As recent news stories make painfully clear, hazing has caused humiliation, trauma, injuries, and deaths, damaging and destroying too many young lives.
Although hazing rituals are intended to create a sense of belonging within a group, silly pranks can escalate into ritualized bullying, assault, and abuse, often fueled by alcohol and drugs. The desire to belong and the pressure of emotional coercion can drive young people to endure or inflict harmful behavior that can quickly get out of control. Others agree to inflict harm on themselves through binge eating or drinking, pill-popping, or using laxatives.
Even though states, colleges, fraternities, sororities, and sports organizations are making hazing against the rules, laws and policies are clearly not enough. You have to be prepared to protect yourself – or students or athletes you know – from being harmed – and from being sucked in to causing harm.
Here are five smart ways to take charge of your safety in the face of hazing:
1. Ask questions up front. Learn what new members or pledges are expected to do, and be clear about your boundaries. Avoid groups where secrecy about how people treat each other is required. If you believe that hazing is part of an initiation, consider whether the benefits of belonging are worth the risk of legal consequences, serious injury, or death.
2. Don’t make yourself an easy target. You’re far more vulnerable to harm from hazing or other unsafe behavior if you’re not able to think clearly. Accept that drugs and alcohol affect thinking and judgement. Limit your use. Make sure that people who care about you know where you are, what you are doing, and who is with you.
3. Pay attention! Humiliating activities are a red flag. Telling someone that they have to do something miserable in order to belong is emotional coercion. Being forced to take off one’s clothes, being tied up, being hurt physically, being pressured to swallow anything unsafe or unknown – or being taken to an isolated place and dumped – are all forms of assault and abuse, not harmless pranks. Joining in or ‘just watching’ are ways of participating in destructive behavior.
4. Resist the pressure to belong. Stand up for yourself and others. Remember you have the right to be treated with safety and respect – and the responsibility to act safely and respectfully towards others. Even if others pressuring you to do differently, you have the power to choose your words and your actions. You could say, “That’s not safe!” You could walk away. You could leave quietly if speaking up feels too dangerous. If necessary to be safe, you could lie – and then, get help.
5. Shine a light on dangerous behavior. Problems should not be secrets and dangerous behavior is a problem. It’s OK to lie or to break a promise in order to be safe and get help. Even if you promised not to say anything, find trusted people in positions of authority who can protect you from retaliation, and report what happened. Even if you made a mistake that led to your being harmed, and even if you feel very embarrassed, what happened is the fault of the person who did this to you. You deserve to have support. Although speaking up can be very uncomfortable, remember that you might be protecting another person from even greater harm.