Back in the late fifth century, one thing many Athenians wanted was peace with the Spartans, though at critical moments too many Athenians kept voting for actions that perpetuated hostilities, or the Spartans would go on the aggression, and peace negotiations would break down. “Let the war drag on!” as the characters of the Knights(?) say repeatedly, clearly mocking current affairs and the politicians competing for leadership.
In 413 BCE, two years into a bombastic and ultimately hubristic campaignI’m to conquer Sicily, Aristophanes had a comedy produced called the Lysistrata as a comedic answer to what was ailing the Athenians at that moment.
Quick primer on Aristophanes: he was a comedian roughly contemporary with the tragedians Sophocles and Euripides, and has been read for several centuries now as a staunch oligarch poking holes in democratic ideas, lifestyles and typical plans. But on my reading, along with a minority of other scholars, Aristophanes was more democratic than the typical democratically inclined citizen, not so different from a contemporary progressive critiquing a bunch of thoughts-and-prayers liberals. Suffice it to say, in place of the arguments on Aristophanes as an ultra-democrat that I’m planning to lay out in an article soon, his comedies can be read in an overly straightforward way as oligarchic critiques of democratic life, or else as progressive critiques of democratic procedures and (despite what he is quick to claim in one of his speeches during a sort of intermission) the average Athenian’s understanding of current affairs and views of well-known figures like Socrates and the natural scientists like Anaxagoras (who was connected to the previous generation’s greatest statesman, a man named Pericles, who is sure to infuriate anyone who would consider themselves progressive). For now we’ll treat him as the ‘progressive’ I suspect he was, an Athenian Jon Stewart, with whom Aristophanes shares not only political sensibilities but also a biting tongue and quick wit.
So, the Lysistrata… For reasons unknown (though I have my suspicions here as well that I will eventually share elsewhere), Aristophanes decided to stage a sex-strike conducted by the women of Greece, all the Greek women, not only Athenian women, working together to bring about peace between the Athenian and Spartan coalitions (i.e. their men). There’s the usual humdrum fare typical of ancient comedy, the kind of humor seen in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, for example; but there is a great deal of larger political discussion as well that is worth considering.
It remains one of the most frequently staged comedies, maybe even dramas, from classical Athens because it has managed to be relevant to advocates for women’s rights ever since the time of the French Revolution.
Oddly, in this and only this comedy (among those that survive at least), Aristophanes’ eponymous protagonist is a genuine heroine; there is nothing comedic about her at all: she is deadly serious and her strikes land true. She has been identified as a certain Lysimakhe, who was then the acting priestess of Athena Polias, the city’s main goddess, and so the most influential woman in the city and one of the most influential among the crowd of men running public affairs. I suspect this Lysimakhe had done something, or a series of things, that managed to catch Aristophanes’ attention and earn his admiration—an extremely difficult achievement for a public figure of Lysimakhe’s pedigree, wealth and nobility.
In fact, given that the priestess of Athena Polias was chosen from one of the city’s oldest continuous families, and one of its noblest families at that, and given that Lysimakhe was a person of significance in the public arena, she would more naturally have struck Aristophanes as an apt target of abuse than she would have appeared to him as a figure of open admiration. So I’m fairly convinced, given also my own reading of Aristophanes’ politics, that this Lysimakhe was involved in bettering the majority against the interests of the aristocrats with whom she was associated.
Historically the dissent of 415 failed terribly, managing only to galvanize those who already supported the expedition. So with his Lysistrata, Aristophanes seems to be saying, ‘we should’ve listened to the women in the first place!’
My point is twofold: First of all, maybe you’re intrigued enough to look into the Lysistrata more, maybe even read it for yourself. Excellent! Second, the idea of a sex-strike is the exact kind of thing we need right now to take concrete action to ensure that women’s autonomy is on the ballot this November. No sex until your men have cast their votes for democrats who have vowed to pass legislation enshrining your rights into law!
If enough women got on board, there could even be an amendment ratified by the end of next year—and I’m not even being facetious! A lot of men are motivated by sex, aren’t they? They have other motivations, of course, but for so many men sex is a powerful drive; it forms a core component of the standard performance of masculinity. And while I wouldn’t seek to deny a woman’s sexual desires (notice how Aristophanes regards the desires of women as entirely natural, so different from most contemporary treatments, treating it frankly, if often with exaggerations to produce comedy), I know for a fact that most women tend to have more willpower than their men, since it is written into performing one’s womanhood in the US by performing a steadfast maternity and to give total preference to that role, thoroughly de-sexualized, over herself.
I am not being flippant or ridiculous: first of all a sex strike is far more relevant to the current situation than Aristophanes’ use of the tactic. If you cannot ensure your own health and wellbeing without your full rights, then does it really make sense to endanger your health and wellbeing through sexual activity? Very obviously there are additional legal implications in states like Texas for women who engage in sex with men. If a woman becomes pregnant and requires an abortion she is liable for prosecution by any of her peers. Why risk it? Your health matters. Your freedom from criminal penalties matters. Tell your men you’ll have all the sex in the world once you’re in control of your own body; but till then, no chance, pal.
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