Earlier this month there were reports about a teenage boy who was tricked into drinking alcohol until he passed out and, while he was unconscious, was allegedly sodomised with a variety of phallic objects.
Sadly, although such events are not uncommon in our country, what stood out in this case was that the alleged perpetrators of this crime were not adults: they were the boy’s own teammates. The alleged rape formed part of an “initiation” to welcome the young man into his high school’s rugby team.
This event and others like it raise the question of why such practices exist in our supposedly modern era. Psychology can explain some of the reasons, but the bad news is that it is unlikely such initiations are going to die out any time soon.
The first reason, indeed the stated reason, for why initiations take place is to bind groups of people together. It is almost de rigueur for sports teams, military organisations and social groups to go out partying as a group. These events provide a shared experience that belongs to the members of the group and no one else. Later, the group can renew their bonds by recalling the events they have shared. This occurs in almost every group of people and there is nothing wrong with it.
Unfortunately, it is also almost de rigueur for people within a group to believe themselves to be somehow “better” than those outside the group. Homophobia persists in part because homophobes believe that they are better than homosexuals. “Bisexism” exists because homophobes and some homosexuals believe that they are better than bisexual people. So the wheel turns.
Sunk cost fallacy
And so it is with sports teams, whose members seem particularly prone to the idea that they are superior to others. Such members will often feel that being part of the team is a privilege that must be earned.
This is where the trouble begins. The second reason initiations survive is because they make both new and established members of the group feel as though membership is something to be prized.
It is a disturbing but well-established fact that if we are made to suffer to attain something, we then value that thing more highly. This is often referred to as the “sunk cost fallacy”. It is often used by cults to entrap new recruits. The recruits are made to prove themselves repeatedly before being told the “secrets” of the cult. Once the “secrets” are revealed, the now long-suffering initiates are likely to agree that the revealed wisdom really is extremely valuable. The alternative is to admit that they have just wasted time, energy and money on something worthless.
The same process works in sports team initiations. The established members of the group believe that their membership is valuable because they were made to suffer to attain it. This logically leads to the assumption that others who wish to join must also suffer. It is neat and self-sustaining, as circular arguments always are.
Sex and power
Of course, once group membership has been achieved, those who have it and believe that it is valuable want to hold on to it. Thus they are unlikely to speak out when they see someone else being abused. Silence implies cohesion and consent – and because no one is speaking out no one else wants to do it either. This happens even when the abuse is entirely inappropriate.
My final point is about sex and power. It is hardly news to say that some individuals get a thrill from sexually abusing or exerting power over others and it is not surprising that so many initiation rituals involve some form of sexual ill-treatment. In the case of the schoolboy mentioned, early reports claimed he was sodomised with a broom. In other cases similar torments are devised.
And did those committing the abuse enjoy performing it? Of course they did. They even recorded it on their cellphones because they felt it was worth remembering.
In some sense, that is the worst part of all this, because it is an eloquent indication that those who perpetuate initiations enjoy them too much to stop. And once one understands the psychology behind initiations, it is all too easy to see why.
Andrew Verrijdt is an educational psychologist.
A previous version of this story included references to the case of a teenager who was allegedly sexually abused at a school rugby camp. Unfortunately the caption that accompanies the article stated as fact that the boy was sodomised. However, this has not been established, and a Western Cape education department probe has reportedly found no evidence of sexual assault, although it did criticise initiation practices at the school. We regret the error.