Last month, the Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano announced that she’d had enough. “Our reproductive rights are being erased,” she tweeted. “JOIN ME by not having sex until we get bodily autonomy back. I’m calling for a #SexStrike.”
Now, sex strikes have a long pedigree and there is some evidence that they work. But as many other women have pointed out, a sex strike perpetuates the damaging myth that women are not sexual beings. And, since women are in fact sexual beings, a sex strike hurts us as much as it hurts men. So I would like to propose a radical alternative for punishing misogynistic men who seek to deny us our rights: a marriage strike.
I know – of course I would say that. I’m unmarried, childless and 35 this week. I just want the rest of you to be as sad, lonely and bitter as the dried-up old prune of a spinster that I am. Don’t I?
I’d be lying if I said I was unaffected by the stigma attached to a woman of my lamentable state and age. After all, getting married and having kids is the only “happy ever after” narrative that women have. But I’m not sure that it should be. Because the more I see of heterosexual marriage, the less I’m sure it’s what I want. As I look around me I see wonderful feminist friends married to wonderful feminist men who can’t (won’t) do their own laundry. I see couples who fully intended to share the parenting equally but instead make the “obvious” choices that “just make sense”, because the physical reality of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding means he is a year ahead in his career. It really does make sense. But I don’t want it to make sense for me.
I know the research, too. I know that, even without children, husbands create an extra seven hours of housework per week for their wives (how?) I know that single women recover better from heart attacks than married women (a Canadian study suggested that this was because, unlike men, women tend to go straight back into their care-giver roles after bypass surgery). I know that while moderate overtime work has a protective effect on men’s health, for women with caring responsibilities (that’s pretty much all married women), moderate overtime work is associated with “alarming increases” in life-threatening diseases, including heart disease and cancer.
Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, has pointed to “good longitudinal data” showing that while marriage makes men happier and healthier, it has the opposite effect on women. “If you’re a man, you should probably get married; if you’re a woman, don’t bother,” he concluded. It’s sound advice – so why are we so unwilling to listen?
The backlash Dolan received for his comments was instructive. He was accused of “spreading propaganda”. We could not – would not – believe what his data was telling us. It’s worth asking why. What is it about the fact that women tend to be happier if they remain unmarried that we find so threatening? And why, in the face of all the robust evidence, are we so insistent on framing a woman remaining unmarried and/or childless as a fate worse than death?
Recent history provides a clue. Since the 2008 financial crash, natalist and anti-abortion policies have proliferated across Europe and the United States. In 2013, the Spanish government attempted to ban all abortion except in the case of rape or serious risk to the mother or foetus; in 2016 Poland attempted the same. Seven US states have so far this year enacted bans on most or all abortions.
Meanwhile, Hungary, a country that has been chipping away at abortion provision for years, has introduced the “Family Protection Action Plan”, which gives loans to women who marry for the first time under the age of 40 (there’s hope for me yet!). For women who have three children, these loans will never have to be repaid.
Some of this push towards Kinder, Küche, Kirche is driven by racism and fears of what is called a “white genocide”: the white race dying out because the “wrong” women are having more babies. But it is also driven by a desire to keep women in their place: a Canadian study from 2011 found that when men feel that their country is experiencing an economic and political downturn, they are far more likely to defend committed relationships. Notably, this effect was not found for women.
In this light, the need to blackmail women into marriage and motherhood starts to make more sense. Clearly there’s an unspoken power dynamic at play here. There is something men are getting from marriage that women are not. As Caitlin Moran wrote, “You can tell whether some misogynistic societal pressure is being exerted on women by calmly enquiring, ‘And are the men doing this as well?’ If they aren’t, chances are you’re dealing with what we strident feminists refer to as ‘some total fucking bullshit’.”
In anticipation of turning 35, I’ve been collecting women who challenge this “total fucking bullshit”. Jane Austen. Diane Keaton. Greta Garbo. Stella Browne. Eleanor Rathbone. All successful and brilliant. All unmarried and, by their own accounts, extremely happy ever after.
The reality is that marriage certainly doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite to a woman’s happiness and all the evidence shows that it may very well seriously damage her health and well-being. Meanwhile, marriage seems incredibly important to a lot of people who don’t support women’s rights. So maybe women need a new narrative; a new “happy ever after”. And maybe the first step is a marriage strike.
Caroline Criado Perez is author of “Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” (Chatto & Windus)
This article appears in the 12 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind