It's a Monday, in 2003. It's been weeks since hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets in London, Glasgow and Belfast in mid-February, to march in protest against Britain sending armed forces to fight alongside the US in the Iraq War. It's too late, though. By the 18th of February, the US already has 100,000 troops in Kuwait, ready to accept the order to "execute a mission." On the 20th of March, the war will begin.
But on the 3rd of March, weeks before the war began, anti-war protesters still had hope. Some had channeled it into worldwide readings of ancient play Lysistrata, centred on a plot where women in Greece deny their partners sex until the men in question finally call off the long-running Peloponnesian War. The suggestive and raucous story written by Greek playwright Aristophanes in 415 BC has been used multiple times ever since to send a political message about the perceived futility of conflict. Basically, whenever you hear those jokes about this or that modern-day politician's wife being urged to slip on her chastity belt to get her husband in line, this is the play that those jokes all came from.
For the protesters in 2003, its message felt as pressing as ever. "Before we started Lysistrata Project," New York-based actresses Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower wrote on the protest movement's site, "we could do nothing but sit and watch in horror as the Bush administration drove us toward a unilateral attack on Iraq. So we emailed our friends and put up a website. The response was enormous.
"If America rushes into a unilateral attack on Iraq, the White House not only drives our country deeper into deficit spending, but also alienates our allies, and fans the flames of anti-American sentiment all over the world," a statement on the website read. "Our purpose is to make it clear that President Bush does not speak for all Americans."
Now, Lysistrata's been given the Spike Lee treatment in film Chi-Raq – which is released in the UK this month. On paper, it's a bit of a hard sell, lending a satirical edge to a story that grafts Chicago's epidemic of shooting-related deaths onto the template set by Aristophanes. Chicago natives in particular have voiced their disgust at what looked like a lighthearted trailer making a mockery of a painful issue. Emily Klein, associate English and modern drama professor at St Mary's College of California – who literally wrote the book on modern Lysistrata adaptations – remembers the initial backlash when the film first came out in the US in 2015.
"A lot of his fans and Chicagoans said, 'what the hell?'," she says. "We're used to seeing Spike Lee make these activist films that speak to different issues of inequity and the black experience in America. So I think a lot of viewers said: 'A film in rhyming verse, that's a comedy and is flamboyant and is about gang shootings? What kind of trip is he on?'"
The trailer for Chi-Raq
But Klein says she felt Lee's interpretation was one of the most authentic she's seen, especially since it holds on to the comical context in which Aristophanes wrote the original. "He was trying to use humour – really bawdy, sexy, offensive humour – to hold people's interest and get them to take notice, then think about what the hell is going on with this 20-year Peloponnesian War. To get them asking, 'Why are our politicians so deeply corrupt and allowing this way to continue?' And Spike Lee, I think, is making that exact same call."
The sex strike isn't just a fictional idea, though. It's been used by women in countries like Italy in 2008, Kenya in 2009 and perhaps most famously Liberia in 2003, to try and get men talking rather than fighting. The conflicts ranged from gang-related murders in Colombia to women in a southeastern Turkish village enacting a no-nookie rule until their husbands pressured local government to secure a stable tap water supply. The actual effects of the sex strikes have varied too, with little gained from a much-publicised proposed strike in Togo in 2012, while the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement went on to help end the country's 14-year civil war with an armoury of tactics – one element was a sex strike, but others included marches, sit-ins and the massive growth of a grassroots political awareness.
Both the film and the IRL versions raise a niggling question: if women feel they can only use their vaginas to wield power on a par with straight men, do they have that much power at all? "The sex strike's leveraged with literal, real effects in these developing countries," Klein says, "then as a rhetorical device in the US. I think what it points to is that we're nowhere near being a society that treats men and women equally. Women are still primarily seen as sex objects." It's complicated, she continues, as if to make the women on strike say: "'Well, if I'm just a pussy, watch what my pussy can do to you.' It's a very distilled kind of owning and appropriating, a taking back. 'If that's all I am to you, watch me work that.'"
The film handles that contradiction beautifully. Teyonah Parris shines in her role as Lysistrata, girlfriend of Nick Cannon's gang member/rapper Demetrius Dupree. She unites the women on either sides of a gang faction to "deny all rights of access or entrance", leading them towards a militaristic takeover of a building until both gangs agree to put down their guns. That all of this happens, as Klein noted, in rhyming verse seems corny at first but turns into a device central to the film's sometimes dark, other times silly, sense of humour. The film isn't perfect, but its message isn't even diluted by its gags.
It's ripe ground for a battle over sexuality and gender, though. The idea of sex as a bargaining chip could make you talk yourself in circles when you try to square it with whatever the word empowerment even means anymore. "The one thing that is sort of feminist, in a sex-positive way, is that these women have real sexual desire," Klein says. "And the film helps to normalize the idea that women love sex too, and that it's natural and normal for women to enjoy sex. It's a huge sacrifice to give up sex – you have to be pushed that far." Rather than sticking to the tired idea that "women tolerate sex", Klein continues, you come to see the sex strike as a last resort; a sign of desperation. It may not have worked for the anti-Iraq War protesters, but given the way the world's been run so far, there'll be another decision or feud to fight with forced celibacy soon.
Chi-Raq is out in UK cinemas on Friday the 2nd of December.
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