Monday, 29th May 2023

Rape and toxic masculinity in writing

Rape has become a spectre; a tool of male entitlement, as well as a threat issued to keep women in check. From Kenya to Nigeria, prominent men have threatened female colleagues with rape, in widely reported incidents, without censure.


I served as editor of Ake Review, a journal of the Ake Arts of Book Festival, which holds in Abeokuta, Ogun State, next month. Founded by poet and novelist Lola Shoneyin, the festival is in its fifth edition, and I was editing the journal for the second year in a row. The theme of this year’s festival – and its journal – is ‘This F-Word’. Reading through the slush pile of submissions for the edition, however, raised serious issues for me about the rape problematic in writing. It was interesting enough, to say the least, to sift through poetry and fiction by male writers that – in an edition focused on women – literally embarked on a ‘mansplaining’ project. Some male writers wanted to talk about becoming a son, the journey to manhood and the burden of being a man. In short, an exonerative exploration of maleness – one that did not seek to critically examine itself in any way that could be deemed sufficiently attentive to the woman question. And the woman question is the whole point of Ake Review 2017.

More disturbing was a preponderance of short stories and poems that dwelled to an unhealthy extent on rape and other sexual abuse, graphically portrayed, and with little nuance or complexity. These were mostly by male writers but not exclusively from the male perspective. Why is it that some male writers, asked to write on women’s issues, instinctively go for the rape shorthand as though it were the sole vector of ‘Girl Angst’?

And why often sensational in treatment, almost as something to titillate? My take is that the ‘men’s rights’ and rape-heavy submissions were, to a larger or lesser extent, a function of toxic masculinity. Reading about a Congolese rape victim’s telling of her ordeal recently, it struck me that she was described as looking away the whole time, almost as though it happened to someone else. So, how is it a male writer can be so in-your-face about rape? These are questions that cannot be brushed aside, especially as we’re living through what Naomi Wolf has described as an “eruption of testimony” about rape and sexual assault in Hollywood – which, by the way, churns out graphic depictions of rape on the screen. A globally successful television series has raised eyebrows about its use of rape scenes; made worse when one of its male stars joked about the perks of the show, which enables him to “rape beautiful women”.

Rape has become a spectre; a tool of male entitlement, as well as a threat issued to keep women in check. From Kenya to Nigeria, prominent men have threatened female colleagues with rape, in widely reported incidents, without censure. Even I was once so threatened, at a public event, while carrying out my duties as a journalist, by a man who now heads a public organisation. He was totally without embarrassment or remorse, and has never had to face any kind of reprimand for his appalling behaviour. I could not, therefore, be indifferent to the rape-fixated submissions, none of which made it into this edition of Ake Review. Enough of gratuitous literary rape.

If as a writer, especially a male, you write rape, graphically, then ask yourself why. Have you addressed the problem or merely used sexual violence as a plot device? In ‘Rape – A South African Nightmare’, Pumla Dineo Gqola writes of the normalising effect of such depictions, “Violent masculinities create a public consciousness in which violence is not just acceptable and justified, but also natural and desirable. They glamorise violence in a variety of masking manoeuvres that seduce spectators into mythologising violence. In other words, while watching violence, we imagine we are watching something else: humour, freedom, play and healthy assertions of self.”

The avalanche of accusations against disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has precipitated a watershed. The #MeToo hashtag has gone viral; victims are speaking up. And voices have been raised in praise of Anita Hill, who nearly 30 years ago brought the concept of sexual harassment to the consciousness of the world. The heroine herself has spoken up again to remind that, “Liberal men, high-achieving men, educated men, men who claim to support women, can be harassers.” A writer can fit the profile. Zukiswa Wanner has written that, “The articulate brother at your book launch, who speaks feminist theory and quotes Bell Hooks… The man who works at an NGO, who has all the statistics on gender-based violence, will forcefully kiss you at the door of your hotel room at a conference.” As it happens, Faith Adiele’s incisive lyric-essay in Ake Review 2017 offers its own testimony about such a man, a writer no less, at a conference.

This is not to suggest that male voices are not wanted; they are. But the exercise cannot be like the now clichéd conference about women’s issues that had only men present. Male writers can be allies, but cannot subsume women’s voices. The challenge then becomes: how to curate a selection that is unshackled from the male gaze. Sulaiman Addonia’s recent essay, ‘The Sexless Life of My Mother’, published on Minna Salami’s Afropolitan Blog, is a wonderful example of a piece thus unshackled, by a male writer totally in affinity and empathy with the female subject.

So, in this year’s edition of Ake Review we present a selection of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, interviews and visual art that embrace this vision – unchained melodies of ‘This F-Word’. Pieces by the likes of Pede Hollist and Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto present much needed perspective – invaluable contributions by male writers.

We have a towering female on the cover as festival headliner, in the person of Ghanaian writer, Ama Ata Aidoo. The author of ‘The Dilemma of a Ghost’ talks about her life and writing, issues a call to arms to young women to take themselves seriously; and pays tribute to another pioneer, Buchi Emecheta, who we lost earlier this year.

Anita Hill, Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta – mothers, guiding spirits of Ake Review 2017. The point was “to get someplace”, as Kate Millett said of second wave feminism. “The dream of getting along with mother, the dream of getting along with daughter.”

Short stories in this edition, by Mirette Bahgat and Billie McTernan, celebrate the bond between mothers and daughters as they negotiate their role in the community, in commune with nature. The stories are a paean to healing, redemption and the transformative power of the woman’s essence.

Pumla Gqola will be one of the discussants on an Ake Festival panel – ‘Silence the Silence: How We Talk About Rape in Africa’. I have, in this piece, touched on how we write about rape. But there is also the question of how we illustrate news stories about the crime of rape. The Nigerian media is fond of a close up photo or drawing of a female hand held down – depicted in a way that blurs the line between seduction and sexual violence. In talking, writing and visuals, our attitude to rape needs an overhaul. As actress Lupita Nyong’o has written in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, “I hope we are in a pivotal moment where a sisterhood – and brotherhood of allies – is being formed.” Let the conversation continue.

• Ake Arts & Book Festival holds in Abeokuta from 14 to 18 November, 2017.