Dangerous, disavowed, yet maintained in secret: the underworld of hazing seems unstoppable to students and adults alike.
My first year at university, a November night found me in the backyard of a student house – blindfolded, mushy peas sliding down my back, drinking spirits out of a hollowed onion. That same year at a different college, my sister was dressed in a bin bag with a penis sharpie-d on her forehead, and led drunkenly through the city centre.
Bad as it sounds – humiliating, degrading as it sounds – we were lucky. By one o’clock we were home safe, had showered off the gunge, and just like that we had been ‘accepted’ into our teams.
One month later, a boy at my university died from forced drinking during an initiation. Parents and the media were shocked. Not at how it happened – hazing is known for involving grim, alcohol-based challenges – but at why it still happens.
For students the issue was more divisive; those who had never experienced hazing condemned it, but for the girls on my team and I, it felt more complicated. We knew hazing was unpleasant, and in cases even dangerous, yet we had gone into our initiations willingly. We had even enjoyed it (although maybe only after the fact). And this wasn’t something that we or our friends could properly understand.
At any university, there are hundreds of societies for students to get involved in. Do you like cheerleading? Chess? Football? Politics? Theatre? The options are innumerable, and yet only a few of these groups practice initiations.
This small selection of groups is also similar across nations. In Canada and America, hazing is rife among sports teams and fraternities; in the UK, where greek life does not exist, sports teams, Agricultural Societies, and medics’ teams all have a bad rep.
The reflex association with initiations is drinking; toxic quantities, unpleasant methods, and gag-worthy substances. Yet, it is also apparent that drinking age and drinking culture don’t influence hazing; in America, 55% of students involved in athletics and/or Greek-letter organisations have been hazed – this in a nation where almost all students are under the legal drinking age – while in the UK, where people can drink from age 18, despite a dearth of research initiations are known to be widespread, and the horror stories which reach the media all tell of excessive alcohol consumption. The attitude of initiations is entirely distinct from the idea that drinking is subversive, and ‘cool’ in a country where it is not legal.
Jay Johnson, a sociologist who has done extensive research into American hazing, points out the link between hazing and sports:
“Athletes often describe their ‘need’ to have an initiation ceremony,” he says, “as a team bonding experience that marks the group as a “team” and its members as “teammates” for the first time.”
Specifically, initiations produce a sense of “communitas”; that is, identity as part of the group, cohesion, and a relationship with other members of the group. This explains how initiations – when done well, and it is another issue entirely whether university initiations are done well – can be a positive experience, marking someone’s welcome into the fold.
So the need outlined by Johnson for sports teams to develop a bond, to work well as a unit, goes some way toward explaining why they and not, say, the film society, haze incoming members. But there is also something more ominous at play.
In winter 2016, a rumour reached us about the initiations for the women’s rugby team at another Northern university.
The girls, it was said, had been made to sit on white towels and watch porn. At the end, there were fines for the wettest towels. This rumour remains unsubstantiated, and never reached mainstream media, but the ethos it represents looms unpleasantly over the idea of initiations.
This wasn’t simply about promoting bonding and unity through shared experience, it was about ritual humiliation. Jay Johnson’s description of how initiations “educate newcomers as to their place in the hierarchical structure of the group” doesn’t capture the brutality of this reality.
Everyone has heard of the Stanford prison experiment, wherein participants cruelly mistreated ‘prisoners’ simply because they could. In the same vein, seniors enjoy hazing freshers because it’s accepted, because they like the power trip, and because they can enact a sort of vengeance for having been hazed themselves.
This is dark and unsettling; no one wants to believe that, in John Huston’s famous words, “at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.” However, the logic of this motivation is straightforward regardless of the malevolent attitude behind it.
Slightly more confusing is why first-years willingly undergo initiations and why often, they don’t see how the practice is objectionable. My sister and I could handle foul drinks and embarrassing costumes; despite objectively knowing it was degrading we had accepted that something like this would happen, and although we couldn’t articulate why, that was reason enough to put up with it – because it’s just the way things are. In his research into hazing at Illinois, John Brubacher reached a bizarre conclusion that reflects this:
“That freshmen had always been hazed seemed sufficient cause why hazing should be continued.”
Most famously, perhaps, the practice of hazing is portrayed in the 1994 cult hit Dazed & Confused, which shows freshmen girls proposing to senior boys, and freshmen boys being paddled. Although this depicts high school and not university, the film shows how ingrained the normality and acceptability of hazing is to our collective cultural mentality. Regulation may have improved since the 70s (in 2000, the University of Vermont cancelled its men’s ice hockey season following a hazing scandal), but the ethos remains. And yet, the idea of initiations in fact goes back ever further.
John Brubacher was not speaking about modern experiences in his book, but about the University of Illinois just before the turn of the twentieth century, 150 years ago. Brubacher describes freshmen being chased up telephone poles, the use of firearms, and even chemical weapons being thrown at a first-year social; hazing, it appears, is a culture as old as university itself. And disturbingly, despite being quashed, it returns Hydra-like with later generations. Students want to initiate and be initiated, and the potential danger of the process is little considered.
Eric Anderson explains, “These kids are 18 or 19 years old in college now, so they don’t remember that four years ago some girls died doing that.”
While students can and do recognise the potential dangers of initiation culture, their viewpoint is invariably more nuanced than that of researchers. For them, hazing can be fun or at least worthwhile, gaining you “respect” within the team. There is also a callous but common (and again, understandable) attitude of ‘that won’t happen to me’.
Alice, a Sports Science student at an English university, says, “basically every sports club does initiations. You only hear about really bad ones, when people die. In between that thousands of people do initiations and they’re okay.”
Jess, a student on the hockey team at another college, puts it more succinctly. “As long as no one’s stupid about it, it’s fine. Give me an onion, and I’ll eat it.”
This level of awareness suggests a self-moderation in which hazing is challenging but rewarding, a rite of passage winning you acceptance to the team without excessive humiliation – and it is more prevalent than you might think. Horror stories like the first-years sat on towels are the minority. In the UK especially, where most universities have a strict ban on initiations, procedures are frequently self-policed; unwilling to forego the fun but equally unwilling to suffer penalties and negative publicity, many clubs look out for the safety of first-years, hosting initiations which are “gross but manageable”. So for both seniors and freshers, Elizabeth Allen’s assertion that “there’s no such thing as harmless hazing” would be laughed out the door.
This disconnect between students and adults is probably also why hazing is perceived as such a serious danger. Far removed from the culture of college campuses, where heavy drinking and social participation is often part and parcel of making friends, parents and critics see only the irresponsibility and immoral carelessness which causes the death of at least one student per year in America.
Indeed, because initiations are so taboo, the successful ones (no deaths, no hospitalisations, no humiliating, cruel activities) are the ones you never hear about.
Who cares if novitiate skiers were given a mixture of Baileys and egg to shot? Who cares if half-a-dozen freshers drank cider through a shinpad after a hockey game? Those freshers certainly don’t.
Unfortunately, because of the potential for hazing to become so dangerous – indeed, for it to be fatal – universities cannot draw a soft line. They can’t condone mild rituals and sanction horrific excess. And this pushes all activities underground, where they can’t be regulated. Long history has shown that attempts to prevent hazing by outlawing it don’t work; not even the threat of expulsion or criminal prosecution will entirely remove the culture for good.
University is an environment barely understood by all the young people in it, let alone by older adults outside the culture: Hazing can be forbidden but it is intrinsic, expected, and often even enjoyed. For myself and the girls on my team, to have relinquished the prospect of an initiation that November would have been to lose a sense of achievement and community – and yet at the same time, we understood how awful the worst case scenario could be. It seems instead, that adults will simply have to continue impressing the dangers of hazing on students until the message gets through.
But no matter what happens, the practice is going to continue; and maybe it’s better if it does. Maybe it’s better if there’s a history of careful, regulated initiations – if that’s possible – otherwise years after hazing has been banned, it will return again in careless, sadistic measures and awful consequences.