Rape and power

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We need to understand why it is the case that gang rape is happening so often in our township if we wish to address its destructive force. We need to understand how conditions in our divided city have led to this manifestation of a desperate need for power.

Most often those who gang rape are disenfranchised young men who have been swallowed up by the whirlwinds of war. Most young South Africans, including those in our city, can be thought of as living in a warzone, a loveless zone of senseless violence leading nowhere.

We must wonder what these perpetrators think they stand to gain from their behaviour, what the value is of such behaviour in their eyes. To understand this, we need to stretch our imagination and see the world through the eyes of offenders - without losing ourselves in the exercise. We must avoid the temptation to see gang rapists as unintelligible demons and instead imagine how we would judge those closest to us, maybe even ourselves, if they or we were to commit comparable acts.

The move to demonise only works in cases where those who are judged stand at a safe distance, a vantage point from where little can be discerned. I cannot say how I would have turned out if my conditions had been as abject as those young men who have next to nothing to live for; who are being told in innumerable ways they are scum and, consequently, who are left with few options but violence to assert their presence in the world.

These men, moreover, are brought up in a space where their value as human beings is largely measured in relation to their ability to consume female bodies. So we should not be too surprised that the violence meted out is often sexual.

It is plausible to think of violence as a substitute for meaning in conditions where the possibility of meaning is radically threatened or absent. Violence, particularly if it functions to unite a group, impersonates meaning in conditions where living minimally decent lives is almost absent. Gang rape is one of the unspeakable manifestations of this terrible absence.

It makes the gang rapists highly visible -even admirable - in the eyes of others, adding to the illusion of meaning that is achieved through sexual violence. Living meaningfully requires that others take note of us and affirm us in some way. The fear expressed by others towards gang members is a form of affirmation, acknowledging that the one who instils fear is someone who cannot be ignored. Consider the bully who asserts his presence in the eyes of others by making himself into someone that is feared.

Bullies are often admired and respected by their peers, or there would be no point to being a bully. Rape is one of the activities that hold gangs together - groups of forgotten people who stand together against a world that offers them next to nothing; that attacks them with the crushing force of a leviathan.

The victim stands for the cruel world, represents the enemy against which the gang is fighting. And it is in the battle against a common foe that the gang constitutes itself. Gang rape is a kind of morbid performance, aimed at asserting the value of individual gang members in the eyes of their closed community and of showing outsiders that the gang is a force to be reckoned with.

One only needs to do this when there is a thirst for power, and such thirst only exists as a reaction to a radical sense of disempowerment, a sense that there is very little for which to live. We are social creatures, needy of recognition, with much invested in mattering in the eyes of others. The gang rapist has created for himself a small society with its own rules, organized around violence.

The victim becomes the site of self-esteem, an occasion to bring the community that is the gang together to assert its power over a body. To rape is to push oneself up by pushing someone else down. There are few more effective ways to push someone down than to take complete control of their body. Gang rape, as any other form of rape, is a sexual act. We have to ask why, at all, the sexual dimension of our lives finds such an outlet in the first place.

I remember my sexual coming of age and how two seemingly different types of sexuality were battling it out within me. On the one hand there was the predator, thirsty for a mate and for the thrill of conquest. And, on the other, there was the thirst for love and companionship, for mutuality in pleasure rather than for the self-serving consumption of another.

The potential predator in me was always strongest when my self-esteem was lowest - when I felt most vulnerable - and when the prospect of healthy and, I should add, protective, love seemed a dim possibility. I remember other teenagers - mostly men - bragging about their sexual exploits to their friends - mostly half-truths -in order to elicit the admiration of the group.

The power dimension of sexuality cannot be ignored and when disempowerment is extreme and, I should add, when predatory behaviour is encouraged, then conditions are ripe for minds to start to prepare themselves for rape. The predatory side in me lost out - although it still lurks in the background - because things for the most part worked out for me. I was lucky. Few are lucky in our divided city.

This piece is an instalment in a series of monthly reflections on our city. The aim is to generate conversation about our place and its meanings.

Find other pieces in the Divided City series on the Grocott's website at: http://www.grocotts.co.za/content/tales-of-a-divided-city Pedro A. Tabensky, series editor and author of this piece, is the Director of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, located in the Department of Philosophy, Rhodes University.

By Pedro Tabensky

Article Source: Grocotts Mail