When we think of hazing, many of us think of embarrassing, but generally harmless behaviors done to initiate new students into college fraternities or sororities. We might think of rites of passage for soldiers as they are initiated into the ranks of their peers, or athletes as they join a new team. Examples of group initiation behaviors might include being required to do the laundry of a more senior group member, or sing a silly song in front of a group. Sometimes, initiation and “hazing” behaviors are benign and safe, inflicting no real physical or psychological damage. Unfortunately, too often, this is not the case.
According to the research and prevention group, StopHazing.org (2014), hazing is defined as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” This certainly goes beyond harmless and voluntary initiations that a person may agree to when they join a club or team. Hazing behaviors can cross the line into something much more damaging and destructive, as we have seen with the recent disturbing case of high school hazing in Sayreville, New Jersey. In this case, students aged 15 to 17 are now facing criminal charges for alleged demeaning and violent behavior, including sexual assault of fellow students (Jordan, 2014). The investigation is ongoing, and has once again brought the issue of bullying and hazing to the forefront, raising questions about how this can happen and what the consequences should be for this kind of conduct.
Forty-four states now have anti-hazing laws, and hazing is not a new phenomenon, with cases being reported at colleges since the 1970s. According to researchers at Alfred University in New York (2014), hazing is no longer a problem confined to colleges and universities. They found that hazing is becoming more frequent and more violent in high schools, with over 2 million students experiencing hazing each year. Additionally, almost half of students who join any group in high school experience some kind of hazing. Of these, 43% reported that they were subjected to humiliating activities, 23% said the hazing behaviors involved alcohol or drugs, and 29% said they performed illegal acts as part of the hazing/initiation. Hazing is not only a problem in high school athletics, and the researchers learned that church groups also use hazing as part of initiation into groups, with almost a quarter of new members experiencing hazing (Hazing Hits High Schools, 2014). Hazing may be more of a problem than many realize.
Hazing vs. Bullying: Is There a Difference?
Hazing behaviors like the ones perpetrated against students in Sayreville, N.J., go far beyond embarrassing pranks become cruel, humiliating, and even violent. Some may wonder if there is a difference between hazing and bullying, which has also received a great deal of attention and intervention in recent years. According to Inside Hazing.com (2014), the differences between bullying and hazing have to do with the ages of the perpetrators and the goals they are trying to achieve with their behaviors.
Bullying is verbal and/or physical aggression that is meant to harm the victim psychologically or physically. A bully may act alone or may be part of a small group that chooses to victimize individuals who they believe are vulnerable. Victims of bullying may be younger, smaller stature, or have lower social or economic status. They may be perceived by their peers to be different in some way. Bullying is not about traditions or initiation into teams or others groups, and there are generally no leaders, authority figures, or organized structure. A bully behaves aggressively to satisfy his or her own needs for things like money, power, lunch, or homework. They may simply want to intimidate another person. Bullying behavior has been observed in preschool aged children, while hazing behaviors do not usually begin until middle school or high school (Inside Hazing, 2014).
Hazing, on the other hand, is a different story. These behaviors are more about maintaining traditions or hierarchy, or a group initiation rite that gets out of control and causes significant and lasting psychological and/ or physical harm to the victim. When it comes to hazing in schools, the Department of Education (2014), defines hazing as these types of damaging behaviors:
Physically brutal behaviors like whipping, beating, striking, branding, electric shocks, or placing a harmful substance on the skin
Forcing sleep deprivation, exposure to weather, confinement in a restricted area, calisthenics, or other activity that subjects the student to an unreasonable risk of physical/ psychological harm
Activities involving the consumption of any alcoholic beverage, drug, tobacco product or any other food, liquid, or substance that subjects the student to an unreasonable risk of harm (e.g. alcohol poisoning, eating non-food items, etc.)
Activities that intimidate or threaten the student with ostracism, that subjects a student to extreme emotional stress, embarrassment, or shame or humiliation that adversely affects the individual’s mental health or dignity (e.g. spreading rumors, sexual abuse, sexual humiliation, etc.)
Activities that require the student to perform a task that involves violation of state or federal law or of school policies or regulations (Laws and Policies about Hazing, 2013)
It is clear that anyone subjected to these types of behaviors and situations could experience physical and/or emotional trauma. Additionally, others who are part of a hazing situation can also experience painful psychological consequences. This includes the perpetrators who plan and carry out the hazing behaviors and the bystanders who may not actively participate, but watch and do nothing to stop the hazing. Additionally, the social and psychological effects of hazing may be felt by family members, supervisors, teachers, and coaches. The trauma to those involved may be immediately evident or it may emerge months of even years later (Inside Hazing, 2014).
Psychological Consequences for Victims of Hazing
It’s natural for people to want to join groups and fit in with their peers. College students, especially, may feel a real need to fit in and be a part of their campus’ activities. They may feel that being a part of a group, like a sorority, fraternity, or athletic team will bring them security and protection. Perhaps they have and athletic scholarship, and are excited to join the college team. However, they may be stunned to find out the types on initiation they may be expected to endure in order to join. They may be shocked and frightened, but lack the skills or strength to resist the pressure to endure the abuse and humiliation that is a part of hazing. Those who are subjected to hazing behaviors or events as teens or young adults may experience negative emotional and psychological reactions for months or even years, depending on the person and the type of trauma experienced.
High school and college students can sustain physical injuries, and can even die as a result of hazing. While death or serious physical injury is less common, 71% of those who are hazed do suffer from negative consequences (Consequences of Hazing, 2014). One of the hallmarks, and most devastating features of hazing, is degradation and humiliation. Causing them to perform humiliating acts is common, and the resulting shame can have lasting effects. These negative consequences may include:
Sleep problems including insomnia
Difficulty forming relationships or trusting others
Decreased self-esteem and self-efficacy
Depression, anxiety, self-harming
Loss of sense of control and empowerment, feeling more like a victim than they did before the hazing
Lower grades and poorer performance in classes
Problems in relationships with friends, significant others, and family
Post-traumatic stress syndrome (including symptoms of re-experiencing the traumatyic event, nightmares, flashbacks, avoidance of reminders of the event, anxiety)
Loss of interest in being part of organizations
Illness or hospitalization (because of psychological or physical illness/injury)
Psychological symptoms may emerge immediately after the hazing event(s), or symptoms may appear later. Those who have a history of trauma may be even more at risk for negative psychological reactions to hazing. The hazing may trigger reactions to previous victimization, which can have devastating consequences for the victim. Unfortunately, someone who has been the victim of hazing is also more likely to haze others on the future (Consequences, 2014). Those students who do the hazing, and those who watch it happen are also at risk for psychological trauma and emotional difficulties as a result of their behavior.
Consequences for Perpetrators and Bystanders
Who are these young people who haze their peers in such humiliating and dangerous ways? What causes them to behave so cruelly and how will their behaviors impact them? In many cases, those who initiate or otherwise participate in hazing are not horrible, malicious people. They may believe the actions are expected of them, and that they are carrying on a tradition for their organization. Ironically, those who haze others can suffer some of the same psychological consequences as the victims of hazing.
They may experience significant feelings of guilt and shame that can affect them for some time. Bystanders may experience guilt about their failure to intervene to help the hazing victim, as well as symptoms of trauma after witnessing the suffering of the victim. Those who participate in hazing may experience depression, decrease in school performance, and ostracism by their peers. Additionally, perpetrators and bystanders may have legal and financial consequences for their hazing behaviors, causing stress for themselves and their family and friends (Hazing, 2014).
Hazing is a widespread problem impacting not only colleges and universities, but high schools, as well. Rites of passage and initiation rituals are nothing new, but some of the hazing that goes on is devastating for victims and their families, and even illegal. Both victims and those participating in perpetrating the hazing can experience significant psychological effects including trauma reactions and shame and guilt. Joining any group, team, or club should not mean sacrificing your physical or psychological health and well-being.
Consequences of hazing. (2014). Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.babson.edu/student-life/community-standards/hazing/pages/consequences-of-hazing.aspx
Hazing. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.stophazing.org/
Hazing Hits High Schools. (2014, August 28). Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=95999
Jordan, B. (2014, October 15). Chris Christie expects more Sayreville football hazing arrests. Retrieved from http://www.app.com/story/news/local/new-jersey/2014/10/15/chris-christie-sayreville-hazing/17330335/
Laws and policies about hazing. (2013). Laws and Policies about Hazing. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.doe.in.gov/sites/default/files/safety/hazing.pdf