- By Hanna KozlowskaHanna Kozlowska is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously worked as a fixer, researcher and freelance contributor for the New York Times in Poland, and as the associate editor for Poland Today, an English-language magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Huffington Post and several Polish publications. She graduated from Swarthmore College where she was coeditor in chief of The Daily Gazette.
This post has been updated.
With Russian forces in firm control of the Crimean peninsula, a group of Ukrainian women are fighting back under a simple, attention-grabbing slogan: “Don’t give it to a Russian.” The campaign — the goal of which is exactly what it sounds like: denying Russian men sex — went viral on the Russian Internet Sunday, and not in a good way.
The female journalists and social activists behind the campaign are selling t-shirts that promote their cause. The proceeds will go to — wait for it — “the needs of the Ukrainian army,” according to one of the group’s founders, Katerina Venzhik, the editor of news website Delo.UA. On the group’s Facebook page, young, tattooed women model the shirts, which feature hands clasped in prayer and cradling what looks like a vagina. The design is accompanied by a quote from Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko: “O dark-browed maidens fall in love, but not with the Moskals [Russians].” The shirts sell for $23.
“We believe that in the context of military occupation of the territory it is silly to continue to assert that all men are brothers,” Venzhik wrote in an email to Foreign Policy. “What Russia is doing in Ukraine is terrible, but the world sees their actions primarily through the prism of the pro-Putin propaganda.”
The campaign hasn’t yet taken off in Ukraine, but Russian Internet users were quick to mock it all the same. The women participating in the campaign have been called “prostitutes” by users who don’t quite seem to understand that the effort is about denying sex, not selling it. In another effort to troll the activists, one Internet user photoshopped the t-shirt onto a picture of Valeriya Novodvorskaya, a middle-aged liberal Russian hated by the country’s conservative establishment whose looks provide a stark contrast to the young, hip Ukrainian women. “I thought she has been on a sex boycott for the past 30 years,” one user tweeted.
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Venzhik told FP that the group started selling the provocative t-shirts to draw attention to alleged Russian misdeeds in Crimea, which she described as “kidnapping, limiting rights of the Tatars [a pro-Ukrainian ethnic minority], preventing adequate journalists’ work.” FP contributor Harriet Salem reported Monday that journalists and Tatars are fleeing the peninsula, fearing for their safety. “In addition, we definitely wanted to make it clear that Ukrainian women prefer Ukrainian men!” wrote Venzhik.
On their Facebook page, the women selling the t-shirts urge their countrywomen to “fight the enemy in any way!” The group’s founders liken their push to previous sex boycotts, including the one portrayed in Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata,” the ancient Greek play in which women deny their husbands sex to force them into peace negotiations during the Peloponnesian War.
The women also write that they were inspired by more modern efforts to achieve political ends through enforced celibacy. During the Liberian civil war, a group of women banded together to deny sex until their men would stop fighting, part of a larger women’s effort that helped halt the fighting. In 2009, meanwhile, Kenyan women’s groups called for a “sex boycott” to make Kenyan politicians resolve a stalemate between the country’s political leaders. One Kenyan man later sued for “damages” he sustained during the boycott. “Since the women called for the sex boycott, my wife has denied me my conjugal rights. This has caused me anxiety and sleepless nights,” he said. The crisis was resolved, and the activists claimed the strike was a success.
The campaigns don’t always work. In February, Japanese women launched a sex boycott designed to persuade their husbands and boyfriends not to vote for Yoichi Masuzoe, a gubernatorial candidate known for his sexist remarks. Women, he has argued, were unfit for high-level governmental positions because they become “irrational” during menstruation. Masuzoe won the election anyway.
The new sex boycott almost certainly won’t be enough to persuade Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to return Crimea. Then again, neither have Western sanctions.