It's More Than the Photos
There's been a fair amount of attention over the last week to the issue of hazing and women's college sports teams. The Web site badjocks.com published a number of photos depicting the Northwestern University women's soccer team conducting an initiation for new players. The women are shown being forced to chug beer, give lap dances to members of the men's soccer team, all while various words and pictures are drawn on their bodies. Then the same site followed up with pictures from a dozen other colleges and universities, almost all of which focus on hazing/initiation rituals involving various women's sports teams. All of the colleges involved have anti-hazing policies, and all (naturally) prohibit underage drinking.
In the national media, the faces of the women involved are obscured, but on badjocks.com, they are in full view. Though it was obviously foolish for the teams involved to photograph their hazing rituals and post the pics on the Internet, I grieve for the embarrassment the young women involved must now be feeling, and I have no interest in staring pruriently at the various details of their humiliations. We must remember the intent of those who uploaded the photos to sites like webshots.com; these pictures (often showing students in their underwear) were for the enjoyment of a select few, not a huge national audience. Foolishness on the part of those who don’t know better doesn’t excuse leering on the part of those who do.
What I've seen tells me what I already knew: the kind of hazing that takes place on contemporary college campuses is more or less identical to what happened when I was an undergrad 20 years ago. The essentials, then and now, are these: forcing the pledges/initiates/rookies/frosh to undress (at least to their underwear); forcing them to consume large amounts of alcohol; asking them to "perform" sexualized dances in front of members of the opposite sex. The Northwestern women were required to give lap dances in their underwear in front of members of the men's soccer team -- while the Quinnipiac College men's baseball team is shown on the site stripping and dancing for a group of unidentified women.
As an adult who struggled with problem drinking for years, I am of course greatly concerned by any ritual that requires that folks consume large amounts of booze in a short period of time. I have no sympathy for those who see binge drinking as an essential rite of passage; I've seen the damage it can do to lives and bodies.
As a feminist, I'm grieved to see that ritualized sexual humiliation is still such a vital mainstay of initiation practices. It's not new, of course. When I was a freshman at Cal, I flirted with the idea of joining a fraternity (one to which my grandfather, a great-grandfather, and numerous uncles and cousins had belonged). In the end, I decided not to, both for reasons of principle and because I worried that I wouldn't fit in with the fraternity culture. I had lots of friends in the Greek system, however, and I heard their initiation stories. One of my former wives was a Pi Phi in the late 1980s; she told me that she had never gotten over her hazing. She recalled being stripped to her underwear, at which point all the "actives" (members) of her sorority took magic markers and wrote on her body -- circling areas that they thought "needed work" and writing commentary about her attributes. She said she laughed at the time -- but years later, she would still sometimes gaze at those parts and think about the criticisms and obscenities she had seen written there.
I'm a fierce fan of intercollegiate sports. With the possible exception of golf, I love to watch men and women play any NCAA sport. I know the good that sport has brought to my life, and I've seen it bring discipline, health, camaraderie, and character to a great many young people. I'm not one of those professors who "goes easy" on the jocks, but I'm not someone who wishes that intercollegiate athletics would disappear, either. And as a fan of sports -- and former athletic department tutor at UCLA -- I've got at least a passing understanding of how vital it is to build close community on a team.
I think initiation rituals can be very valuable. Requiring frosh or rookies to go through a series of steps before they are accepted as full-fledged members of the team is healthy. It is axiomatic that to suffer together is one way to build community. But not all suffering is the same. Forcing the frosh to run extra laps or do extra push-ups or go through a weekend of brutal fitness camp can build community and fellowship just fine -- all without a drop of alcohol and without a single lap dance. Requiring frosh to put on silly skits that don't involve vulgar humor, nudity, or intoxication (or asking them to memorize all the verses of an ancient school fight song) can have a similar bonding effect. The problem is not with the nature of sports teams/fraternities/sororities, or with initiation rituals -- the problem is with a culture that connects that valuable process of initiation to ritualized sexual degradation and binge drinking.
Too many university policies (such as Northwestern’s) confuse the positive effects of team-building exercises with destructive and humiliating hazing. As quoted on the badjocks Web site, the NU policy reads in part:
The university defines hazing as any action taken or situation created intentionally, whether on or off university premises, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule. Such activities and situations may include but are not limited to paddling in any form; creation of excessive fatigue; physical and psychological shocks; quests, treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, road trips, or any other such activities carried on outside the confines of the university; wearing apparel that is conspicuous and not normally in good taste; engaging in stunts and buffoonery; requiring sleepovers or morally degrading or humiliating games and activities.
Banning all treasure hunts, quests, and road trips along with underage drinking and strip shows demonstrates a complete disregard for the potentially positive aspects of initiation rituals. There are countless physical challenges that can be offered to frosh that allow them to retain their clothes, their dignity, and their sobriety -- all while pushing them beyond their limits. Hazing can degrade, but healthy and constructive games and rituals go a long way to building that precious sense of camaraderie which is such a vital part of the college experience.
But a call to recognize the positive aspects of some traditional initiation rituals is not a defense of what we apparently see in the pictures from Northwestern. This sort of hazing troubles me so much is because it is so fundamentally antithetical to what sports can be in women's lives. The beauty of sports for women, at the high school or college level, is that it teaches women that their bodies are not merely decorative objects to be gazed at. It teaches women that their sexuality and their potential reproductivity are not their greatest assets. Sport -- at its best -- teaches girls that their bodies are strong, and powerful; it teaches the athlete that she can transform and control her flesh for her own delight as well as for the good of the team. It turns objects into subjects, turns the passive active. I've seen sports from softball to track to soccer to basketball do that for countless women and girls in my life, and I rejoice in it. And thus I grieve when I see young female athletes forced to use their bodies so differently -- as objects of public, sexualized ridicule -- all for the sake of creating community that could so easily be created in a different way.
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