Given his reputation for uplifting portrayals of marginalised populations, like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, I expected better from Spike Lee.
On a recent visit to The Late Show to promote his upcoming film, Chi-raq, the director suggested female students go on a sex strike to combat sexual harassment and date rapes on college campuses. The film is a fictional account of a group of women in south-side Chicago who withhold sex in order to stop gun violence, and is in part inspired by a similar movement in Liberia. In order to suggest such a thing, Mr Lee must believe women rape themselves; placing the responsibility on the victim to avoid harassment and rape implies that the victim is also the perpetrator of such atrocities.
In my Sierra Leonean household, like in many African households, we did not talk about sex. (The repercussions of this public admission should be interesting). I recall needing my mother to sign a consent form me to enroll in sex ed class in high school. I left the blank form and a pen in plain view on the kitchen table one night for my mother’s review. The next morning I carefully folded the signed form and placed it in my backpack. That wordless exchange served as our ‘talk’; we never actually spoke about the abomination that was sex.
Given the silence surrounding sex in African culture, it is especially noteworthy that a Liberian woman organised a public protest movement around this hushed topic. In 2003, activist Leymah Gbowee rallied sex strikes in protest of Charles Taylor. In empowering women through sex, Gbowee reversed and subverted the patriarchal ownership over sex that Lee’s comment exemplifies and shifted the power to women; her feminist win was, in a way, a political ‘69’.
African women’s rights have an antagonist as well, who sadly is a woman and whose comments are even more despicable than Lee’s
Gbowee’s actions ultimately led to the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and also inspired sex strikes in Togo. In 2011, she and President Sirleaf jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize. Given the influence of Gbowee’s activism on Spike Lee’s filmmaking, it is upsetting that he diluted the significance of her work by using it as a basis from which he provides women a strategy on how to avoid getting raped.
African women’s rights have an antagonist as well, who sadly is a woman and whose comments are even more despicable than Lee’s. This person is Grace Mugabe. At a rally on November 22, Mrs Mugabe, the rumored successor to her husband, said, ‘If you walk around wearing miniskirts displaying your thighs and inviting men to drool over you, then you want to complain when you have been raped? That is unfortunate because it will be your fault.’
The sex reporting coming from Africa isn’t all bleak.
Both Spike Lee’s and Grace Mugabe’s comments are also grossly inaccurate because they assume all rape victims are women. Al Bangura, a former footballer in the UK Premier League, recalled his experience moving from Sierra Leone to Europe at age 14 to be an athlete in an interview with BBC on November 20.
After leaving Sierra Leone, he moved to Guinea where he met a French man who promised to get him into a European football club. Together they traveled to the UK, where the man left Bangura to be raped by other men. Bangura now works with charities to publicise child sex trafficking in sports.
The sex reporting coming from Africa isn’t all bleak. Gambian President Yahya Jammeh recently banned female genital mutilation (FGM). This is a great step forward for women’s rights but progress is still needed: FGM is banned but is not yet criminal.
Whether Lee’s film conveys a positive message on sex is to be determined – the film opens in US cinemas on December 4. But for now, his comment on avoiding rape is just plain wrong.