Google ‘hazing in universities’ and you’ll find a slew of news reports on rituals students undergo that can injure, embarrass or even result in death, the likes of which are taking place all over the world.
Oxford Dictionaries describes hazing as “Humiliating and sometimes dangerous initiation rituals, especially as imposed on college students seeking membership to a fraternity or sorority.”
Recent examples include an incident that took place in 2016, when the National University of Singapore made headlines after freshmen were asked to re-enact an incestuous rape scene. In the UK, Newcastle University students at an initiation event drank vodka from a pig’s head, bobbed apples from a bucket of urine and had their heads shaved.
In Australia, The Red Zone Report, which came out earlier this year, revealed that male students at the University of Sydney masturbated into toiletry containers left in the bathroom by female students, while red-headed males set their pubic hair on fire to gain unofficial leadership positions.
While there has been increased media attention on this issue over the past few years, sexual harassment and assault within Australian educational communities is by no means a new issue. #TheRedZoneReport #USydWomensCollectivehttps://t.co/lJ1jqV8jk5 pic.twitter.com/M5y0TGm41z
— greenleftweekly (@greenleftweekly) March 22, 2018
In France, freshers have passed dildos down a line of students using only their mouths while in the US and UK, students have died from drinking vast amounts of alcohol while being egged on by their peers.
Despite some of these worrying accounts, hazing continues to be a rite of passage for many students at higher learning institutions. But does the prevalence of hazing rituals suggest the culture has been normalised in some societies?
Experts weigh in
Why do students haze and why do they subject themselves to often cruel hazing practices?
According to reports, this may be due, in some part, to hazing being seen as a normal part of the student experience, enhanced by the perceived social benefits of joining the Greek life (i.e. fraternities and sororities) while peer pressure can also play a role.
In the US, University of Maine Professor and Founder of StopHazing.org, Dr. Elizabeth Allan, believes hazing has been normalised, adding that students submit to hazing to get into a group or stay within a prestigious organisation.
But this can result in physical, psychological and emotional harm.
Speaking to the Dayton Daily News, she said: “You hear people rationalise it or dismiss it or minimise it, saying, ‘Oh, no, no, that wasn’t hazing, that was just an initiation, or that was just a tradition, or that was just for bonding.’
“We found it cut across a range of groups, so in fraternities and sororities, athletic groups as well as performing arts groups like marching band, theatre group and even in honour societies and academic clubs,” she said.
Speaking to CNN, the University of California, Santa Barbara anthropology lecturer Aldo Cimino said there hasn’t been much ‘systematic’ research into the motivations behind hazing, but for some students, the temporary discomfort and humiliation outweighs the potential benefits, such as enjoying a wider social network that could help them later in life.
“You’re talking about an entire coalition of individuals who will support and advocate on your behalf,” he said, “potentially long after the initiation is over.”
The report added that experts believe the sense of belonging can be alluring for new students who are often on their own for the first time.
Cimino added that hazing is “fundamentally coercive” and can cause hazees to submit to behaviour they traditionally would not submit to, especially when they are subjected to sleep deprivation and excessive alcohol consumption, which impairs their ability to make sound decisions.
Stemming the tide
Tackling the issue of hazing requires effort from various parties; from parents and students to educators and lawmakers.
In the US, some progress has been made. The parents of two students who died from hazing are launching an anti-hazing campaign in the US, partnering national leaders of fraternities and sororities, according to VOA.
Meanwhile, Louisiana has toughened its laws against hazing following a students death, with The Associated Press reporting that state Governor John Bel Edwards signed “an anti-hazing bill that would make it a felony for those involved in hazing that resulted in death, serious bodily harm, or life-threatening levels of alcohol.”
Students found guilty could be jailed for up to five years.
With this, the report notes that Louisiana joins some 11 states that have made hazing a felony when it ends in death or serious injury. Meanwhile, one fraternity in Pennsylvania was banned for 10 years following the death of a student caused by hazing.
In terms of administrators, reports show that fraternities at some American institutions were banned or suspended following hazing controversies while in France, universities have started to take action against hazing, including having “suspended its welcome week for new MBA students after four students complained about having to take part in humiliating hazing rituals,” reported France 24.
StopHazing.org notes how parents can play a role in curbing the problem by talking to their children about the possible dangers of the practice, encouraging them to carefully research the organisations they’re considering and to encourage them to maintain friendships across multiple settings.
Meanwhile, they encourage students to have an open and honest discussion about the process of entry into organisations, considering whether they should allow reporters to cover what they’re doing, or whether they would tell their parents about what they are doing.
While these efforts to tackle hazing can be lauded, it’s clear from the reports that continue to emerge that more needs to be done to protect students’ safety. Until then, hazing appears to be a cycle that’s largely considered harmless fun among those it impacts most.