What is Hazing?

Hazing is an initiation ritual where a group makes a prospective member submit to dangerous, humiliating, or otherwise harmful activities to gain admittance. Hazing often takes the form of physical abuse or forced dangerous behavior. Helping Survivors offers information about hazing, its impact on victims, how to prevent it, and related legal issues.

Hazing is an initiation process where a prospective member must engage in or undergo dangerous or humiliating activities or rituals to gain admittance to a group.  Some groups also insist longer-term members undergo hazing to keep their status.

Hazing often involves physical abuse, sexual activity, and other harmful behavior, such as requiring someone to drink excessive amounts of alcohol in a short period. People also undergo assaults and trials that can cause serious strain on one’s mental and physical health.

If you have been harmed by hazing, you may be entitled to take legal action. You can also work with an organization to help create a culture that is safe, supportive, and free of hazing.

Understanding Hazing

Social organizations such as fraternities often defend hazing as necessary for social bonding. Some athletic teams, military units, and even workplaces see hazing as a team-building experience for members to feel closer. 

Hazing has a similar power dynamic to bullying because the perpetrator holds the power, and the target has none. In addition, both activities can produce significant physical, mental, and emotional harm. 

However, there are some key differences. Hazing happens to someone who wants to join a group, while bullying excludes a person from a group. While small groups or individuals might be bullies, hazing is typically carried out by an entire team or social group. 

Genuine team-building activities should meet goals such as improved communication, member trust, collaboration, and personal motivation. Hazing achieves the opposite, resulting in a loss of trust among members and reduced respect for the organization.

Hazing at U.S. college campuses goes back to at least the 1800s. It increased in the late 1860s as people returned to schools after the Civil War. After World War II, alcohol became a bigger part of group initiation practices. 

One study found that 71 percent of people subjected to hazing had negative consequences, such as declines in mental and physical health. 

So why does hazing continue to go on? There are a few theories behind the phenomenon:

  • The need to form strong group bonds
  • The lack of social constraints on groups that act in secret
  • Conformity
  • Beliefs about masculinity
  • Cognitive dissonance in which people who go through hazing later say it wasn’t that bad
  • Fear of reprisal for not hazing others

These are just a few of the psychological and social explanations for why hazing continues.

Where Does Hazing Occur?

Hazing happens in many different types of situations. Examples include the following:

  • Fraternities and sororities
  • Military
  • Sports teams, especially college athletics
  • Workplaces

Many colleges have adopted anti-hazing policies that define prohibited activities. For instance, The University of Michigan has officially defined hazing by directly referencing state law. It includes acts such as the following, done for the purpose of initiation into a group:

  • Physical injury, assault, or battery
  • Kidnapping or imprisonment 
  • Physical activity that subjects a person to the risk of physical, mental, or emotional harm, degradation, humiliation, or compromising of moral or religious values
  • Forced consumption of any substance
  • Placing an individual in physical danger
  • Undue interference with academic endeavors

There are many types of activities that might be called hazing if they are part of group initiation or continued membership in a group, such as:

  • Verbal abuse, uncomfortable questioning under pressure
  • Being forced to wear embarrassing outfits or costumes
  • New recruits performing personal errands to seasoned members
  • Forced alcohol consumption, often to excess or in a short period of time
  • Forced ingestion of any liquid or other substance
  • Sexual acts or violations
  • Physical assaults such as branding, paddling, burning, or beating
  • Forced exercise to exhaustion

Impact of Hazing on Victims

Hazing has an unquestionable negative impact on victims. It also can negatively affect team dynamics. Those who haze others also receive negative consequences. 

Victims of hazing might experience the following negative effects:

  • Loss of sleep
  • Loss of control
  • Loss of empowerment
  • Emotional, mental, or physical instability
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Decline in personal relationships
  • Post-traumatic stress syndrome
  • Illness or hospitalization
  • Loss of interest in the organization
  • Loss of trust in organization members

Perpetrators of hazing might experience:

  • Triggering of one’s own past trauma
  • Decline in friend and family relationships
  • Feelings of guilt and shame
  • Warped sense of leadership
  • Decline in academic performance
  • Loss of connection to organization alumni
  • Damage to personal reputation
  • Sanctions from the state, the college, or through lawsuits

Organizations that allow or promote hazing might experience:

  • Loss of reputation
  • Loss of recognition or privileges
  • Erosion of the organization’s values
  • Legal sanctions and other penalties

Unfortunately, hazing can have tragic consequences. People have experienced life-altering, severe injuries after hazing practices. Some individuals have also lost their lives.

Signs That Hazing May Be Occurring

Often, the family or friends of someone subjected to hazing see signs it’s happening but might not realize it is a problem. Sometimes even those going through hazing don’t immediately recognize the harm. Here are some typical signs of hazing:

  • Withdrawal from normal activities
  • Unexplained injuries, illness, or weight loss
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Emotional or psychological exhaustion
  • Increase in secrecy
  • Sudden change in behavior or attitude after joining a group or team
  • Decrease in communication with friends or family
  • Wanting to leave the group or team without explanation
  • Physical scars from cutting, branding, or shaving
  • Physical soreness, such as from paddling

Some activities that can be warning signs of hazing include: 

  • Required late-night work sessions that result in sleep deprivation
  • Required greetings, walking in groups, or carrying certain items
  • Not coming home for days or weeks at a time
  • Being dropped off and having to find the way back

How We Can Prevent Hazing

If you are being hazed, you can take action: 

  • Stay connected with friends and family outside the group.
  • Talk with others about your experiences.
  • Ask for guidance from people you trust, such as friends, family, parents or guardians, school counselors, or officials.
  • Refuse to participate in the hazing.
  • Join with other new group members to refuse to participate in hazing.
  • Leave the organization.
  • Talk to a health care provider or mental health professional.
  • Call 911 if there is an immediate threat to your safety or another person’s safety.

Organizations, schools, and individuals all have a role to play in hazing prevention. If you suspect or witness hazing, you can do the following:

  • Talk to the person you suspect might be experiencing hazing.
  • Offer support to the person.
  • Reassure the victim they do not have to participate in hazing, and that help is available.

Educational institutions and organizations can also take steps to create a hazing-free environment. Here are some things administrators and leaders can do:

  • Implement anti-hazing policies. 
  • Include anti-hazing policies as part of annual education programs for students, team members, and other group members.
  • Discuss expectations with new team recruits about hazing, specifically directing that it is not tolerated, and provide positive team bonding activities instead.
  • Implement a system to report hazing and respond to hazing allegations.
  • Sanction those who commit hazing.

Hazing activities sometimes reach the level of criminal activity. Most states have laws against hazing. Thus, if you suspect hazing has harmed someone, consider reporting it to the local authorities. If you or a loved one has been a victim, you are entitled to take action and file a hazing lawsuit.

If you want to know more about how to stop hazing or need information regarding your legal options, contact the team at Helping Survivors.