Pereira—after nearly 500 people were killed due to street violence. After the girlfriends of local gang members took a “no sex” pact to end the bloodshed, CNN reports that Pereira’s murder rate plummeted by 26.5 percent.
In the aforementioned Washington Post interview, Lee argues that these cases show that Lysistrata method works, also crediting Leymah Gbowee with organizing a sex strike that put an end to the second Liberian Civil War. While Gbowee did indeed win the Nobel Prize for her efforts, they were not a reward for her abstinence: As Slate’s L.V. Anderson points out, Liberian protesters “also staged sit-ins and mass demonstrations, which were arguably far more effective than the sex strike.” Even Gbowee herself stressed that sex strikes had “little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention.”
Leymah Gbowee is right—sex strikes can help draw attention to a cause, but they should be in no way considered a substitute for on-the-ground activism or having the crucial conversations that change hearts and minds. In 2012, a group calling themselves the “Liberal Ladies Who Lunch” organized a week-long sex ban for their members to highlight the war on women’s reproductive health in the U.S. They argued, “If our reproductive choices are denied, so are yours.” That slogan is catchy for a reason: As Gbowee suggests, it’s more advertising for a cause than a serious strategy.
But Lee seems to believe that sex strikes are an effectual solution unto themselves. In a recent column for the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates points out that it’s absurd to think that such methods would be able to take on the complacency of college administrators and a system that continues to protect and enable rapists, as well as American patriarchy itself. Coates writes, “The notion that individuals, themselves, should be expected to successfully combat not merely the power of individual rapists, but rape as heritage, which is to say the predilections of courts, colleges, churches, fraternities, societies etc. is rather incredible.”
However, what’s most troubling is to suggest that the predilections of toxic masculinity are in any way related to women’s choices—whether that’s having no sex or all the intercourse they like. The problem isn’t what women aren’t doing to stop rape but what men do every day—and too often get away with. As Gloria Steinem once wrote, “We have to stop talking about who gets raped and talk about who rapes. Somebody is doing these things. And we have to identify who they are.”
Thus, the important question to ask here isn’t why women get raped—or whether a sex strike could prevent it—but why men rape. And the answers show just how that Lysistrata would be of little help to modern women looking for an end to rape culture. A 2013 report from the United Nations found that most rapists were motivated by a sense of entitlement—the idea that they deserve sex from women, either because they’re a “nice guy” or because they have “earned it.” For UCSB shooter Elliot Rodger, this rewards system was inherent in his very being. In a video testimonial posted to YouTube, Rodger explained that his goal in killing the members of a sorority house for failing to recognize that he was a “true alpha male.”
In addition to men’s distrust of female sexuality and the feelings of anger and inadequacy that creates, a controversial 2012 thread posted to Reddit (which has since been deleted) showed that sexual assault is a complex and individual act; the factors are different for everyone. While some cite alcohol and “mixed messages,” others claim that “an erect dick has no conscience.” One Reddit user recalled that in the moment, his victim wasn’t human anymore: “My hormones were going insane, I didn’t have any empathy in my heart at that moment just my own concerns. She wasn’t a person anymore just a path, a tool, a means to an end.”
What Spike Lee doesn’t seem to understand is that no matter what women do, we can’t end rape culture until we combat the pervasive myths prevalent in these responses (e.g. men “can’t help themselves” and women are “asking for it”). To do so, we need to start educating men about affirmative consent—and we need to do so early. The previously cited United Nations study interviewed men who had forced a woman to have sex, and 42.7 reported that their first rape occurred when they were a teenager—between the ages of 15 and 19.
That education means teaching men what healthy sex looks like—not instructing women to cross their legs as a means of empowerment. A “no nookie” protest at every college in the country won’t solve male privilege: After all, men have been denied sex for centuries and it still hasn’t stopped rape. Mandy Boardman’s husband drugged and assaulted her in her sleep for years, and when she found out, she asked him to stop. He still kept doing it. And when Boardman took her husband to court, she wasn’t rewarded there, either. Not only did was he let off without jail time, the judge actually told her to “forgive him.”
Lysistrata is great, but she’ll never be the hero Mandy Boardman needs.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Advocate, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-selling BOYS anthology series.