Several weeks ago, eleven students were charged with unlawful hazing that led to the death of Adam Oakes in February during a pledge party for the Delta Chi Fraternity. Adam was told to drink the entire bottle of Jack Daniels and passed out on the couch, where he died of alcohol poisoning.
Over 200 hazing deaths have been registered in the USA since 1838 when the first tragic incident of this nature was recorded. The past decade claimed 40 of those 200.
Being a part of the sorority or a fraternity has been the epitome of the American college experience for decades. Moreover, the sense of community and belonging that comes from being a part of the group is a deeply ingrained need. That’s the major appeal of student organizations, including the Greek-letter ones. The latter adds to the mix a feeling of being special, chosen, and participating in things outsiders aren’t allowed to join. That tickles our egos as well as gives us the satisfaction of being a part of something bigger.
For freshmen students, this need is even more acute. They feel homesick, disoriented, and lost, so latching onto the readily available community seems like the best option. Maybe that’s the primary reason why so many of them are ready to put up with risk, intimidation, humiliation, psychological torment, and physical ordeal that is hazing. Another reason people are willing to participate – often against their better judgment – is the respectable façade of “tradition” that hazing often disguises itself with.
What is hazing?
Hazing is intentionally causing emotional or physical harm to a member of a group or team regardless of the person’s willingness to participate, according to HazingPrevention.org. More detailed descriptions of hazing include such things as forcing you to do anything contrary to your moral or religious beliefs, causes you emotional distress, compromises your dignity, causes you to be an object of malicious amusement, ridicules emotional strain, or impairs your academic effort.
New member activities and initiation rituals supposedly must prove dedication to join the organization and bond pledges together. However, as often as not, they are about exerting the power that senior members feel over new recruits.
Fraternities get into the spotlight for criminal hazing more often than sororities because hazing rituals used there are more violent in nature. Sometimes, they result in serious injuries or even deaths of the hazed members. Alcohol poisoning tops the list since drinking competitions and games are the most popular hazing practices. Other types of hazing behaviors include illegal activities (stealing, trespassing, consuming drugs), consuming vile substances (such as rotten food), isolation, kidnapping, abandonment, and sleep deprivation.
Sororities, however, aren’t blameless. During their initiation process, they also cross many lines, coercing their pledges to do degrading things that can be disturbing and psychologically traumatizing: dancing naked in front of other sisters, lap dancing while blindfolded, sucking on a banana, and doing other sexually suggestive things for giggles. There are also cruel mind games like the notorious “blow or blow” that got the oldest continuously active chapter of Kappa Kappa Gamma suspended earlier this year.
More than half of students involved in college clubs and organizations experience hazing. The list includes varsity athletics, Greek-letter organizations, club sports, music bands, drama societies, recreation, and even academic clubs.
Not all hazing practices are hazardous. Some tamer variations might be seen as distressing, annoying, or just silly, depending on who you ask. For example, singing or chanting in public, going to classes in groups dressed in crazy outfits, or memorizing tons of useless information.
How to stop it
That “tradition” part of hazing might not be entirely baseless. Indeed, Greek life on American campuses has existed for over two hundred years, along with an unsavory part of it lurking in the shadows. According to Abby Jackson, an author for Insider, hazing deaths are not a new phenomenon. “One of the first high-profile deaths occurred in 1873 when a Kappa Alpha Society pledge at Cornell University was blindfolded in the countryside and left to find his way home in the dark. On his way, he fell off of a cliff and died,” she writes in her piece about hazing.
Yet hazing practices are much older than that. They stretch back through colonial times and Medieval European universities to Hellenic antiquity. Further still – to the tribal rites of passage that youths were subjected to since time immemorial. Those practices survive by preying on our fear of ostracism, on our yearning to prove ourselves to others and be accepted.
However, don’t forget that hazing is outlawed. Hazing is illegal, so you cannot consent to it like no one can legally consent to be murdered or mutilated. You have the power to stop it.
If you are a new pledge
Fraternities – and later sororities – were established so students could find smaller communities within their school based on similar interests. They were conceived as surrogate families, a home away from home. Hazing rituals go against this ideology. They are about power and inequality. You deserve to be accepted. You deserve respect.
- Do your research before deciding to join an organization. Discuss membership qualifications during the recruitment process. Ask around. Word of mouth is still the most reliable way to learn about hazing since the overwhelming majority of instances go unreported. Meanwhile, students do share their experiences with peers and family members.
- Learn about what constitutes hazing, so you can recognize it. If your prospective organization doesn’t use brute force, it still can be hazing. If you are talked into doing something illegal – it’s hazing. If your liberties have been infringed upon – it’s hazing. If you have to seek academic writing help because you are too busy, distracted, or sleep-deprived from the “tasks” you’ve been given by senior members – it’s hazing. Do not think they are in the clear because you agreed to it. Don’t keep silent if activities planned for you as a new pledge make you feel uncomfortable. Learn more by visiting educational resources such as StopHazing.org and HazingPrevention.org.
- Report hazing incidents. You can report hazing to 911 (life-threatening cases), the Dean of Students Office at your school, Campus Counselling Center, Office of Greek Life, or the anti-hazing hotline.
- You can also stop hazing by openly protesting. Yes, this would probably mean the risk of you not being accepted into the fraternity or sorority of your choice. Yet are you sure you want to call people who degrade and torture you “brothers” and “sisters”? Are you sure you belong with them? They might think that this is just some harmless fun, but if it isn’t so for you, well… Then maybe your view of things differs too much. Sometimes turning your back and walking away is the hardest decision – but it’s the right one.
If you are an organization leader
Hazing is nothing but organized bullying. It doesn’t bond the members of your organization. It motivates no one. Instead, it hurts your organization and the people in it. Your new members’ GPAs are going to plummet as a result of sleep deprivation and emotional distress caused by your poor choice of “bonding activities.” Your organization’s reputation will suffer – and that will hurt your recruiting efforts. You can even be suspended or disbanded.
Educate yourself on which practices you should avoid and be prepared to amend the “traditions” of your organization if you think they might not be safe – or kind. “Individual fraternities could experiment with new approaches, bringing the kind of fresh energy that animated the movement at the beginning,” advises John Hechinger, the author of True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.
- Prohibit hazing practices. Explicitly ban them in your organization. Warn everyone about the consequences and enforce them. It takes only one class to break this circle of abuse by developing chapter anti-hazing policies. What was your experience as an uninitiated prospective member? Was it fun? Tough but tolerable? Traumatizing? Make sure that bad stuff won’t keep happening to other students.
- Nurture the atmosphere of equity and trust within your organization. Make sure that new members feel equal in power and rights to initiated brothers and sisters. Only then will they feel comfortable about voicing their concerns and discussing activities and practices openly. You should be their first port of call if any misunderstanding happens between senior and new members.
- Carefully plan your activities for new members. You don’t want bad last-minute decisions or sloppy preparations to ruin all the work and undermine the integrity of your organization with hazing scandals. The best test if your new member activities are adequate is how new members feel right after initiation. If they are filled with a sense of accomplishment and pride, it’s a good sign. However, if they are just thankful that this is over, you should reexamine your program.