While definitions of hazing can vary, they typically include two main elements: (1) the initiation of new members of a particular group by more senior members and (2) activities that result in physical, psychological, and/or emotional harm. Hazing is a form of power exerted by senior members of a group over new members wishing to gain acceptance. This practice may also be referred to as initiations, initiation rites, and initiation rituals. Reports indicate that more than 80% of high school and college students experience some form of hazing in the United States. In an attempt to curb harmful initiation activities, 43 states have implemented legal statutes against hazing. Each of these states has its own distinct statutes that have variable definitions of hazing and different penalties for engaging in activities associated with hazing.
Activities involving hazing are difficult to police, as they often occur in private with few official reports ever being made. The secrecy of these acts also makes it difficult to gauge just how prevalent the problem is in colleges in the United States. When reports are made, it is generally because the activities went beyond humiliation and psychological harm, and caused serious physical harm, even death. Reports indicate that at least 75 students have been killed, accidentally or otherwise, during acts of hazing in the United States. Hazing is difficult to stop because of its cyclical nature. New members of a particular group eventually become seniormembers, and they often duplicate the harmthey received by hazing new members.
Hazing has a long history on college campuses in the United States. It is believed to have been started by fraternal organizations hundreds of years ago. Members of the Freemasons structured their organization in the form of lodges, which were also termed “rites.” When new members went through an initiation process to join these lodges, they went through a passage into the rite. The Freemasons secret society formed a model for other secret societies and college fraternities. The first college fraternity in the United States was Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1776. Since its establishment, college fraternities have flourished across the United States.
Hazing on college campuses typically occurs in three groups: fraternities, athletic teams, and religious organizations. More generally, hazing is common within the U.S. military. Hazing is not limited to these specific groups, as it can occur whenever new members attempt to join a group, such as in marching bands, social clubs, multicultural organizations, dormitories, and work settings. Fraternities often use hazing to decide who to initiate into their group. This practice is part of a selection process that is often rooted in the unique traditions of the particular fraternity. Such traditions are passed on from year to year and are difficult to stop regardless of the threat of legal sanction. In contrast, on athletic teams, hazing often occurs when new members, termed rookies, have already made a team. Hazing activities might be limited to the preseason, or they might persist throughout the entire duration of the season against first-year athletes. Although hazing is most common on team sports, it also occurs in individual-based sports such as tennis.
Hazing can take on many forms, with varying degrees of severity. Three main types of hazing can be distinguished: subtle, psychological, and violent. These categories are not mutually exclusive, however, as a particular act might encompass all three. Examples of subtle hazing could include deprivation of privileges, being forced to do meaningless tasks, social isolation, gossip, and name calling. The severity of these cases is typically minimal, although individuals can be emotionally harmed by such behaviors. Psychological hazing may include threats, verbal abuse, being forced to dress in opposite-gender clothing, sleep deprivation, and being forced to harass others. Violent hazing, the most severe form, sometimes results in criminal penalty or academic reprimand in many colleges. Violent hazing can include forced alcohol or drug consumption, ingestion of vile substances such as gasoline, public nudity, being forced to commit an illegal act, sexual prodding, and kidnapping. Violent hazing can result in serious harm, even death.
Institutional responses to hazing vary by state and by severity of the offense. In some instances, legal action is taken when police file charges against the individuals who perpetrated the hazing. This crime may be charged as a felony carrying the possibility of jail time in some states, or as a misdemeanor offense in other states. Each state, apart from a few, has its own legal statutes pertaining to hazing. The seven states that have not passed such legislation are Alaska, Hawaii, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming. This does not mean that individuals who engage in hazing activities in these states are immune from civil and criminal liability; rather, it indicates that these states do not have laws that specifically address hazing.
Institutional responses to hazing might also be handled by the administration of the particular college where the activities took place. Most colleges and universities in the United States have a policy that strictly forbids hazing; however, many have provisions that do not bar athletic teams from engaging in such activities as long as they do not produce serious harm. Likewise, many state laws do not forbid hazing in college fraternities and on athletic teams. Disciplinary actions by school officials in instances of hazing can involve anything from a verbal reprimand to expulsion from the college or university.
Many theories exist as to why hazing occurs and the purpose that it serves. One theory suggests that it is used as a tool of solidarity to unite new members through the shared secrecy of the hazing activities. Another theory is that individuals feel more attached to a particular group if they had to work hard or endure pain to gain entrance into the group. Others propose that hazing is the result of a cycle of violence, whereby individuals haze others as payback for the harm that was perpetrated against them. Hazing has also been perceived as an exercise of power stemming from the inherent hierarchies present in the structure of groups; it can be explained as a power struggle for dominance and control within a group.
Other sources suggest that hazing exists and persists because groups are not provided with other viable options for initiating members into a group.
- Guynn, K. L., & Aquila, F. D. (2005). Hazing in high schools: Causes and consequences. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.
- Johnson, J., & Holman, M. (Eds.). (2004). Making the team: The inside world of sport initiations and hazing. Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press.
- Nuwer, H. (2001). Wrongs ofpassage: Fraternities, sororities, hazing and binge drinking. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Nuwer, H. (2004). The hazing reader. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.