Money is everything, says Azure, the thirteen year old protagonist in K. Sello Duiker’s novel: Thirteen cents. The novel excoriates the culture of the ‘new’ South Africa that props itself up through exploiting its most vulnerable members: that is, its children. When I read the book I was made profoundly uncomfortable by Azure’s testimony of sexual exploitation at the hands of affluent older men and powerful gangsters.

I was terrified by the crude fact that a 13 year old understood the ways of the world so much so that he had gone as far as to sell his body (or turn tricks) to survive. I found it very hard to conjure these middle-aged men who bought underage children for sex. Until, that is, my own memory exhumed a vivid image of a man who used to offer children 20 cent coins at a now defunct bioscope in Mthatha in return to have the pleasure of masturbating around the children who played Street Fighter on the arcade machines.

I must have been six or seven years old, then. I remember, now, how I had averted my eyes and ran out of the bioscope never to return – and since, erased the memory from my mind out of shame and guilt.

It has been only recently, and without warning, that that image came back to me in a bathroom stall in one of Cape Town’s fine dining establishments where a mural of a young girl with pigtails is embossed, in black vinyl, in the men’s rest room. The effect being that when you come to relieve yourself, you do so on the belly of this silhouetted image of a young girl behind the urinal. It is then that the question formulated itself: why is our culture obsessed with sexualizing children? If it is not the classic paedophile that one finds in Nobokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita, it is the ‘sugar daddy’- the darling of our acquisitive culture  – who prowls the streets, day and night, hunting for young flesh.

For the ‘sugar daddy’ just as Azure, knows that “money is everything.” And he has bucket loads of it – or at least enough to trick a child into having sex.

This mutual recognition of the prevailing realities of contemporary life by the child and the predator reflects not only a global culture of consumerism and the commodification of bodies, but also a more terrifying phenomenon: that the bodies of children have become the site of mining for cultural and social capital among middle-aged men, and more explicitly, businessmen and politicians.

This violence, experienced by the underage girl of 15 or the 12 year old boy, is also bound up in the structural violence that evidences itself everywhere around them.

I remember all too well that during the birth of the ‘new’ South Africa children were our future. I also remember the emphasis with which children’s right were etched into the psyche of the new nation. Much of Chapter 2 of our bill of rights is dedicated to this emphasis, and in the section “child” means a person under the age of 18 years.

Fast forward to 20 years later, and one could swear that the age that defines a “child” or a “minor” has been adjusted downward – within the realm of culture – and made the inevitable that much more delectable and acceptable to the lewd tastes of these predators of youth.

When I discussed this with a writer friend recently, we realised that the phenomenon of socially tolerable paedophilia or “sugar-daddyism” is woven into contemporary capitalism and the way it acts on the bodies and imagination of men.

That perhaps it is not the innocence and purity of the child that these men enjoy the most, but it is the newness of the object of their desire in comparison to what they think they already know – in this case, the older woman, mother and wife.

This “newness” is ever the focal point of our acquisitive age. The effect must be that mature, maternal women remind the middle-aged men of our time of their own mortality, their inevitable death.

Young flesh, in this sense, becomes a refuge from the spectre of death, even if only for a moment. A refuge with devastating consequences for the younger woman or teenager, for sugar daddies are infamous for their refusal to use protection during sex.

My friend and I then tried to flip the lens from middle-aged men to the under-aged boy who fancies the maternal as a site on which to inscribe his manhood. We concluded that this desire probably owes to the younger man’s confidence in his own youth. Perhaps, that’s the condition. That only once this youth begins to fade away does the shift occur, moving to an interest in youth as a defence against mortality.

Perhaps both cases point us to the male anxiety regarding death, but manifested through different kinds of men: one who returns to what he once knew (young flesh), and the one who explores what he imagines to lie ahead (the older woman), both in search of a sense of reassurance. And that psychic sense of reassurance plays out in the field of culture as it has come to define cis-hetero-masculine identity in this country. And it is further consecrated by an androcentric economic hegemony, which is backed up by a self-assured patriarchy.

Thus you have all the ingredients for disaster – for the perpetuity of exploitation of children and women through sex and violence, of HIV infected teens who have been manipulated, molested and impregnated by their male teachers, of young marginalized boys like Duiker’s Azure who are exploited in the shadows of our city streets by men of status and community standing.

All their young bodies are the site of struggle and conquest, in a culture that uses money, power and prestige to prey on its weakest members – its children.

Illustration by Pola Maneli

Originally appeared in Sunday Times*

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