Rachel stood back and watched as her sorority sisters were forced to take shots with dead goldfish in them, dress up in revealing outfits, fake sexual noises and acts, strip for fraternity guys, participate in drunken swimming relays and get lap dances from fraternity guys.
“There were about 50 girls in my pledge class. We were thrown together not knowing anyone. A lot of girls who partook in the hazing said that it completely helped because it forced them into uncomfortable situations, which actually made them bond and get closer with each other,” Rachel said. “I remember thinking, I kind of wish I had been involved in the hazing.”
In Rachel’s case, her older mentor in the sorority, who is affiliated with Cal Poly, gave her the option of opting out of the hazing activities. Although Rachel decided not to participate, she always wondered if she missed out on some bonding experiences.
While this sorority did haze as recently as two years ago, it now has drastically reduced its hazing activity after being investigated by the university on several occasions. While they were never put on probation, all members had to fulfill community service obligations.
“We don’t do any really intense hazing anymore, but the definition of hazing is so obscure, people sometimes don’t even know what they are doing is actually hazing. We could probably have a sleepover during rush week and that would be considered hazing,” Rachel said.
What is hazing?
A sleepover, as it turns out, could be considered hazing based on the university’s definition.
“Hazing refers to any activity that causes physical or emotional harm, degradation, or humiliation during initiation into a social group,” according to Cal Poly’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities Web site.
When investigating hazing on a college campus, however, both the university’s definition as well the state law’s definition must be applied.
The state law differentiates from the university’s definition in that an act is only considered hazing if it is “likely to cause serious bodily injury” to a student.
Stephan Lamb, the associate director of Student Life & Leadership, thinks hazing started with men attending college after coming back from combat.
“My theory is the origins came from the hazing of GI’s that came back from World War II. A lot of hazing looks like boot camp. They tear people down then build them back up,” Lamb said. “I think the experiences from war carried over into social organizations.”
Hazing does not appear solely in the form of boot camp-like activities, however.
It can include ridiculing, embarrassing outfits or actions in public, binge drinking, sleep or food deprivation, personal servitude, physical beatings and sexual harassment and assault, according to Cal Poly’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities Web site.
Hazing comes in two main forms.
“It can have devastating impacts on people’s lives, both physically and psychologically,” Lamb said.
Physical acts of hazing have the potential of causing injuries, whereas acts such as ridiculing or public embarrassment, can cause short or long-term mental problems.
Sarah, a Cal Poly sorority member, thinks what is deemed hazing is very ambiguous.
“I think there is a fine line between what is considered hazing and what is not. Things that you think of as fun traditions, such as giving nicknames are considered hazing. And then things such as having people drink a ton of alcohol are also,” she said. “There is such a wide range of events that could be considered hazing.”
What are some examples on the Cal Poly campus?
Rachel describes a couple hazing acts that took place two years ago during “big/little week” (a week in which new pledges find out who their older mentor in their sorority is).
“After taking a bunch of shots, some girls dressed up in bikinis and some put condoms on their nipples. Then they had to answer the door like that to fraternity guys who were delivering us our baskets (gifts given to new members by their big sisters),” she said.
Another act involved a type of drunken swimming relay. Shots of hard liquor were placed on either side of the pool’s ledge. The girls had to swim across the pool, take a shot, swim back to the other side and take another shot until all the shots were taken.
While sororities might haze with acts that have a potential for more emotional harm, fraternities tend to engage in more hazing acts that have a potential for physical injury.
John, a Cal Poly student and fraternity member, describes a few hazing acts that took place three years ago during pledge week.
After consuming many shots of hard liquor, all the pledges were told to sit on ice blocks and were given a mouth full of chewing tobacco. From there, the pledges had to defecate in their pants or throw up to be allowed off the ice blocks.
Another incident involved filling hosiery with fish with which they beat the pledges.
While those acts were specific to one fraternity, a more common act of hazing within Cal Poly fraternities is called “don’t fuck your bro,” in which all the pledges sit and circle and are given a 60-ounce bottle of hard liquor and told to pass it around in a circle. Whoever is holding the bottle at the end of a song must finish it.
“When I did it we only did one handle and it was mixed in with other stuff. Sometimes it’s done with three to five handles. Another classic example is locking a bunch of pledges in a room together and giving them a few handles and wine bags. When we did we poured some of the alcohol into a trash can,” John said.
This situation is eerily similar to a Cal Poly hazing incident that lead to the death of 18-year-old Carson Starkey on Dec. 2, last year as a result of alcohol poisoning.
In some cases, what might seem harmless, could turn violent and life-threatening.
Rachel also recalls a very violent hazing act that her friend, who is in a Cal Poly fraternity, was involved in.
“They drove all the guys out to the beach and made the little bros fight their big bros butt naked. They fought until one of the guys surrendered, but the big bros didn’t want to lose so it got pretty intense. Supposedly some guys got beat up pretty bad,” she said.
Why do students haze?
Students will endure hazing because of the potential assurance that they will be accepted by their fellow fraternity brothers or sorority sisters after the hazing is completed. Many students even look back fondly on acts of hazing because the experiences helped them form bonds with their Greek brothers or sisters.
Sarah agrees that what some people think of as hazing could be seen as connecting with your brothers and sisters by others.
“I think that certain things like giving nicknames is a fun tradition. Nobody does things that they don’t want to. I guess that’s the perfect way to put it: I have never seen anyone do anything against their will,” she said.
Even John admits that he didn’t perform any acts against his will.
“There wasn’t one time where I felt I was forced to drink more than I wanted to. I only threw up once during pledging and no one forced me to do anything,” he said.
Megan, a Cal Poly sorority member, on the other hand, does not agree with the principles of hazing.
“I think that the point of these particular organizations are to accept the people they have chosen to represent their fraternity/sorority. They chose these people for who they are and what they stand for and that should be enough,” she said. “It is important to know histories and things like that, but forcing people to do ridiculous or dangerous things is not the way to do it.”
While Megan might disagree with hazing on all levels, John explains the intended purpose behind the hazing.
“The goal of all the hazing is to make you come together as group stronger that we were as individuals with the philosophy being that as you go through these different act you make connections with your fellows brothers,” he said.
In addition, particularly with fraternities, going through hazing is a means of proving oneself.
“It teaches your body to be able to push through things that you thought you would never be able to get through before. That is at least the theory with all this stuff,” he said. “The old adage is ‘whatever I’ve gone through you can to’ when an old brother is talking to his younger brother.”
While there might be disagreements on what constitutes hazing and why students do it, authorities have a clear-cut way of addressing acts of hazing.
What are the legal consequences?
From water intoxication to “Lord of the Flies” scenarios, Adrienne Miller, the coordinator for the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities handles each hazing incident in the same manner, involving the criminal justice system when necessary.
“I take the information I have, explain the process to the student and begin an individual investigation,” Miller said.
Miller makes sure to get both sides of the story during an investigation. If she feels there is enough information she proposes a settlement with the student who was blamed for conducting the hazing act.
A settlement is an agreement for punishment between the students in question and the university. It could be anything from fulfilling community service obligations to suspension.
After the settlement is proposed, the student will either accept or reject it. In the case that the student rejects the settlement, the police will get involved and the case will most likely be presented in a formal court hearing, Miller said.
Lamb, who works in conjunction with Miller, is responsible for imposing punishments such as probation, suspension or loss of university affiliation, on fraternities and sororities.
While the university and police force might work together during an investigation, each entity determines their own penalties.
For instance, in the case of name calling, the police most likely won’t be involved. However, if someone is physically injured, the police will be more likely to take further action, Miller said.
In the case of the death of Carson Starkey, both fraternity members prosecuted for the hazing are being charged with one felony violation of hazing resulting in death and one misdemeanor violation of providing alcohol to a minor.
Rachel’s sorority has drastically reduced their hazing acts, mainly because they did not want to contribute to potentially life-threatening situations.
“We used to have a lot of girls involved with the guys’ hazing. But after the death of Carson Starkey, we stopped participating in any acts of hazing with the fraternities,” she said.
What onced seemed like harmless fun now seems a lot more devastating, she said.
“We just can’t afford to have another life lost for some senseless bullshit,” Rachel said