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Spike Lee's 'Chi-raq' debuts: Could a sex strike curb gun violence?

Director Spike Lee's controversial new satire "Chi-raq" opened in select theaters Friday, and it couldn't be more timely.

Director Spike Lee's controversial new satire "Chi-raq" opened in select theaters Friday, and it couldn't be more timely.

The film, which is an urban take on the classic Greek comedy "Lysistrata," takes a look at rampant gun violence on the streets of Chicago. It debuts amid the fallout of the police shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in the city and the shooting massacre in San Bernadino, California, which claimed the lives of 14 people.

"Chi-raq," a title that conflates the Windy City with war zones in Iraq, features a plot line about women going on a sex strike to curb gun violence, which has provoked debate about the efficacy of such tactics. During an interview on "Late Night with Stephen Colbert," Lee made the case that the sex strike concept could pick up steam in the wake of his film's release.

“I think a sex strike could really work on college campuses where there’s an abundance of sexual harassment or date rapes,” the director said. “Second semester, it’s going to happen. Once people coming back from Christmas and some stuff jumps off, there’s going to be sex strikes in universities and colleges across this country.”

While this assertion has been met with some criticism, the idea of a real-life sex strike to end violent crime is not unheard of. In 2006, a group of Colombian women who were dating gang members briefly went on a 10-day "strike of crossed legs" to convince their significant others that "violence is not sexy." Although there is no empirical proof of the effort's impact, the murder rate in the Latin American country did plummet in the next several years. In 2003, sex strikes in Liberia were credited with helping end a 14-year-long civil war.

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"It's effective in the sense that it gets people's attention. Sex is an exotic thing, and many people would say it's a taboo subject. But when someone dares to bring it to the attention of the public, it has two results. People start saying, 'who's this person doing this?' and they start asking why the person is using sex to highlight an issue. And it gets men thinking," Leymah Gbowee, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping lead the effort, told The Huffington Post in 2012.

In Chicago, one woman has taken the concept behind Lee's movie and run with it. April D. Lawson, the founder of the Women in Action for Peace Network, has started a petition advocating for abstinence in the city to fight violence.

"I thought I could do my silent protest, my individual silent protest, which is that I'm just not going to have sex," she told a local Fox affiliate. "I was really doing that just to be a catalyst for change and just to open up a dialogue with some people, especially the men in our neighborhood, to take on more accountability and responsibility."

"All men in this city need to come out of the shadows of impotence and start protecting their women and babies. It's time for a sex strike, girls," reads her petition. "I want to preface this by saying I’m not usually in favor of using sex as a weapon in relationships. Communication to me is paramount and I’d sooner opt for talking it over. But drastic times call for drastic measures."

"In a patriarchal society, a problem will not be addressed until it directly affects men. Abstinence has been used as a means of nonviolent protesting throughout history," she added. 

But Margaret Corvid, a U.K.-based writer and professional dominatrix, rejects the notion that women should bear the burden of stopping violence mostly perpetrated by men. "It’s not the job of the most marginalized group in a marginalized community to solve this problem that is systemic," she told MSNBC. "I should not have to give up sex to end male violence."

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While she concedes that Lee is an "amazing filmmaker" and that his film may raise the profile of the gun violence issue, she believes its premise may also be reinforcing a counter-productive narrative when reparations and gun control could be a more plausible panacea for inner-city gun violence.

"The 'witholding sex' plot [of "Chi-raq"] still feels like an unfortunate choice, an unfortunate approach to some bigger themes. It's like the film wants us to think that black women attempting to end violence in their community by putting their vaginas on lockdown is empowering. But is it?" Huffington Post culture writer Zeba Blay told MSNBC.

"Once again the only value in black women seems to be in their sexuality, once again, black women are being used as props and caricatures whose main focus is lamenting the death of black men. As if we aren't dying too? I think it's too simplistic to dismiss the film as completely sexist, but it's definitely worthy of the scrutiny it's been getting," she added.

Lee's production drew the ire of Chicago's Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but it is earning strong reviews from critics, some of whom have called it his best film in years.

"I really want people who see this film to think harder and longer about guns in this country .... we gotta do something about it," Lee told MSNBC's Tamron Hall on Tuesday. "Gun violence affects every American, it's not just 'the hood,' it affects everybody."