Sorority Hazing through the Lens of Gilligan’s Model of Women’s Moral Development
Why do individuals allow themselves to be hazed? Once a member is hazed, why do they continue the cycle? These questions are critical in understanding the concept of hazing. It is first very important to understand that hazing can occur anywhere. Hazing is not limited to college fraternities and sororities but, is also a serious problem in high school groups, athletics, spirit clubs, bands, and the military. According to the Alfred University National Study, 1.5 million high school students are hazed every year (Alfred University, 1999). In a national survey of intercollegiate athletes conducted by Alfred University in cooperation with the National Collegiate Athletic Association during 1998-99, they found that 79 percent of college athletes experience some form of hazing to join their team (Alfred University, 2000). Barbara Hollman (2002) author of Hazing: hidden campus crime, noted that hazing-related deaths have tripled in the past twenty years to about 18 deaths a year. These statistics speak for themselves.
Although the act of hazing has been recognized in society for hundreds of years, the definition is still not clearly defined. Many members who participate in hazing read the various definitions and look for loopholes in the system. For this reason national organizations are trying to be as specific as possible when they define hazing. The national fraternity of Kappa Kappa Gamma (2006) defines hazing as, “any activity or action taken with or without consent of the individual involved, which produces mental, emotional or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment or ridicule.” Kappa Kappa Gamma took this definition one step further by providing specific examples of hazing.
Such activities and situations include, but are not limited to, blindfolding for any purpose; creation of excessive fatigue; physical and psychological shocks; treasure hunts, scavenger hunts or kidnaps; wearing apparel which is conspicuous and not normally in good taste; engaging in stunts, degrading or humiliating games and activities; or late work sessions. Any activity that is demeaning, embarrassing, or mentally or physically injurious to an individual or group is considered hazing and is not permitted. (Kappa Kappa Gamma, 2006)
Given the various definitions of hazing and the array of groups hazing effects, this paper will focus on hazing in college sororities through the lens of Gilligan’s theory of women’s moral development. Gilligan’s theory suggests that women proceed through three concrete stages allowing for a greater focus on the relationship between self and other, and two transitional stages that represent a more advanced understanding between selfishness and responsibility (Evans, Forney, & Guido-DiBrito, 1998). The utilization of Gilligan’s model provides an excellent framework to understand and analyze a woman’s desire and need to not only succumb to hazing but, in turn, act as the hazer.
The first stage of Gilligan’s model, orientation to individual survival, is characterized by an individual who is solely concerned for their own well-being. Evans et al. (1998) discuss that the new member of the sorority is unable to distinguish between what “should” occur and what “would” occur with regard to hazing. All they see is their own self-interest in being a part of the group. At the end of the day, if all they care about is being a member of the group, then they are not able to see hazing as a problem.
In the book, Wrongs of Passage, the author Hank Nuwer described the journey of a first-year student at WidenerUniversity named Amanda Smith. As Nuwer (1999) begins to tell her story, it is evident that Amanda is in stage one of Gilligan’s model. She found herself intrigued by the liveliness and philanthropic nature of the Phi Mu women and impressed by the well-kept house. The women of Phi Mu also passed out material describing the history of the fraternity with a description of the organization as “proud, principled, and progressive.” Smith interpreted joining Phi Mu as an opportunity to create a positive college experience for herself.
During the first transition, selfishness to responsibility, an individual develops an increased attachment to others. At this point, instead of making decisions through interdependence, students base decisions on relationships they have with others (Evans et al., 1998). The sorority helps to facilitate the relationships with the other members and to the organization during recruitment by showcasing the organization’s values, philanthropic endeavors, social events, and the love and genuine care each member has for one another. This is done in a way to enable the potential new member (PNM) to see all the personal, academic, and social benefits to becoming a member of this chapter. If the chapter has effectively conveyed these messages then the PNM will feel a great sense of honor if they were to receive a bid from the chapter. Once the PNM accepts the bid then the chapter continues to create a sense of collectiveness by giving the new members clothing with the sororities letters, a new member pin to be worn above their heart at all times, exposure to the chapter’s ritual, and conveys message of excitement regarding the new members new role within the chapter. Leeman (1972) in Stephen Sweet’s book (2001), College and Society: An introduction to the sociological imagination, states that fraternities intentionally manipulate pledges’ definition of self throughout the rushing process and immediately following bid acceptance by offering self-affirming gestures and as a result creating strong ties to the organization. Typically, an individual who is at this transition recognizes that being hazed is wrong, but their strong desire to belong and impress others with their participation is a driving force in why they would allow themselves to be hazed.
In the story of Amanda Smith, one can begin to see her make this transition. Phi Mu played the role of creating a sense of belonging by giving her a ceremonial ribbon to wear over her heart, a pledge manual that described the fraternity’s anti-hazing policy, flowers, a pledge pin, and even taught her some of Phi Mu’s songs. According to Smith’s mother, “They treated her like gold” (Nuwer, 1999, 141). Nuwer (1999) described Smith’s reaction after her first hazing experience, “As my pledge class and I walked from the house to the library for our first study time, we contemplated the rules and decided that if that was all that we had to do, pledging would not be so bad” (141). Smith recognized that Phi Mu was not acting accordingly to the national hazing policy or the school policy but, as a pledge class, they chose to not find any concern in the matter. One can assume that Smith has begun to recognize the wrongness of hazing but she has chosen to base her final judgment off the relationships she has with her fellow new members.
Stage two of Gilligan’s model, goodness as self-sacrifice, arises when an individual’s definition about the world changes from self-centered and independent to being defined as a world where their actions are a result from the desire to be accepted (Evans et al., 1998). “An individual may give up her own judgment in order to achieve consensus and remain in connection with others” (Evans et al., 1998, 192). At this point her strong desire to be a sister fosters the mentality that by allowing herself to be hazed she will be accepted by the current members of sorority. The feeling of belonging is what is most important to an individual in this stage. Even if she does have concerns about hazing she will do so in private, as to not cause others to perceive her as a troublemaker and disrespectful.
As Smith’s pledge period progressed she began to question her decision to join Phi Mu. She resented the mandatory meetings, being required to dress-up, meals that had to be taken at the Phi Mu house (Nuwer, 1999). The members of the chapter mentally abused the pledges by screaming at them, requiring them to act as slaves, and other cruel situations. These experiences began to beat Smith down. She was exhausted and it began to become apparent to her mother that something was wrong. Smith stopped answering her phone out of “self-preservation” (Nuwer, 1999). Smith discussed how this whole experience was affecting her, “When I finally did get to bed, I was so upset over what had happened that day and so frightened over what tomorrow would bring, I could not sleep soundly” (Nuwer, 1999). Like an individual in stage two, Amanda had decided that what she experienced by being a pledge at Phi Mu was not right. Her desire to stay connected to the members of Phi Mu superseded her own judgment of right and wrong. This is evident when she stopped answering her mother’s phone call because she knew her mother would try to convince her to quit.
During the second transition, from goodness to truth, she began to wonder why she constantly put others first and reexamined how her personal values fit in with her current responsibilities (Evans et al., 1998). This can become evident in an individual who became responsible for carrying out the tradition of hazing within her chapter and she questioned how these actions fit within her own value system. She no longer looked to her fellow members to determine whether hazing was appropriate; rather, she evaluated how her own needs were in line with the other members. This could potentially cause a member to become distant from the group because they may no longer view hazing as an appropriate action. Her ability to make this distinction helped her realize that her needs are not selfish but, unfortunately she may still find herself swaying between what she knew was right and what other people said was right.
For Smith the torment continued. She was told by chapter members to stick it out because she would understand all of it once she was a member. Unfortunately, the abuse was more than Smith could handle and, on her mother’s recommendation, she went to visit a doctor. Her mental state was found to be altered and Smith’s blood test showed signs of hypoglycemia. Smith was forced to quit Phi Mu and leave WidenerUniversity. Smith could see the end in sight, and even though she was exhausted, she was willing to do what it took to make it. It was not until Smith fainted that she finally sought medical attention for the emotional strain of being hazed. Even then, she visited the doctor on her mother’s recommendation. By exhibiting this imbalance between doing what was best for herself and what was best for others highlights her being in Gilligan’s transition between stage two and stage three.
The final stage, the morality of nonviolence, she utilizes the concept of nonviolence as her basis for making moral judgments. According to Gilligan (1977) the individual is brought to a level of care by a “transformed understanding of self and a corresponding redefinition of morality” (504). There is no longer a tug-of-war between selfishness and responsibility and is now able to recognize the “moral equality between self and other” (Gilligan, 1977, 504). At this point she does not struggle with a desire to belong, and therefore feels comfortable standing-up against hazing. She tends to be proactive versus reactive, and chooses to educate others about the dangers of hazing, in hopes that the cycle will stop.
At the end of the chapter Nuwer (1999) discussed Smith’s ability to come to grips with the reality of her experience by suing Phi Mu in a civil suit claiming that the school and sorority misrepresented their accountability policy for groups who haze. Smith said, “There is nothing that can compensate [for what] I have lost because of this incident, but I hope that I can stop it from happening to someone else” (in Nuwer, 1999, 148). It is evident that Smith feels this decision was not selfish and from a morality standpoint she wants to ensure this does not happen again. In her mind the best way to enable change is by altering policy and holding the acting parties accountable for their actions.
Although the utilization of Smith’s story to describe the transitions female students experience with regard to hazing might seem like a seamless journey, oftentimes students may never progress past the first and second stages of Gilligan’s model. For this reason, hazing continues to be a pervasive problem in sororities because individuals may never come full circle to the point of action. This is why it is imperative that the university, on all levels, play an active role in recognizing the seriousness of hazing and facilitate higher order moral thinking in sororities and in all other areas of campus.
As Student Affairs practitioners, what can we do to help change the culture of hazing on our campuses? As described by Nuwer (1999), hazing is like any other addiction and requires dependence and tolerance to survive. Therefore, hazing can no longer be ignored as a problem and there must a concrete strategy for eliminating it on campuses. Holland (2002) has compiled a list of suggestions based on recommendations and suggested strategies contained in The Law of Higher Education, Wrongs of Passage, the University of Vermont report, the AlfredUniversity report, and the Stophazing.org Web site. First, administrators should examine material such as, the institutions policies and regulations, student code of conduct, and any other information that refers to hazing in order to ensure the information is clear, consistent, and concise. Second, a clear message of intolerance always toward hazing and the consequences associated with such actions must be conveyed to all faculty, staff, and students. Also, administrators must be deliberate in educating all the appropriate parties, on an ongoing basis about the damages hazing can cause. Third, the university must attack not only hazing but also the prevalence of alcohol abuse. Fourth, administrators should play an active role in the student organizations. It allows the students to associate a specific person as someone they can go to if there is a problem, but it also enables administrators to be a witness to any suspicious behaviors. Fifth, when a hazing incident is reported it must be handled swiftly and with all seriousness. Sixth, create a strong relationship with the fraternities’ and sororities’ national organizations. This will allow administrators access to current educational programs offered at the national level and will assist in the enforcement of any hazing violation. Finally, to begin to change the culture, administrators need to assist student groups in creating alternative team-building initiation rites. At the end of the day, however, if student leaders are not able to contribute and feel some sense of ownership over this process then all the efforts made by administrators may have a poor result.
Hazing is not a problem that can be solved with a technical answer. It consists of many layers and affects many people. By looking specifically at hazing in sororities through the lens of Gilligan’s model, one can begin to delineate psychological and emotional factors that play a role in an individual allowing themselves to be hazed. This understanding is the first step toward a long-term solution. Now it is imperative that we make a conscious attempt at utilizing this knowledge to end hazing. Being subjected to hazing should be no one’s rite of passage.
Alfred University. National Survey: “Initiation Rites and Athletics for NCAA Sports Teams.” (1999). Retrieved November 1, 2006 from http://www.alfred.edu/news/html/hazing_study_99.html.
Alfred University. National Survey: “Initiation Rites in American High Schools.” (2000). Retrieved November 1, 2006 from http://www.alfred.edu/hs%5Fhazing/.
Evans, N.J., Forney, D.S. & Guido-DiBrito, F. (1998). Student development in college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
Hollaman, B.B. (2002). Hazing: hidden campus crime. New Directions for Student Services, 99, 11-24.
Kappa Kappa Gamma Policies Manual. (2006). Columbus, Ohio: Kappa Kappa Gamma Executive Headquarters.
Nuwer, H. (1999). Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Sweet, S. (2001). College and society: an introduction to the sociological imagination. Needham Heights, MA: Person Education Company.