I awoke yesterday to two notable occurrences. The first was that I was back, at least for a week, in my parents’ home in rural Cambridgeshire (or “The Shire” as we hip non-London youngsters tend to call our respective counties of origin- so ironic! So amusing!). I’d spent the previous week on Zakynthos, on a family holiday for the first time in 8 years, so the lack of 30 degree morning heat and the prospect of spending an entire day without going anywhere near salt water was a pretty depressing thing to wake up to. The second was that a friend of mine had sent me an article about the women of Togo, who have gone on a week-long sex strike to pressure their husbands into pushing for political change- including the resignation of Togo’s president, Faure Gnassingbe. What, As A Feminist, did I make of this?
Well, having one of the best educations that money didn’t buy, and keeping as I do some very erudite company, my first thought was of course to go “Oh my god, this is just like that Ancient Greek play I heard about once with the boners!”* A Google search (with Safesearch on) of “Greek play with boners” informed me that the title I was looking for was “Lysistrata”, an Aristophanes comedy about… well, about men with boners. And women on sex strike. Just like in Togo!
I duly responded to the e-mail with my As A Feminist thoughts as well as my new As A Smarmy Git classical Greek literature namedrop. I think it’s a product of some of the other stuff I’ve been reading recently that, after the “ooh, ancient Greece!” thought, my thoughts ran to worries about the potential for gender-based violence and whether spousal rape is recognised in Togo (answer: nope). Thus far, coverage of the Togo sex strike has focused on the call to strike, rather than the response from women. Perhaps the lack of legal protection will affect the number of women who feel they can safely participate? (Answer: probably.) In which case, the action becomes a rather limited and symbolic one by women at the top (who, to be fair, are more likely to have husbands capable of pushing for political change anyway); or, if widespread, it turns the action into something rather more complex and meaningful than just withholding a week’s worth of sexytimes. My friend was more interested in the implications of using gender relations for political purposes, suggesting that “whatever works” is probably acceptable in this case- and I think we were both a little bemused by the implication that a week without sex could be an unendurable hardship for a man.
But aside from these, the standard As A Feminist concerns about male entitlement and objectification of women and all that jazz, something else was bothering me about the women of Togo’s sex strike. Having covered the politics of Togo for a class assignment last semester, I am probably more informed than the average person about the politics of this small African country- which is to say, I know next to nothing, rather than nothing. So it didn’t really surprise me that there wasn’t much specificity about the Togolese political situation in the article I was sent, or in any of the ones I looked up afterwards- the general story is that Togo under the Gnassingbes (Gnassingbe senior, or Gnassingbe Eyadema, ruled through various coups and “elections” from 1967 until his death in 2005, and his son Faure Gnassingbe has been president since then) has been getting progressively less successful, and the awesomely named “Let’s Save Togo” coalition have had enough of that sort of thing. So, no sex until it’s sorted out (as long as it’s sorted out in a week). The initial article had several quotes from Isabelle Ameganvi, the leader of “Let’s Save Togo”’s women’s wing, explaining how the strike would help women to combat the political problems which they all-too-often bore the brunt of. But I still felt there was something in this I wasn’t quite grasping.
Perhaps, I thought, the answer lay in Aristophanes. The wonders of modern technology meant that I could get a free copy of Lysistrata direct to my Kindle with about a minute (and that’s including time to fiddle with the Wifi settings, which were apparently still in (modern) Greek Mode), although unfortunately free books which have been translated tend to translations old enough to be out of copyright themselves, and therefore subject to the inexplicable literary whims of stupid Victorians. In this case, all Spartan dialogue had been translated into thick Scottish dialect, which means that the following literary analysis will have nothing to do with anything the Spartans said.
I don’t know what I was expecting from my first ancient greek play, but Lysistrata was a pleasant surprise in that it was both short and absolutely choc-full of references to genitalia. It is about an Athenian woman, Lysistrata, who has called together representatives of all the other women of Greece. Unfortunately, aside from her BFF Calonice, nobody has turned up- because it is hard for women to get dressed in the dark, apparently. Also they may be too busy having sex. Lysistrata and Calonice proceed to discuss dongs, then everyone else rocks up and Lysistrata proceeds to explain her foolproof plan to stop the cities of Greece from warring- the women are going to stop having sex until their menfolk get it together and sign a peace treaty.
The other women are horrified! How can they possibly give up sex, even for causes as lofty as peace, unity and making men look stupid (good to see this important feminist cause represented even in ancient Greece)? It is only after a lot of persuasion that everyone agrees- they will all get dressed up and sit around looking beautiful, then refuse to give it up. The possibility of rape is discussed- Lysistrata says that women should give in to force, but lie absolutely still and look bored so that men don’t get any enjoyment either. And absolutely no doggy-style (or, rather, “lion style”. Rawr.) Incidentally, the woman-to-woman dialogue in this is some of the worst I’ve seen since I had the misfortune of watching “Showgirls” a couple of years back- luckily, there’s no more significant man-free scenes after this.
The rest of the play concerns the chaste sufferings of both the men and the women of Greece; the women, holed up in some building or other to give each other strength in solidarity, start defecting one by one to go home and “spin their flax” (whatever that means), whilst the men all have to modify their clothes to hide their enormous hard-ons. A lot of the dialogue happens between two choruses, the “old men” and the “women”, where the women make, to the modern eye, quite reasonable demands to be respected based on their knowledge of homemaking and child rearing , and the old men call them idiots and sluts (sound familiar?) In the end, the men are dragged by their boners (metaphorically and literally!) to the negotiating table, where they discuss their desire to stop warring and go to “plough their fields”. Then everybody gets drunk, the men get back in charge and presumably a lot of babies are born approximately 9 months later. Incidentally, the duration of the Lysistrata sex strike is also given as just over a week.
It goes without saying that Lysistrata is more overtly sexual than any highbrow news account of an African political event- it is, after all, a play about boners. But what’s surprising is the way that female sexuality is portrayed- or ignored. In ancient Athens, women were not seen as capable of the same levels of self-control as men, and are therefore characterised by wanting sex more- the great female victory of the play is that enough women are able to hold out long enough for the men to give in. The sex strike is about abstaining, not withholding- control of men is never assured, because women’s self-control is being called into question.
Reports about Togo, on the other hand, don’t seem interested in the sexuality of the women in their story. Isabelle Ameganvi, whose picture regularly appears, is a fat, middle aged, traditionally dressed African woman- not the kind of person to whom we are accustomed to attributing an autonomous sex drive. This is what is missing from the story, for me- an acknowledgement that the women of Togo are not just disgruntled suppliers erecting (ahem) a picket line in front of their vaginas, but people making choices which are motivated in part by the same sexual instincts they are seeking to manipulate.
Missing, that is, with one exception: a quote from participant Abla Tamakoe, who says: “For me, it's like fasting, and unless you fast, you will not get what you want from God.” Not quite the bawdy lament of Aristophanes’ women, but an acknowledgement of loss nonetheless. Women’s sexuality might be absent from the story, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there in reality.
*In fact, I didn’t get this knowledge from my (explicitly classics-free) education OR my cool friends. I’m pretty sure I was told about it by some pretentious person at an “educate the plebs” week at Eton that my school sent me on back when I was still young and impressed by pretentious people. Although I suppose all she ever explained to me was “it’s about Greek men who all have boners!” so she can’t have been that pretentious.
**Speaking of! When I googled Lysistrata Togo, one of the first results that came up was from the Daily Mail of all places. Some fellow with a beard he probably draws on in felt tip every morning had used the parallels between the cases to argue for classics in schools, because the main barrier for the average British person to understand the politics of Togo is that they have not read enough Greek comedy. Nothing to do with the fact that 99% of people probably don’t even know what continent Togo is on- it’s definitely about Latin in schools.