The Orthodox Jewish Sex Strike to Let Women Divorce

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We can all agree that sure, sex is great, but have you ever tried NOT having sex as a nonviolent means of activating social change? No? Me, neither, but many people have throughout human history, and one group is doing it right now, and I wanna talk about it.

This story is about Orthodox Jews living here in the United States. Under traditional Jewish law, women are essentially chained to their husbands and cannot get a divorce unless the man grants it. Women who apply for a divorce but are turned down are known as “agunot,” and there are at least hundreds of them in the US (though exact numbers are tough to come by thanks to the insularity of these communities).

This is, obviously, extremely fucked up. It’s misogynistic, patriarchal, and abusive. And while this is often hidden away from the public, right now there is one woman who has very publicly become the face of the agunah: Malky (Gold) Berkowitz, who has been trying and failing to divorce her husband Volvy Berkowitz for more than four years in the upper New York enclave of Kiryas Joel. Other Orthodox women heard Malky’s story and rallied to help, going so far as protesting outside their house, to no avail. The protests were led by Adina Sash, a feminist who goes by @flatbushgirl on Insta, where she has nearly 70,000 followers.

I’ll pause here to acknowledge something that if I don’t, there are probably going to be annoying comments down there. I mean, there are going to be annoying comments anyway, probably about this very thing, but whatever: I have reams and reams of disagreements with the women in this story. Not only do they practice a very strict, conservative religion and I’m a progressive No Gods No Masters atheist, but Sash also says she’s a Zionist, and you all know how I feel about THAT whole thing.

But I’m an adult, and I can divorce (so to speak) my feelings on those topics from what is going on in this specific circumstance. Just as I exist in a flawed, patriarchal culture and I try to fight for equality from within that culture, there are people who for one reason or another are part of another culture or religious community that I may find extremely problematic who deserve to fight for progress from within. Though yes, I’m sure all of us have at one point fantasized about wandering into the woods and starting our own commune where we can just start from scratch, I really truly would miss video games. So we stay and we fight.

And so when the protests were not getting results, Sash launched a new offensive: a sex strike. She has labeled it a “Mikvah Strike,” so named for the rule that says that following menstruation, a woman should ritually bathe herself before schtupping her husband. She has been asking her fellow Orthodox wives to refuse to have sex with their husbands on Friday nights. This is how I learned that apparently THAT’S a thing: “Mitzvah night,” when tradition calls for couples to have sex every Friday. And that’s nice, if it’s, you know, a suggestion and not a hard and fast rule (so to speak) but whatever tickles God’s pickle I guess.

The idea is that by refusing sex until Malky is freed, wives will force their husbands to pay attention to the issue and talk to their rabbis and fix things. Orthodox Judaism, like most religions, is patriarchal. Men have the power to make the rules, to interpret the rules, and to change the rules. So, this is a way for women, with less political power, to try to exercise control.

This is not really a unique situation. There are stories of women in different Orthodox communities using sex strikes to help their agunot, though it’s hard to say what the success rate was. The difference here is that this one has spread beyond that one enclave, and so it does have the potential to have a bigger impact, which might even mean systemic change as opposed to just some secret local rule-bending while the rest of the adherents continue to suffer.

This sex strike is, of course, also not unique to Orthodox Judaism. The cultural touchstone for this in the West is Lysistrata, an ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes in which the women of the Greek city states endeavor to end the Peloponnesian War by, you guessed it, going on a sex strike.

“If we sat around at home all made-up,” Lysistrata tells the other women, “and walked past the men wearing only our diaphanous underwear, with our pubes plucked in a neat triangle, and our husbands got hard and hankered to ball us, but we didn’t go near them and kept away, they’d sue for peace, and pretty quick, you can count on that!”

By the way, it’s passages like that that made being a classics minor in college really fun. Five stars, recommended, would matriculate again.

Lysistrata was a comedy in which the women teased the desperate and sex-starved men into doing their bidding, but the real world instances of sex strikes have been anything but comedic: in 2003, Leymah Gbowee helped form the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace as a cross-cultural coalition of Christian and Muslim women using nonviolent tactics to end the Second Liberian Civil War. As with most wars in human history, women there had little power to make decisions but were forced to deal with horrifying conditions, including of course rape and sexual assault. They organized large protests, including agreeing to withhold sex from their husbands in the hope that they, too, would start pushing for peace.

They eventually won, but it took far more than “just” a sex strike: for instance, during peace negotiations, the women surrounded the building where the meeting was happening and whenever anyone tried to leave without a peace deal in place, the women threatened to take their clothes off, which would have shamed and even cursed the men present. The negotiations continued until peace was agreed upon. In 2011, Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize for her important work.

It wasn’t just important, though: it was dangerous. Not only were they protesting while surrounded by warring men who were enslaving, raping, and murdering them, but now they were risking the violent reaction of their own husbands. Because a certain type of man will NOT be denied sex so easily. As Gbowee told the classics scholar Helen Morales in 2013, “in urban communities, once the strike had started, women came to meetings with bruises on their faces. Their husbands had raped them, or had beaten them until they ‘consented’ to opt out of the strike. This was the reality of the Liberian ‘sex strike’ that has so charmed the Western media.”

That’s the thrust of Morales’ argument: it seems as though every time women are said to be withholding sex as a tactic to improve their lives, the Western media rushes to label them the new Lysistratas,” which distorts and cheapens the action by turning it into a titillating comedy. Morales ends her essay with this excellent anecdote:

“At the end of our interview I asked Leymah Gbowee whether she had ever read Lysistrata. She said that she had, but only recently. She had won an award and a friend gave her a copy of the play as a celebratory gift. I asked her what she thought about the play and the comparisons that have been made in the press. She said nothing, but gave a long look of unmitigated contempt.”

Morales points out that even Aristophanes’ contemporaries had to suspend their disbelief to enjoy his comedy, forgetting that men can always find a sexual outlet whether through rape, prostitution, side pieces, or good old Palmela and her five sisters. The idea that a “sex strike” alone would cause systemic change is silly, even though it can be one tool that can both get men’s attention AND get the larger world’s attention.

Leymah Gbowee wrote in her memoir that the sex strike, ‘had little or no practical effect, but it was extremely valuable in getting us media attention’.” Morales compares it to other famous sex strikes like the “Crossed Legs” Movement in a small Colombian town, in which women refused to have sex or bear children until officials established safe roads to connect the town to others nearby: “In this instance, the so-called sex strike has been successful largely because it drew publicity to the problem, not because withholding sex prompted men into changing their behaviour” as the men were already fully on board with getting a god damn safe road into their town.

Not only does the Platonic ideal of a sex strike require forgetting that men have other options, it also fundamentally requires signing on to some pretty outdated ideas of gender and sexuality: that men are the ones who want or even need sex in a relationship; that women have no power beyond their physical bodies and the pleasure they can provide to others; that sex is an essential component of all heterosexual relationships; and even the phrase “sex strike,” which explicitly centers sex as LABOR that women are expected to perform not for their own benefit but for that of their boss, aka their husbands.

It also erases homosexual relationships. Are lesbians meant to stop having sex with each other? Can gay men continue to hook up without being traitors? Should an asexual couple start having sex twice a day just so they feel like they’re contributing?
Anyway, these are all the things I’ve been thinking about since I first saw the news of the Mikvah Strike to free Malky. I literally decided I wanted to make a video on it BECAUSE I thought it was funny. Like, I’ve made several really serious videos lately and they take a lot out of me so when I saw this I thought, oh, cool, an empowering protest that we can discuss and have a few giggles because we can talk about sex, and also because some Orthodox men do, in fact, appear to be losing their shit over this. And the “hilarity” of a sex strike may work on others the same way it worked on me, meaning that the message will spread further and bring more attention to the plight of Orthodox women who are trapped in abusive marriages. But obviously, the more I researched the issue, the more complicated everything got, and now I can’t even laugh about how great of a punk rock band name “Mikvah Sex Strike” would be. Ah well, at least we all learned something and I got to use my Classics minor from college, which everyone told me was never going to come in handy. Accipe hoc, osores.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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