Hazing and Gender: Analyzing the Obvious
Elizabeth J. Allan
University of Maine
The Hazing Reader: Examining Rites Gone Wrong in Fraternities, Professional and Amateur Athletics, High Schools and Military
Hank Nuwer (Ed.)
Indiana University Press
Spanning the decade of my involvement in anti-hazing education, I have been interviewed numerous times by reporters preparing news stories on the topic of hazing. Inevitably, I am asked about my view of the differences in hazing traditions between the genders—or sexes—that is, girls/women and boys/men. My understanding and analysis of sex/gender differences deepened markedly when I became familiar with gender theory after having spent several years educating about hazing. In this chapter, I draw upon gender theory to describe both similarities and differences in hazing practices/group initiations for girls/women and boys/men. I also consider how predominant understandings of hazing are shaped by social norms related to gender.
Gender Stereotypes & Research on Gender Differences
It seems the general public is often captivated by talk about the differences between women and men as evidenced by best selling books, self-help videos and counseling centers with titles like “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” (Gray, 1992). News programs, talk shows and magazines often feature programs and articles related to the (assumed) difference between the sexes. Of course, the question is an age old one. Nevertheless, people nearly always seem to be interested in new (and often old, disguised as new) perspectives about how and why men and women are so different. The talk of differences is so common that the assumption is rarely questioned. One problem with much of the talk about sex/gender differences is the facility with which gender stereotypes can be unintentionally reinforced.
A stereotype is a belief about a group that is applied to all individuals perceived to be a part of that group. Stereotypes are rigid and not open to revision—which is a major problem since they are often based on misinformation. This isn’t to say that we can’t draw any generalizations about women as a group or men as a group—but generalizations based on research (called empirical generalizations) are different from stereotypes. Empirical generalizations are based on research that takes differences within a group into account (typically through statistical tests of significance) and can be revised when new data emerges that differs from previously drawn conclusions.
Sex/Gender and Hazing
When considering research on sex/gender differences the oft-referenced nature vs. nurture question does indeed “muddy the waters.” It is frequently difficult to sort out how much of a measured difference between the sexes may can be attributed to one’s biological composition (anatomy, chromosomes and hormones) and how much of the difference may be attributed to learned behavior—behaviors reinforced through powerful social norms. For instance, consider the idea that men are hard-wired to be better map readers than women; or that women are hard-wired to be better housekeepers than men. Are these ideas more likely stereotypes or empirical generalizations? If a research study tested a group of randomly selected men and women on map reading and housekeeping, and came to these conclusions, we might accept it as valid, but how do we know if the behavior is truly sex-based? In other words, is there something on the X or Y chromosome that predisposes men and women to be better map readers and housekeepers respectively? Or, could it be that people tend to be better at things they have practiced more and for which they’ve received positive reinforcement over the years?
It is exceedingly difficult to know scientifically to what extent biological differences (anatomical, hormonal, chromosomal) between women and men shape behavioral differences. In fact, there are few scientific studies that currently support a biological basis for substantial differences between the way women and men think. Rather, research indicates there is more variation among women (or men) on cognitive, emotional and psychological variables than between the two groups (Fausto-Sterling, 1992; Kimmel, 2001; Kivel, 1999). Despite this however, the idea persists that women and men are vastly different in their thinking (i.e. mars and venus) and that they are hard-wired to assume different social roles. In my view, this speaks to the power of gender role expectations that have become so familiar and taken-for-granted that they are often invisible—and importantly, it this very invisibility that often prevents us from considering their influence on behavior.
National news accounts of hazing and anecdotal evidence point toward gender differences in hazing activities. In general, a common conclusion drawn is that hazing among men is more likely to be violent in nature and hazing among women is more likely to be psychological/emotional in nature. For example, The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky (Woolhouse, 2000, p.A-1) quoted Gary Powell, a Maryland attorney who has represented fraternities and sororities charged with hazing as saying “females tend to be less physically violent than those involving males.” Such perspectives align with and also reinforce predominant understandings of differences between women and men.
Empirical research on gender differences and hazing is limited however. In a study sponsored by Alfred University and the NCAA, differences in hazing practices among male and female athletes were documented, but were not the focus of the study. The vast majority of research on hazing, and media attention to particular incidents, has focused on male groups. In the few studies with a focus on women, hazing has been found to be prevalent. For example, in a survey distributed nationally to professionals who advise fraternities and sororities on college campuses, 44% said hazing incidents among sororities had been reported to them. “Of the incidents reported, 20% considered them psychological, 2% considered them physical and 28% considered them both” (Shaw & Morgan in Holmes, 1999).
Nuwer details accounts of hazing in college sororities (1999) as well as athletic teams, Pom-Pom and cheerleading squads in high schools (2000). According to his research, far more hazing incidents among sorority women have been reported in the decade from 1988 to 1998 than in the previous ten-year period. It is possible however that these numbers may not necessarily reflect an increase in incidents, but rather an increase in reporting (Nuwer, 1999). “Although some violent hazing, alcohol misuse and even branding have occurred in college sororities, hazing has been far less a problem in female clubs than in male fraternities” (Nuwer, 2000, p. 36).
A number of authors have examined male group behavior and hazing from various disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives (Nuwer, 1990, 1999, 2000; Rhoads, 1995; Robinson, 1998; Sanday, 1990; Sweet, 1999, 2001; Tiger, 1984). Of these, the ethnographic studies of fraternity culture, rely substantially on theories of gender, sexism and homophobia to explain aspects of fraternity life that increase the probability of violence against women who come into contact with these groups (Sanday, 1990; Rhoads, 1995). Sanday (1990) describes how “pulling train” or gang rape becomes a normative part of a fraternity’s behavior and group identity. She also identifies the pledging process as an important means of socializing men to endorse such attitudes and behaviors.
Analyzing the phenomenon of hazing through the lens of gender theory provides some helpful insights on both similarities and differences in hazing behaviors between female and male groups. Gender theory is especially helpful for providing tools to shed new light on what seems obvious. Since gender norms are so often taken-for-granted, they can be easily overlooked. Gender theory works against this omission because it makes gender the focus of analysis and thus illuminates some of the ways in which gender influences hazing behaviors and contribute to reinforcing hazing cultures.
I draw on the term “gender theory” to denote a body of theories that examine how cultural expectations about femininity and masculinity shape understandings of women and men as gendered selves. Gender theory contends that versions of masculinity and femininity are largely learned through a process of socialization rather than essential to one’s biological sex. As Jennifer Coates (1996) explains, “doing femininity can be paraphrased as ‘doing being a woman’” (p. 232). In other words, femininity refers to abstract qualities associated with being feminine and masculinity refers to abstract qualities associated with being masculine. Gender theory challenges dominant understandings about gender that are typically rooted in the assumption that masculinity and femininity are “natural” outcomes of being male and female respectively.
The use of the term gender then refers to the discussion of both masculinity and femininity. However, I want to be careful to point out here that a discussion of gender should not imply that there are only singular conceptualizations of these terms. As Michael Kimmel (2000) cogently describes:
Within any one society at any moment, several meanings of masculinity and femininity coexist. Simply put, not all American men and women are the same. Our experiences are also structured by class, race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, region. Each of these axes modifies the others (p. 10).
Nevertheless, particular versions of femininity and masculinity rise to ascendancy during particular social periods. Bem (1993) points out that even while the predominant versions of masculinity and femininity may shift periodically, they generally operate as two poles of a gender binary where the masculine (man) is positioned as active and the feminine (woman) as passive. In other words, whatever traits are understood to characterize the feminine also serve to connote the antithesis of what is taken to be masculine—or, that which is culturally defined as masculine oppositionally defines feminine. Active/passive, strong/fragile, aggressive/submissive, independent/dependent, and invincible/vulnerable are further examples of gender binaries that depict masculinity and femininity as polar opposites of a vast gender divide. While this particular construction is rooted in perceptions of ideal womanhood for white women specifically, it is relevant to all women because it remains a powerful and pervasive image or standard against which all women are often compared.
Another perspective gained from gender theory, and important to understanding gender dynamics and hazing, is the analysis that gender norms are typically cast in ways that privilege masculinity over femininity. An exception to this occurs when women behave in ways that are perceived to be too masculine. As a result, women find themselves in a lose/lose situation where the performance of femininity is often de-valued (and disempowering to them), yet the alternative performance of masculinity often results in negative consequences as well. The dominant discourse of heterosexuality also supports the shaping of this dynamic. For example, a woman whose behavior is interpreted as “overly aggressive” (i.e. masculine), will likely be labeled in ways that are perceived negatively (i.e. “bitch,” “dyke”) in the context of heterosexist/homophobic culture. Thus, women are in a double-bind—disadvantaged when they act in gender appropriate ways and when they don’t (Frye, 1983; Kimmel, 2000).
Scholars who use gender theory to analyze society generally agree that women and men actively participate in the construction of subjectivity by choosing to subvert and/or reinforce the dominant expectations for ideal masculinity and femininity. While individuals are active in defining themselves as masculine and/or feminine, alternatives to the dominant cultural expectations are often overshadowed by the power of the ascendant images--thus, making it more difficult to assume alternatives that are marginalized or rendered invisible. Adopting alternatives or stretching beyond the narrow confines of normative gender roles is further deterred by the likelihood that these alternatives will be labeled as somehow deviant.
Femininity and Masculinity as Social Constructions
A number of scholars have described how social norms around gender and heterosexuality may powerfully influence one’s sense of self (Butler, 1990; Coates, 1996; Kimmel, 2000; Messner, 1997, 2001; Mills, 1997; Smith, 1990). Some studies look specifically at the dominant expectations of femininity in Western society and the ways in which it contributes to women’s subjective sense of self—the ways in which women experience and act upon their bodies (Bartky, 1988; Brumberg, 1997; Smith, 1990). Researchers have examined how a dominant discourse of femininity shapes use of cosmetics, eating disorders, perceptions of menstruation, exercise, dress and adornment. These are examples of what Bartky (1988) describes as “part of the process by which the ideal body of femininity—and hence the feminine body subject—is constructed; in doing this, they produce. . .a body on which an inferior status has been inscribed” (p. 71).
A social constructionist view of gender posits that masculine and feminine behaviors are largely a result of learning what is expected in a particular culture (rather than imprinted on one’s genetic material for instance). Thus, gendered behavior is historically and contextually situated and can change over time or can differ among cultures. For instance, Deborah Rhode (1997) points out that a trade journal on children’s clothing, published in 1918, pointed out that a clear popular consensus indicated that “the accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl” (Mahoney quoted in Rhode, 1997, p. 43). While there may indeed be some biological predispositions to gendered behavior, it seems the overriding tendency, when it comes to gender, is to assume that biology is destiny.
I do not subscribe to the view that individuals are simply a blank slate waiting for a cultural imprint. Rather than negating the role of biology, considering gender as a socially constructed performance highlights the strong and pervasive messages children receive since the time of birth about sex-appropriate behavior. “These messages often involve unconscious, subtle, or indirect signals, rather than intentional instruction” (Rhode, 1997, p. 44). Many adults are largely or even completely unaware of their role in the gender socialization process. For instance, when my son was three years old in 1999, his grandfather made him a toolbox and included some real tools (a screwdriver, hammer, tape measure etc.) as a gift. Now that my daughter is three years old and capable of safely handle such implements with adult supervision, I asked him if he would be willing to make a toolbox for her as well, and he was taken by surprise by this request. Indeed, the thought had never crossed his mind.
Over the past few decades many writers have documented the differential treatment of boys and girls and the probable implications. Feminist scholars have long paved the way for considering how girls have been placed at a disadvantage as a consequence of gender stereotyping (AAUW, 1998; Pipher,1995; Rhode,1997; Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Sandler, Silverberg & Hall, 1996). Studies in educational settings have documented gender bias—most often unintentional—by well meaning teachers who simply give boys more attention and attention of a quality that is more likely to promote cognitive development and substantive learning. According to the Sadkers’(1994) research, even though girls and boys are sitting in the same classrooms day after day, on average, boys are receiving a better quality education than the girls.
Studies also document how children themselves police each other’s behavior according to stereotypes (Thorne, 1997). For instance, if a young boy plays with a doll in the presence of older boys, it is likely that he will be teased and will quickly learn that having a doll is outside the bounds of acceptable masculine behavior. This is particularly troubling when one considers that having a doll is an important way for young children to develop important human qualities of nurturing and care-giving. Beginning in early childhood, boys learn to de-value activities that are associated with female-identified qualities while they simultaneously learn that rough and aggressive play are acceptable for boys as evidenced by the frequently referenced maxim “boys will be boys.”
Over the past decade there has been increased attention to the examining how dominant understandings of masculinity shape a sense of self for boys and men. For instance, Paul Kivel, in his book Boys Will Be Men (1999), describes the predominant social construction of masculinity as harmful for boys because it confines them to the “act like a man box” and prevents them from experiencing a range of emotions and thus being fully human.
The center column within the box lists the range of emotions that boys/men feel, but are often hidden because of the cultural pressures to “act like a man.” The columns on the left and right within the box are the predominant cultural norms of Western masculinity that have come to define manhood in many respects. When boys attempt to step out of the box—or reveal some of their true feelings (from the center column), they are often pushed back into the box with verbal and/or physical abuse—or the threat of these. As Kivel (1999) explains,
“If we pay attention we can easily see the Box’s effects on boys. Just watch a group of them together. They are constantly challenging each other, putting each other down…testing to see who is in the Box. They are never at ease, always on guard. At an early age, most start to hide their feelings, toughen up and make a huge emotional effort not to cry. Many boys stop wearing colorful clothing or participating in activities that they think might make them vulnerable to being labeled gay…” (p. 13).
Both Kivel (1999) and Katz & Earp (1999) contend that the ways in which masculinity is currently conceptualized creates environments where boys/men are more likely to learn be aggressive and sometimes violent. William Pollack also describes the confines of masculinity in his highly acclaimed book Real Boys (1998). According to Pollack, “Studies show that boys at a very early age are pushed to suppress their vulnerable and sad feelings, they also demonstrate that boys are pressured to express the one strong feeling allowed them—anger (p. 44). He draws on the term “emotional funnel” to describe what unfortunately happens for most boys when anger becomes “the final common pathway…to express their vulnerability and powerlessness (p. 44). Importantly, these experts point out that aggressive and even violent behavior is more likely to be tolerated and/or excused precisely because gender norms are so powerful and pervasive that they are rarely questioned (Katz & Earp, 1999; Kimmel, 2001; Kivel, 1999; Pollack, 1998).
The Problem of Homophobia
It is impossible to provide an analysis of gender without attending to the role homophobia plays in reinforcing rigid and confining expectations of masculine and feminine behavior. This is clearly indicated when you ask a group of high school students to think about what happens if a man is a little bit too nurturing or a bit too emotional and they are quick to respond, “he’s a sissy,” “he’s a fag.” Women who cross the line of normative expectations for femininity face similar social consequences by being called “butch” or “dyke.” Of course, these terms are unlikely to serve as deterrents unless they are perceived negatively. Homophobia—the fear of homosexuality in oneself and/or others serves as just such a deterrent for many. These attitudes are so powerful and pervasive that they reinforce what has been termed a “gender straitjacket,” ensuring that boys and girls do not deviate substantially from culturally proscribed beliefs about appropriate behavior for men and women (Kimmel, 2000; Kivel, 1999). While a full discussion of the multiple and complex connections between gender and homophobia is outside the scope of this chapter, it is essential for any gender analysis to delineate how homophobia reinforces rigid (and sometimes harmful) expectations of acceptable behavior for girls/women and boys/men.
Those working to eliminate hazing need to be mindful of the ways in which masculinity, that is—the predominant social construction of masculinity, and homophobia, work in tandem to create a climate in which violent and demeaning hazing practices are more likely to be tolerated and even considered beneficial for young men. Gender theory provides an important lens for deepening understanding about the prevalence and persistence of hazing. In the next sections, I describe how masculinity and femininity shape particular hazing behaviors in gendered ways as well as consider how the phenomenon of hazing itself might be considered a gendered practice.
Masculinity and Hazing
The results of a national study on hazing among NCAA athletes (Alfred University, 1999), revealed differences between the types of hazing experienced by male and female athletes. Notably, “women were much less likely than men to be subjected to unacceptable acts: destroying or stealing property, beating up others, being tied up or taped, being confined to small places, being paddled, beaten, kidnapped or transported and abandoned” (p. 3). This finding supports the assertion that sex/gender differences in hazing experiences do exist. For some, this distinction is simply attributed to innate biological differences between the sexes. An analysis from a social constructionist perspective however would argue that these differences are largely the result of learning to perform gender roles differently. In other words, how men and women are taught to live in the world affects patterns of violence, abuse and other factors involved in hazing.
The connection between masculinity and hazing is not a difficult one to make. Nonetheless, it is a connection that is not often thoroughly addressed or even articulated. One need not look very far to find examples of how hazing behaviors in male groups often serve as a test of masculinity—or an opportunity to prove one’s masculinity. Listed below are attributes commonly associated with the ascendant version of masculinity in the U.S.:
When hazing occurs among men, regardless of the type of group, it is often framed as a test of “strength,” “courage,” and “determination.” For instance, accounts of hazing incidents among high school boys and college men frequently include tests of physical endurance, forced/coerced alcohol consumption, paddling and other forms of physical assaults/beatings (Nuwer, 1990; 1999; 2000). In their research on fraternity cultures, Martin and Hummer (1989) found that fraternities emphasize “…toughness, withstanding pain and humiliation, obedience to superiors, and using physical force to obtain compliance” (p. 462). In support of hazing, men will often say that such “traditions” are necessary to “weed out” those unworthy of membership. Some men who have been hazed are firm believers in the process of hazing and insist that they “enjoyed the challenge.” Such arguments are firmly embedded in cultural expectations around masculinity and what we are taught to expect of “real men.”
Femininity and Hazing
Drawing on gender theory helps to illuminate why it can be so difficult to eradicate hazing practices. For instance, in a fraternity, “‘Becoming a brother’ is a rite of passage that follows the consistent and often lengthy display by pledges of appropriately masculine qualities and behaviors” (Martin and Hummer, 1989, p. 463). Since hazing can serve as an opportunity for men to prove their masculinity (and heterosexuality), the elimination of hazing traditions can be quite threatening on multiple fronts. Steven Sweet (1999; 2001) points out that the pledging process forces many students to terminate or sharply curtail social interactions outside the fraternity ensuring that sense of self for pledges, and eventual brothers, becomes closely tied with the organization itself. This makes “exit costs” for leaving a hazing organization increase because fraternity members can “literally lose a major part of themselves by withdrawing” (Sweet, 1999; p. 359). Adding gender theory to this analysis provides an additional perspective on the challenges of speaking out against hazing or leaving a hazing organization. When hazing is so closely tied into the performance of masculinity, it is difficult to untangle the two. Hence, boys and young men who identify with predominant cultural constructions of masculinity, are likely to fear their manhood will be called into question if they resist an opportunity to prove their masculinity via hazing practices. This also explains, at least in part, why some pledges and rookies will ask to be hazed even if the fraternity chapter, club or team is working to eliminate such traditions. They know they will likely be subject to scrutiny by other members of the group who were hazed and hence proved their masculinity. Such scrutiny is not entirely external—but also self-imposed—as many boys/men have been taught to think of manhood in terms of physical prowess/strength, toughness and conquest.
Social anxieties around masculinity are central to sustaining hazing practices. The more that boys/men are fearful of being labeled as weak—the more likely they are to participate in hazing practices that are often dangerous and even life-threatening. For example, in her examination of violence in Canadian hockey, Robinson (1998) interviewed a 16 year-old boy subjected to hazing as a junior hockey player. His comment is illustrative of the way in which hazing preys upon anxieties around proving one’s masculinity: “they were persistent in giving us alcohol. Lots of beer. We might look like a wimp if we turned it down” (Robinson, 1998, p. 66).
Some researchers have considered how the learning of gender may affect patterns of health and well-being. For instance, an argument has been made for understanding the phenomenon of longer life expectancy among women through a social learning lens (rather than simply a consequence of biology). Research indicates that higher mortality rates for men are attributable to higher accident rates for younger men and to heart disease for men at older ages (Krieger & Fee, 1994). However, as Krieger and Fee (1994) point out, “the higher accident rates of younger men are not accidental” (p. 62), but due to hazards related to gender role expectations including: more hazardous occupations, higher rates of illegal drug use and alcohol abuse, injuries related to firearms and motor vehicle accidents. While heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women, many of the risk factors may be associated more with gender than with biology—higher rates of cigarette smoking and fewer sources of social/emotional support among men for example (Krieger & Fee, 1994). A similar connection can be made between gender and deaths due to hazing. Nuwer’s (1999) chronology of hazing fatalities reveals that men are far more likely to die from hazing activities than are women. Of the more than 60 documented hazing deaths, only 3 have been women (cite).
Like masculinity, femininity serves as a powerful cultural force for defining womanhood. In the interdisciplinary field of Women’s Studies, numerous scholars have examined how women’s subjective sense of self is influenced by predominant cultural expectations of femininity. Feminist thinkers have been instrumental in identifying the ways in which the predominant social construction of femininity has often undermined women’s chances for sociopolitical equality (Rhode, 1997). In sum, feminist and gender theories generally support the contention that dominant understandings of femininity shape women’s desire to appeal to men in ways that limit their power and reinforce male power. Following is a list of attributes associated with a traditional and predominant version of femininity. When placed beside the list of masculine attributes, gender polarization is evident:
Further, as I have described, homophobia serves to reinforce compliance with these narrowly defined versions of gender.
Gender and Sexism
Disempowering effects of the dominant discourse of femininity can be seen by the ways in which femininity becomes “imprinted” on female bodies. Brumberg (1997) uses the term “project” to describe the relationship girls/women learn to have with their bodies. In her book, The Body Project (1997), she shares her research on girls’ diaries produced throughout the 20th century with a focus on how girls’ sense of self has become increasingly tied to their appearance evidenced for example by one of the most popular new years resolutions for white girls: to lose weight. John Berger, in his classic text Ways of Seeing (1972), draws on images from high art and pop culture to describe “the gaze” in Western society where images of women are often presented from a male vantage point. This however is not only an issue of men looking at women—the gaze is so pervasive that girls/women internalize it as well and unconsciously come to see themselves and their bodies through this male gaze (Berger, 1972). This is not surprising when women’s bodies can serve as a source of cultural capital in a sense. In other words, there is a certain degree of power that is gained from being able to display a body that somehow “fits” the largely unattainable ideals of beauty presented in the popular media. Women’s drive to achieve this “ideal body” is evidenced by excessive dieting among white women (and the disproportionate numbers of girls and women with eating disorders), “body sculpting” classes in fitness centers, hair removal procedures, breast implants and other types of cosmetic surgery that are largely oriented toward girls/women becoming more attractive (to men). I don’t mean to imply that women do not find these ideals attractive as well. Quite the contrary, as Berger (1972) has described, men look at women and women see themselves being looked at. In other words, for most women, and heterosexual women primarily, their sense of attractiveness is shaped through the filter of the male “gaze.”
When considering the social construction of gender, race and ethnicity cannot be overlooked, as these are cultural factors that also influence the shaping of what is deemed acceptable behavior for women and men. The lists of masculine and feminine attributes I have provided are based primarily on a white middle-class dominant ideal that is often, but not always, replicated by members of other racial and socioeconomic groups. So while these are not neat and tidy category schemes that can be generalized to all members of U.S. society, I offer them because these are the characteristics that tend to pervade the culture through dominant discourses of gender reflected and reinforced by media representations, public school curricula as well as public policy (Kimmel, 2000). This does not imply that alternatives do not exist—rather, I want to emphasize that alternatives to the dominant white middle-class conceptualizations of masculinity and femininity do exist, however, they are most often overshadowed, marginalized (or labeled deviant). One example of this is how young African-American girls are often labeled as “those loud black girls” when they don’t conform to the predominant image of white femininity (cite).
Sexism. Explanation is warranted here as I have learned through my six years of experience teaching Women’s Studies at the college level that this concept is often misunderstood and is confusing to many. The term itself--“sexism”--often evokes strong reactions ranging from denial, to defensiveness, resentment and defiance. These reactions are understandable from a number of vantage points. One of the most crucial reasons for discomfort with the term is that the concept of sexism requires an acceptance that sex/gender inequality exists. This is difficult for many to see especially when there have been numerous gains for women in education, employment and public policy (i.e. Title IX) over the past several decades. It is not as easy to see that there have also been setbacks and stagnation in a number of arenas (Rhode, 1997; Valian, 1998).
Another major barrier to understanding the concept of sexism is that the term is often equated with the “blame game” or “male bashing” as some like to call it. No one wants to be blamed for gender inequality, and the use of the term “sexism” is often perceived as an indictment of all men. As Allan Johnson (2001) points out,
It’s become almost impossible, for example, to say sexism or male privilege without most men becoming so uncomfortable that the conversation is impossible. They act as though sexism names a personality flaw found among men, and just saying the word…is heard as an accusation of a personal moral failure (p. 12).
These defensive reactions are unfortunate as they can preclude an important opportunity for analysis.
Sexism refers to systematic and structural conditions (patterns of privilege and power) that contribute to and/or sustain discrimination against women. These patterns include individual attitudes and prejudicial behavior (intended or not) as well as systematic and institutionalized practices that cannot be attributed to any single person. Men do stand to benefit from sexism in many ways because they inherit social power in a society where women are disadvantaged—just as whites stand to benefit from race privilege a society where people of color are systematically disadvantaged. However, this does not imply that all men want women to be second-class citizens or that all whites are bad people. The dynamics of sexism are complex and need to be considered in relation to race, social class standing, sexual identity as well as other forms of identity differences. However, a basic understanding the concept of sexism is crucial to examining the dynamics of gender and in turn, how the social construction of femininity is implicated in hazing practices for women’s groups.
In his book The Gendered Society, Michael Kimmel (2000), succinctly summarizes important connections between gender and sexism. Drawing on Connell’s (1987) concept of “emphasized femininity,” Kimmel explains “emphasized femininity is organized around compliance with gender inequality” (p. 11) and is “oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men” (Connell as quoted in Kimmel, 2000, p. 11). According to this view, emphasized femininity serves as an amplification of perceived differences between women and men and is used as a strategy of adapting to male power (Kimmel, 2000). In other words, women learn to perform femininity both consciously and unconsciously as a strategy to cope with sexism. Emphasized femininity can be seen in “the display of sociability rather than technical competence, fragility in mating scenes, compliance with men’s desire for titillation and ego-stroking in office relationships, acceptance of marriage and childcare as a response to labor-market discrimination against women” (Connell as quoted in Kimmel, 2000, p. 11).
Emphasized femininity is closely connected to the concept of androcentrism—or the tendency to see men and masculinity as the center of the social world. Bem (1993) contends that androcentrism is an important factor in sustaining sex/gender inequality in society. Androcentrism is manifested in many ways including language, school curricula and textbooks where women’s contributions have been marginalized or omitted; in medical studies and psychological theories to name a few. Another example of androcentrism is the tendency to valorize the attributes that have historically been associated with men and masculinity. Since gendered attributes are so sharply polarized, the valorization of one (masculinity) tends to result in the devaluation of the other (femininity). For example, we are all familiar with the differences in pay and prestige afforded to occupations (engineer, computer technician, attorney) that are considered to require more masculine qualities (analytic, rational, logical) and those considered more feminine (teacher, social worker, secretary) as they involve more emotional labor and are oriented around nurturing and fulfilling the needs of others.
The sexual objectification of women is another outcome of sexism that is often implicated in hazing behaviors. I am using the term sexual objectification here to refer to the ways in which women’s bodies are commodified—made into objects of heterosexual male desire. This can be seen on a daily basis in the popular media—in advertising, fashion and the pornography industry to name a few—where women’s bodies or particular parts of women’s bodies are used to sell products. In a society where heterosexual men hold more fiscal, political and institutional power than women (on the whole), the objectification of women’s bodies occurs with a far greater frequency and intensity than objectification of male bodies.
In her analysis of fraternity little sister groups, Stombler (1994) uses theories of gender, sexism and sexual objectification describing sexual objectification as a “fundamental process in maintaining male dominance” (p. 299). A number of scholars have argued that the ways in which women’s bodies are objectified in the media tends to have a de-humanizing effect, and as such, women themselves may come to be seen as objects rather than human beings. Some contend that the sheer volume—the cumulative and often unconscious—effects of seeing women’s bodies as “things” may contribute to a greater cultural tolerance for violence against women (Kilbourne, 2000). Rhoads’ (1995) analysis of a fraternity culture supports this contention; “women were frequently characterized in ways that depicted them as something less than human beings... They were discussed as “tools” or “whores” and were frequently seen as targets for sexual manipulation” (p. 314).
The sexual objectification and victimization of girls/women is often a component of hazing among single sex and mixed group (i.e. ski clubs, pep club, marching band). . At both high school and college levels, sexual simulation is a common hazing/initiation practice among women’s groups (athletic teams, sororities, clubs) where men are almost always present as voyeurs. For example, the highly publicized case of a high school gymnast in Vermont, who along with other new recruits to the team were asked to simulate oral sex with a banana while members of the football team encircled them (Nuwer, 2000). Interestingly, it is the female members and leaders of the group who are responsible for planning and executing such activities and inviting boys/men to witness and/or assist. Here lies one of the paradoxes of sexism as women themselves actively participate in sustaining the “object” status of other women. This makes sense because we are considering it within the context of hazing—a practice that is designed to humiliate, degrade and disempower people. Hazing activities would not serve their purpose otherwise. Thus, hazing practices generally prey on particular vulnerabilities that many be common to most people—or may be different between women and men due to the gendered arrangements and power differences in the broader culture. While the stated intent may be “have a good laugh,” “build character,” and “create unity;” girls/women who haze other girls/women are purposefully designing scenarios that are intended to humiliate, degrade, cause discomfort and/or frighten new members to achieve these goals.
In my own experience working with college students in both Student Activities and Student Conduct at several universities, I have been involved in a number of investigations where the sexual objectification (and possible victimization) of women was central to hazing activities. In one instance, sorority pledges were required to visit each of 10 fraternity houses (where alcohol was served) and to prove they had accomplished this, the pledges were required to have signatures written on their skin by a member of each fraternity. One of these young women was found intoxicated and passed-out in the bushes adjacent to her residence hall. This activity was one that clearly placed this sorority pledge in harm’s way—not only from the toxic affects of the alcohol, but because the risks for sexual assault were heightened as well. Another example of sexual objectification in hazing was evidenced in a recently publicized case in Maine where a sorority chapter lost its university recognition after a series of hazing activities—one of which involved having pledges dress in seductive clothing and visit an adult video store (Fish, 2001).
Sexual objectification of women is also used in hazing activities among men but reflects a markedly different dynamic. Among women, sexual objectification of the initiates often serves as the hazing activity. This is less the case among men. More typical is the scenario where the sexual objectification of women is used as a “prop” for what often results in homoerotic-type hazing. For example, Robinson (1998) describes how new teenage players on a hockey team were ushered into a room where pornographic videos were playing and then encouraged to masturbate in the group while older team members observed. When nudity or sexually explicit activities are involved in hazing among men’s groups, the spectators are most often male teammates, fraternity brothers and sometimes male coaches. In cases where sexual simulation is involves both male and female participants, the boys/men usually assume the dominant role characteristic of traditional heterosexuality (Millett, 1990). While this scenario is meant to be humiliating and degrading for all involved, the power dynamics are such that women are typically cast in the most vulnerable positions.
Simply put, sexual assault refers to sexual contact that is not consensual. Consent is a choice that is made without coercion and without impaired judgment (induced by alcohol, other drugs or other conditions). Since hazing activities are generally predicated upon an abuse of power involving intense peer pressure, coercion and often alcohol and/or other drugs, any hazing activities that are sexual in nature are likely to fall into the category of sexual assault and victimization.
Sexual victimization in hazing is a deeply disturbing trend. Among boys/men, the frequency of same-sex assaults, particularly sodomies performed with broomstick handles or other objects, appears to have increased dramatically over the past 20 years, particularly among male high school athletic teams (Nuwer, 2000). Other documented examples of demeaning and potentially sexually violating hazing behaviors include: forced nudity and smearing of initiates’ bodies with food products; using duct-tape or athletic tape to immobilize nude recruits; “butting”—where the rookie player is held down while a veteran puts his naked buttocks in the player’s face; connecting a string weighted with a heavy object to a new recruit’s penis; initiates immobilized in a chair while strippers perform in their laps (Nicoletti, Spencer-Thomas & Bollinger, 2001; Nuwer, 2000; Robinson, 1998).
In many cases, sexual objectification can also be a form of sexual victimization. Statistically speaking, 1 out of 4 women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime and 1 in 8 children is sexually abused—so, it is quite probable that someone in a group (female or male) has experienced a sexual assault and may be highly traumatized by any hazing activity that involves sexual simulation or situations where control over one’s sexual decision-making is perceived to be jeopardized (Greenfeld, 1997).
Identity Differences and Hazing: Gender, Race, Sexuality and Poverty
Hazing activities among women’s groups sometimes mimic the kinds of hazing behaviors typically associated with men and masculinity. Increasingly, girls and women gain credibility and status by proving they are tough, rugged, and strong- This plays out in hazing for instance the excessive consumption of alcohol (especially in predominantly white organizations and teams), forced sleep deprivation, ingestion of vile substances, brandings, paddlings and beatings have all been documented among groups of women. Recently, a study from Finland found that violence is carrying an increasingly positive connotation among girls and is something “that makes the girl feel powerful, strong, and makes her popular” (Kimmel, 2000, p. 250).
It is far less likely however that male groups mimic the kinds of hazing activities typically associated with female groups. Since masculine attributes are generally valued more highly than feminine, it is not surprising then that many hazing activities among women’s groups are shaped around the valorization of masculinity as well as gendered vulnerabilities associated with womanhood. Nevertheless, the social stigma that was once attached to those who challenged the expected passive and fragile role of “true femininity” (as Black women and working class women have done for many years) has been substantially eroded. This is not always the case, as the classic “double-bind” is a common experience for women. Even though violent hazing practices have been documented among women’s groups, reports of this are relatively scant in comparison to male groups (Hoover, 1999; Nuwer, 1999, 2000).
In addition to sexual objectification among female groups and physically violent hazing among male groups, other hazing activities are shaped around gendered vulnerabilities as well. I want to be clear here that I do not consider these vulnerabilities to be innate to girls/women or boys/men, but rather a consequence of complex and powerful social forces that contribute to sustaining unequal power relations as a consequence of sexism, racism, homophobia, poverty and other systems of disadvantage that render certain groups of individuals vulnerable in particular ways.
Implications & Recommendations
For instance, over the past decade, the very slim “waif look” (with large breasts) has become a standard of beauty among white women. Many women spend inordinate amounts of time and money trying to achieve this “look” which is largely unnatural to attain without significant risks to one’s health (not to mention the investment of time, money and energy that could be used in other ways). It is not surprising then that some hazing activities among women’s groups capitalize on this gendered vulnerability. In my own work at a University, I encountered a sorority that required pledges to stand on a table in their underwear while the sisters circled areas of their bodies deemed “too fat.” In this case, the differences in beauty ideals for men and women shape types of hazing activities. It would be highly unlikely that this same activity would occur as a form of hazing among a group of men.
Another gender-based difference is that groups of men are more likely than groups of women to engage in homoerotic activities as a form of hazing. When boys/men are subjected to (rather than freely entering into horseplay such as giving wedgies and wrestling), homoerotic activity it is often considered a threat to heterosexual masculine identity. Defending one’s heterosexuality is paramount to securing one’s status as a “real man” and homoerotic activities run the risk of threatening this status. In the much-publicized case of hazing on the UVM ice hockey team, an initiate sued the University alleging sexual assault after being directed to drink, eat vile substances and “parade naked holding one another’s genitals” during a team initiation (Rosellini, 2001, p. 1). Reports of activities like this are becoming increasingly common it seems and when consent is not clear, charges of sexual assault may be likely.
Interestingly, researchers have noted the seemingly paradoxical frequency of homoerotic activities in male groups that are deeply invested in sustaining highly masculinized environments (Martin & Hummer, 1989; Rhoads, 1995; Robinson, 1998). It is theorized that this may be due largely to the need for men to have socially sanctioned outlets for expressing same-sex intimacy—especially in groups where the “culture stresses a very macho conception of manhood…” and other types of physical contact and sensitivity are viewed as objectionable (Rhoads, 1995, p. 318). The sanctioning of homoerotic activities in highly masculinized environments like fraternities and male athletic teams occurs within an intensely homophobic culture. According to Rhoads (1995), the emphasis on machismo is also reflected in the strong disdain for gay students, whom the brothers tend to see as lacking masculinity” (p. 319). Interestingly, researchers have also noted that male groups who ascribe to very rigid and narrow definitions of masculinity (common to fraternities and male athletes) not only exhibit an intense hatred—but also fascination with homosexuality (Martin & Hummer, 1989; Sanday, 1990).
Consent is a key factor in determining the ways in which homoerotic activity is experienced and interpreted by others. When initiates are subject to hazing practices involving homoerotic activity, they are placed in a subordinate position, peer pressure is strong and alcohol may be involved—all factors that make sexual consent blurry at best. This is why such activity may be considered sexual assault when practiced during an initiation activity—but interpreted differently when practiced under other circumstances where the power dynamics are operating more evenly among participants.
Just as hazing differs for male and female groups and reflects gendered (and heterosexist) power dynamics in the larger culture, hazing practices are also shaped in relation to other vulnerabilities produced as a consequence of inequitable power relations operating in society. According to Walter Kimbrough, a scholar of higher education who has written about historically black fraternities, “organizations are always greatly affected by the culture of the larger society” (in Nuwer, 1999, p. 184). As a cultural construction, gender is historically situated and influenced by other culturally mediated factors (such as race and poverty) that affect the ways in which individuals experience the social world.
Michael Messner (1989) points out how the development of a masculine identity is structured in relation to race and socioeconomic status. If hazing among men is shaped by cultural expectations around masculinity, then it is also shaped by race, socioeconomic status and other identity-related factors. For example, scholars John Williams (2001) and Paula Giddings (date) describe their own experiences and reflections on how pledging and hazing in NPHC (historically Black) fraternities and sororities was specific to conditions resulting from centuries of racial oppression in the U.S. For instance in her book on the history of Delta Sigma Theta, Giddings writes, “hazing had always been a part of the initiation period…but may have a particular meaning and character among Blacks” (in Nuwer, 1999, p. 180). She cites for example the “stripping away of individuality,” emphasis on unity and unconditional respect for sisters as having “a particular resonance in terms of the Black experience” (p. 180). Patricia Hill Collins (1991) provides a detailed account of how Black women’s experiences of sexism are in some ways parallel and also markedly different from the experiences of white middle-class women. Clearly, cultural differences among women—of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, economic statuses and sexual identities—must be taken into account when considering how gender influences hazing. Much more research needs to be done in this area in order to broaden and enhance understanding of these dynamics.
In his essay Hazing in Black Fraternities, Williams (2001) describes how hazing in historically Black fraternities is often justified by appealing to young male desires to prove their manhood/masculinity—as in, “only the strong survive” as well as appealing to the need to promote racial pride by reminding a pledge “that the pressure he is expected to endure from ‘the brothers’ is nothing compared to what the ‘real world’ will put on him” (p. 1). Types of hazing practices also reflect cultural differences among groups of men in fraternities. According to Nuwer (1999), beatings, paddlings and other forms of violent pledging practices are the primary cause of injury and death within historically Black fraternities, while pledging deaths among predominantly white fraternal groups are more likely to involve alcohol poisoning and other substance abuse as well as violence.
Messner (1989) points out that “…within a social context that is stratified by social class and by race, the choice to pursue—or not to pursue—an athletic career is explicable as an individual’s rational assessment of the available means to achieve a respected masculine identity” (p. 83). He draws on the work of sociologist Maxine Baca Zinn (1982) to explain the particular salience of athleticism for men who have been oppressed by racism or poverty. “…When institutional resources that signify masculine status and control are absent, physical presence, personal style and expressiveness take on increased importance” (Messner, p. 82). Understanding the complexity of cultural forces that operate in the shaping of gender is exceedingly important. While many white, economically privileged boys and young men wrestle with achieving dominant expectations around masculinity, the available options for achieving “real man” status are increased by access to education and well-paying occupations. In contrast, boys/men from disadvantaged backgrounds may have much more at stake when it comes to developing their gendered identity. As Messner asserts, “for lower-status young men…success in sports was not an added proof of masculinity; it was often their only hope of achieving public masculine status” (p. 80).
Attending to the cultural construction of gender, homophobia, and the influences of race and social class is key to promoting more complex understandings and developing effective solutions to the problem of hazing. Interventions in all arenas need to take gender theory into account in order to design educational and policy initiatives that will work. Speaking specifically about masculinity, anti-violence educators Jackson Katz and Jeremy Earp (2001) point out,
Making masculinity visible is the first step to understanding how it operates in the culture and how definitions of manhood have been linked, often unconsciously, with dominance and control. Making masculinity a key part of the equation is therefore step one to dealing effectively with the problem of violence in our society (p. 12).
The social construction of femininity, sexism and homophobia also need to be made visible to help draw attention to the ways in which girls/women as well as boys/men are made more vulnerable to particular types of hazing practices.
More research is needed to help sort out the ways in which hazing manifests differently as an outcome of gender and other identity differences. The vast majority of research studies on hazing have examined its occurrence among groups of white men. One unfortunate outcome of this is that definitions of hazing and policies in response to hazing often reflect hazing as it occurs in among white men primarily. While there are similarities in hazing practices across all groups, there are many differences. In her research on sorority hazing, Holmes (1999) found that many women defined hazing as “a fraternity issue involving physical activities including drinking, running and calisthenics” (p. 81). So even though these women described activities that constitute hazing (i.e. pledge drops, servitude, not allowing friendships outside the chapter and verbal abuse), they did not define it as such.
In my view, as a mother of three young children and a professor of education, it is exceedingly important that parents, teachers, coaches and school administrators become more aware of how rigid gender role expectations can have harmful consequences for children. Fathers in particular can do more to model an expanded version of masculinity that does not valorize aggressive sexuality and violence (Kivel, 1999). Primary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities would be wise to expand opportunities for meaningful dialogue with students, teachers, parents and community members about the potentially harmful consequences of narrow and confining conceptualizations of gender.
In this chapter, I have described how rigid and narrow versions of gender work in tandem with homophobia to create environments that are more likely to tolerate and perpetuate hazing practices—and particular forms of hazing among different types of groups. If we are truly committed to circumventing the harm that is often produced through hazing, we need to become more cognizant of how gender, race, social class and other social hierarchies shape our understandings and tolerance of the role of hazing—even in light of the emotional and physical damage and sometimes lethal consequences that can result. Working to expand narrow and confining gender norms and eliminating homophobia is not only important for understanding and preventing hazing—it is an important step toward providing children (and adults) with opportunities for lives that are more fully human.
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