Hazing and high school – gendered rites of group membership

Are male sports teams more likely to use sexual humiliation to haze?

Posted Jan 15, 2010

This week, two new stories of extreme hazing in high schools went before the courts. Both of these cases involved male football teams sexually assaulting the new, younger members of their teams: one in California, and one in New Mexico. These are examples of the most severe and criminal versions of hazing, but why do such rites persist in high schools and colleges? Contrary to popular belief, hazing is not limited to male groups, or sports teams and fraternities only. What can parents and educators do to help youth learn to challenge these rites and interrupt the repetition of these gendered "traditions"?

football The incident in New Mexico took place in 2008, and the students are charged with criminal sexual penetration and conspiracy to commit criminal sexual penetration with a broomstick. The alleged perpetrators are in the process of entering their pleas before the court. The incident in California took place at a football camp and older members of the football team allegedly inserted a bicycle air pump in a students' rectum and activated it several times. The school is being sued under Title IX and recently tried unsuccessfully to get the case dismissed. In addition to these cases, there are recent stories of physical assault in a football team in Montana and severe exposure to members of a hockey team in Minnesota. An extensive list of other high school hazing incidents is available.  Most of these stories involve male sports teams, but these are not the only groups that are engaging in such acts. A Fox news story in April 2009 provides an overview of the variety of groups and students who have experiences with hazing.

Cartoon A study conducted by researchers at Alfred University published in 2000, reports that 48% of high school students experienced any form of hazing, and 43% reported experiencing humiliation, 29% reported experiencing potentially illegal hazing and 22% had been subjected to ‘dangerous' hazing. The researchers wrote that both male and female students were involved, but male students were at highest risk, particularly for hazing activities identified as ‘dangerous.' Males, members of sports teams, and gangs are most likely to engage in substance abuse-related and other dangerous forms of hazing.

Why are male sports teams more likely to engage in dangerous activities?

Gendered analyses of these behaviours indicate that violent hazing is an attempt by the older members of a group to assert their dominance over newer members by using humiliation as a tool. Sexual assault is one of the most recognizable ways to violate and humiliate another human being and subjecting another male to being penetrated is a very clear attempt to assert dominance in a physically and psychologically violent manner. In our culture's codes of hegemonic masculinity, being in a passive, submissive, or penetrated position is equated with weakness, vulnerability, femininity, and homosexuality - all devalued subject positions. Forcing a young man to assume this role reminds him of his powerlessness and ‘rookie' membership in a group and allows the older, more experienced members to claim alpha male positions in the pack. Another common explanation is that these practices are so embedded in the culture of a team or a group, that the older members are merely repeating what they endured as ‘rookies' in previous years. They are merely trying to reclaim their lost manhood by exerting their power over the newly-powerless arrivals.

In my experiences, female groups also use sexual harassment as a way to degrade new group members. Although it is less physically violent, it has similar psychological implications. Some examples include forcing girls to strip and point out their physical ‘flaws' with permanent marker, covering them in pornographic images and parading them in public areas, or by getting them to "sell" kisses to strangers - these activities remind women of their devalued position in society as sexual objects and use elements of patriarchy to establish hierarchies within all-female groups.

This repetition and history of rituals indicates that the coaches and adult supervisors may be tacitly condoning these ‘traditions.' If adults have some vague knowledge, or even official notice from a student  that hazing is happening, and they fail to intervene - they are just as responsible for the injuries and emotional damage that often results. This is at the heart of the California case: did the coaches have actual knowledge of the hazing and did they act with deliberate indifference? It is highly likely. A 2008 study from the University of Maine showed that many hazing rituals were known to adults. I remember one coach who knew about ‘rookie night' and clearly understood that hazing was going to take place (since the captains announced rookie night at practice and informed the new players that we needed to arrive at the Captain's house with pornography). The head coach ended practice by dismissing the team with a laugh saying, ‘don't do anything to embarrass the team tonight.' His statement indicated that he knew that inappropriate things had happened in the past, but he did nothing to actively prevent them from reoccurring. His message was, as long as I don't hear about it, its okay by me. So how can we interrupt this cycle?

Prevention and education

Students in the Alfred U. study believed that the two most effective ways to reduce or prevent hazing were having strong disciplinary measures and following through with police investigation and prosecution when necessary. In addition to these two suggestions, students also recommended implementing positive bonding activities and introducing educational programs about positive initiation activities. This means that students want adults to stand up to these rituals and take an active role in ending the painful and humiliating elements from joining school groups. Coaches and faculty advisors need to be more proactive in shaping the ways that teams and school groups form at the beginning of each school year, and provide clear expectations and consequences for any form of hazing. Websites such as: hazingprevention.org and stophazing.org provide useful information on how to better understand the factors involved in hazing behaviors, how to interrupt hazing activities, and strategies for replacing them with more positive group building experiences.

Prevention and education are essential elements in changing the culture of hazing that persists in many high schools and universities. In order to get at the deeper roots of these cultures, teachers, parents, and coaches need to establish clear guidelines for behaviours and examine the gendered nature of many hazing activities. The sexualization and humiliation factors that are evident in many of these rituals need to be named and changed in order for this cultural shift to occur.