Beyond the Basement: understanding the relationship between hazing and sexual violence

Disclaimer: The Radical is a publication that represents a diverse range of opinions and viewpoints that are often left out of other campus publications; published articles do not reflect the organization’s opinions or beliefs. The authors of this article and the opinions presented in this piece are in no way affiliated with the editorial board of The Radical including the editors of print editions of the paper. Regardless of the specific groups or acts involved, incidents of hazing have happened, do happen, and are continuing to happen across campus to many individuals. Our sole intention in creating this article is to promote reflection.

As a campus, we have finally begun to acknowledge the reality and prevalence of sexual violence. However, students at Dartmouth have yet to engage in sustained and meaningful public discourse regarding our culture of hazing. Fundamentally, hazing is coerced engagement in acts you wouldn’t otherwise do, in order to secure your position within a group. We argue that you cannot genuinely engage in sexual violence prevention while ignoring or denying that hazing routinely promotes or constitutes sexual violence.

Before we begin, we want to address those who might argue that hazees always have the choice to say no and can always refuse to participate in hazing rituals they are uncomfortable with. Here we can draw parallels to coerced sexual assault, in which perpetrators use non-physical forms of pressure to elicit acquiescence. Similarly, although hazees might technically be able to utter the word “no,” the pressure of actual or perceived social consequences prevents them from genuinely having the freedom to opt out when placed in an uncomfortable or unsafe situation.

We should also consider why the individuals most committed to defending hazing are individuals who were hazed in some form themselves. Cognitive dissonance theory can help us understand why this might be: according to the theory, individuals feel discomfort, or dissonance when their attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs are inconsistent or in a state of disharmony. Thus, when dissonance arises, we are motivated to resolve it. For instance, someone who is genuinely against sexual violence might feel initial discomfort when participating in coercive hazing rituals. According to the theory, one of the ways we eliminate our dissonance is to rationalize the behaviors that seem at odds with our values, such that we convince ourselves that our values are in a state of harmony. This might be exactly what happens when we see individuals describe their hazing experiences as benign or even positive, or when the hazee becomes the pledge master the next year. Rather than confronting our moral inconsistencies, we convince ourselves that hazing is harmless, we double-down on our investment and defend the practice to defend ourselves from dissonance.

But back to our original query, how might hazing constitute or promote sexual violence? We acknowledge that there is certainly a spectrum of violence amongst hazing practices. At the extreme, hazing rituals involve sexual misconduct, including acts that range from harassment to penetrative assault. Simple google searching will lead you to numerous hazing scandals across the nation about athletic teams, fraternities, and many other kinds of organizations who engaged in forced anal penetration of younger members. Acts that involve coerced nudity or touching that infringes upon one’s bodily autonomy are examples of these forms of hazing that constitute sexual misconduct.

Even when hazing acts do not constitute sexual violence, they often still perpetuate rape culture. Hazing rituals often reinforce toxic masculinity, asking men to prove themselves by withstanding pain or discomfort. Other acts involve the dehumanization of women as sex objects when members must produce proof of their conquests or interactions with women in order to receive validation. Heteronormativity and homophobia are also embedded in certain hazing acts, such as joint sorority-fraternity activities rooted in the assumption that all members of a single-gender house are heterosexual. In these contexts, the performance of an aggressive, heterosexuality is preeminently valued. Though students and groups have publicly pledged to combat the norms and behaviors that perpetuate rape culture, many continue to perpetuate them in their covert world of hazing.

On an individual level, experiencing hazing makes a person more likely to recycle the violence they have experienced in their own relationships. When an individual undergoes hazing, they must grapple with the trauma of being repeatedly disempowered and victimized. Because no one wants to conceptualize themselves as a disempowered victim, hazing threatens one’s sense of agency. To defend against the discomfort of losing their agency, individuals inflict harm on others to reaffirm their sense of empowerment. The result is a cycle of trauma in which victims of hazing may recycle that violence in other interpersonal interactions.

Frighteningly, hazing culture seems to be accepted as the norm across all parts of campus. We know that many non-Greek organizations systematically haze new members. As a student body, we have normalized hazing as a central mechanism through which we create our communities and define group membership. There are so many other ways to form strong connections and communities that are entirely harmless. Why do we choose to inject violence into our communities by forming our groups on a foundation of coercion and degradation? Not only should we eliminate the hazing rituals that constitute or encourage sexual violence, but we should also question any hazing that encroaches on individual autonomy. When we force pledges to drink handles of hard alcohol until they vomit or become incapacitated, we derive excitement and entertainment from watching them push their boundaries of comfort and safety. Why would any of us want this to be the basis of our communities?  

Although we may want to hold on to romanticized hazing traditions AND work towards eliminating sexual violence, we cannot do both. You cannot pressure your members to dress or act outrageously in public and ignore that this coerced embarrassment exploits power differentials and promotes a perverse form of entertainment at the expense of another’s discomfort. You can’t go from discussing your commitment to violence prevention at a MAV facilitation to, a few hours later, coercing new members to drink until they are uncomfortable and in danger. One value system is in direct opposition to the other. If you spend hours throughout a term violating the bodily autonomy and personal consent of your peers, there is no way this will not impact your behavior in other contexts. If in order to bond with your fellow members, you have to accept an environment in which personal consent is consistently violated, you are actively permitting norms that promote sexual violence, no matter how you may act or think in non-hazing settings.

Even so, many organizations that assert publicly an active commitment to sexual violence prevention continue to engage in extensive, regimented hazing. On the Night of Solidarity in April 2018, numerous Greek and non-Greek organizations sent campus-wide emails championing robust commitments to the values of sexual violence prevention; some went so far as to welcome accountability for their actions if they fail to live up to their commitments. While these emails represent at the very least a semantic shift toward actively preventing sexual violence, it is clear that all of us have failed to integrate these ideas into our everyday behaviors. If we genuinely want to strive for safety and accountability, we should eliminate all hazing. Allowing hazing to persist is an active choice to perpetuate a culture of violence. It is morally unethical and entirely hypocritical to be denouncing such violence in one context while committing it in another.

Are we going to turn a blind eye to the violence we know will persist if we don’t intervene? We can eliminate hazing from Dartmouth. We can reject the notion that shared trauma is the basis of strong communities. We can uproot sexual violence from the foundations of our communities.