Hazing—the ritual humiliation of new initiates to a group, such as a high-school sports team—is one of those subjects that feels very different depending upon whether you consider it on a theoretical level or in literal, tangible sense.
Evolutionary psychologists think of it as a modern initial ritual, and argue that it would have petered out long ago if it didn’t serve some positive function. They suggest it plays a bonding role, in which young recruits prove their commitment to the team and willingness to sacrifice for the greater good.
That sounds reasonable, even benign. But when details of specific incidents make the news, such as the reports from Sayreville, New Jersey, that came to light this weekend, it’s almost impossible not to cringe.
The New York Times reports freshmen on the local high school football team “described a horror that began with upperclassmen grabbing younger players and groping them; in at least one instance, they shut out the lights and pinned and younger student down, laughing and goading one another into assaulting him.”
"Even discarding individuals who desired ostensibly ‘mild hazing’ leaves (approximately) 54 percent advocating a moderate to severe hazing component. This may suggest that—in the right circumstances—pro-hazing sentiments are common, and easily elicited."
A report in New York magazine was still more blunt, noting that older players “would allegedly pin down a freshman teammate, stick a finger into his rectum, and then sometimes force the finger into the player's mouth.” To put it mildly, it’s hard to see how the psychological consequences of such an ordeal can be anything but harmful.
While the New Jersey case is not unique—a similar incident occurred in San Diego in 2011, and there have been many others—it will surely intensify a debate in the social sciences about the origins and impacts of hazing, and what if anything can be done to stop it. To date, unfortunately, this consists primarily of theorizing.
While “many researchers have suggested or implied that hazing ordeals increase group solidarity, establish dominance over newcomers, or allow for the selection of committed members ... there is little direct scientific evidence for any theory of hazing,” anthropologist Aldo Cimino of the University of California-Santa Barbara writes in a paper published last year in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
In his study, Cimino offers evidence that hazing has a surprising amount of public support. He surveyed a representative sample of 900 Americans, and found that after presenting them with a scenario in which they were members of a group deciding how to initiate new recruits, more than 80 percent “chose to at least minimally haze newcomers.”
“Even discarding individuals who desired ostensibly ‘mild hazing’ leaves (approximately) 54 percent advocating a moderate to severe hazing component,” he writes. “This may suggest that—in the right circumstances—pro-hazing sentiments are common, and easily elicited.”
So our instincts seem to tell us that hazing—even rough hazing—ultimately bestows benefits on the group. But does it? A study of 167 athletes published in 2007 came to the opposite conclusion, reporting that “the more hazing activities they reported doing or seeing, the less cohesive they perceived their team to be in sport-related tasks.”
Hazing “does not promote bonding on a team,” agrees Valparaiso University law professor Susan Stuart, who published a lengthy paper on the legal and ethical issues surrounding the practice last year. “Its effect is to humiliate these athletes. Sexually exploitative hazing serves the hierarchy by using one particular weapon, domination of weaker members of the team by treating them if they are not masculine,” she writes. “Hence, sexually exploitative hazing is sexual harassment under Title IX, by its very nature.”
Stuart argues that sexually exploitative hazing “is not an initiation rite, because rookies have already become members of the team.” Rather, she writes, it is “designed to humiliate younger and often smaller team members and to keep them in their place.”
“Rookies can only prove their ‘manhood’ by passing the tests of sexually exploitative hazing, and being hazers in the following years,” she adds. "Maintaining the hierarchy of veterans vs. rookies is important to establish superiority, or a pecking order."
In other words, it’s all about power and control—“an immature effort at self-governance,” as Stuart puts it. Which brings up the obvious question: Where is the adult supervision? “The only way to break the tradition of hazing,” she concludes, “is to make the adults in the building responsible for the behavior.”
While few would argue with that, still another study suggests that, in terms of hazing’s relationship with the wider culture, the ground may be slowly starting to shift.
A team of British researchers spent seven years analyzing hazing activities on both the hockey and rugby teams at one U.K. university. In a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, it reported that rituals that utilized the stigma of homosexuality, such as forcing new members to kiss one another, seemed to be dying off, having been drained of their intended effect.
Early in their study period, in the early to mid-2000s, “hazing youth into homosexual activities served as a mechanism to prove allegiance to a team while simultaneously developing a homophobic culture,” the researchers write. But by 2009, they add, such activities “were no longer utilized in these teams’ initiations. In fact, in later years, our participants voluntarily engaged in same-sex kissing without being proscribed to do this by initiation organizers.”
“We argue that instead of hazing closing down the possibility of same-sex sex for men of this age group, these initiations have the opposite effect,” the researchers conclude. “The high levels of alcohol consumption in today’s initiations serve not only as a disinhibitor, but also as a social lubricant for same-sex sexual activity.”
Needless to say, a British university likely has a very different social atmosphere from a New Jersey high school. But it's heartening to learn that, at least at one institute of higher learning, “same-sex sexual acts are no longer effective hazing activities, because they do not carry the stigma or threat to masculinity that they once did.”
The strengthening of that trend may be the most effective way to shut down this particular form of abuse once and for all.