The Major Problem Causing Hazing in Fraternities Is One We Need to Talk About

The Major Problem Causing Hazing in Fraternities Is One We Need to Talk About

Hazing has existed at colleges in the United States since at least the 19th century, and it has become ever-present in the Greek system.

Controversial hazing incidents happen everywhere. Thirty-seven members of one fraternity at Baruch College, in New York City, recently faced charges related to 2013 a hazing incident. Last week a sexually explicit hazing video with Alpha Tau Omega at Indiana University shocked viewers, as have other attention-grabbing incidents. 

Some colleges are dealing with this problem with disciplinary action or by shutting down fraternities altogether. But asking why hazing even occurs in the first place may be more crucial.

In fact, many individuals entrenched in this space feel the answer is clear: Hazing, they say, is a symptom of a broader problem of toxic masculinity that is increasingly becoming the norm in United States culture at large. 

Fraternities create insecurity. While some defend hazing as a bonding ritual that augments male relationships, Cliff Leek, managing editor of the journal Men and Masculinities, disagrees. Hazing does not make fraternity members "more loyal to the group, but it does make them more compliant to norms and group culture," Leek told Mic

Maintaining that hierarchy is key for fraternities. They're based on a structure in which "older students assert control over younger students," said 25-year-old Eric Barthold, facilitator of "Man Up" and Open Up, an organization that engages middle school, high school and college students in conversations about gender pressures, masculinity, male privilege and sexual violence. This hierarchy generates constant insecurity, Barthold told Mic, because even after pledges are initiated, they are made to continuously feel a "sense of one-upmanship." 

The anxiety produced by this system, Barthold said, is not just about organizational power but is further tied to members' own identities. Men in fraternities are often made to feel they're never "quite good enough or manly enough," he said, which doesn't generate authentic brotherhood among members but rather an inequitable distribution of power.

Hazing reasserts masculinity. This is where hazing often enters the picture. The easiest way to instill "a sense of control" in this inherently insecure system, Barthold said, is to assert "control over somebody else, whether that's a fellow fraternity brother or somebody we see as being outside this impossible definition of masculinity."

Leek agrees. "The more insecure men are about their masculinity, the more likely they are to engage in these sort of extreme forms of hazing as a way to prove their masculinity, as a way to prove that they're worthy," he said. "Oftentimes these hazing processes are just as much a part of becoming a man as they are becoming part of a group."

Jonathan Kalin, founder of the organization Party With Consent, observed this first-hand. College men he has worked with, he told Mic, "mention their trauma being less connected to what actually happened and more to the reactions of their peers." Ideas of "masculine acceptance," he said, are directly connected to hazing in that "sacrificing for the sake of a larger brotherhood is certainly considered a masculine trait."

Experts back this up as well. "Social anxieties around masculinity also sustain hazing practices," scholars Michael Kimmel and Amy Aronson wrote in the 2003 book, Men and Masculinities: A Social, Cultural and Historical Encyclopedia. "The more males are fearful of being labeled as weak, the more likely they are to participate in hazing activities that are dangerous and even life-threatening."

Consent is impossible. While much attention has been paid to fraternity members' struggle to allow others to consent — one notable 2007 study found that fraternity members are three times as likely to rape than non-Greek students — examining hazing reveals that members themselves may be denied consent in their own organization.

"You can't have consent when there is coercion or when there are consequences to not consenting," Leek said. "And when we're talking about hazing, we're talking about a situation where there are consequences for not giving consent [like being] excluded from the group, ridiculed by the group, made into an outsider." 

Not only do they face social consequences should they fail to consent, Leek said, but their very masculine identity itself is called into question. Men who attempt to avoid participating in hazing, he said, are "framed as 'well you're not a real man,' they're feminized, they face homophobic bullying."

Ian Servantes, a former member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at the University of Missouri, concurs. He said he witnessed pledges experiencing "implicit pressure to not push back on anything" and noted that members were made to "feel like you can't say, 'No,'" he told Mic. Any attempt to depart from the fraternity's norms would have been considered "disrespectful or not taking it seriously," he said.

What's the solution? What should be done about this toxic system, however, is perhaps less clear — even to these individuals. While Leek said he personally believes no-tolerance policies may be ideal, this isn't usually "politically feasible" considering the board members of many universities are "full of fraternity men, of fraternity alums."

Servantes agrees. While banning fraternities for such actions would be ideal, he said, the system may be too powerful.

Fraternities "have their own lobbyists for Congress," Servantes said, and often count the likes of CEOs and politicians among their alumni. "When you have that many powerful people coming out of [fraternities], I don't know that you can ever really ban" the groups or hazing for that matter, he said.

But even given these limitations, progress is possible. The first place to start, Leek said, is with a "conversation about masculinity and why it is that men feel the need to engage in these behaviors."

Barthold agrees it's possible to create cultural change within groups traditionally deemed cesspools of toxic masculinity, like fraternities. 

Simply banning fraternities, Barthold said, overlooks "the friendship, camaraderie and leadership" they can and often do provide. Without these spaces, he said, "there wouldn't be an avenue to amplify healthy voices within men and to change the culture from within." 

And doing just that — inspiring men to create change among themselves and for future generations rather than imposing retroactive sanctions on them — seems to be the ultimate answer.