The tragic and senseless death of Timothy Piazza, 19, a pledge at the Alpha Upsilon chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State once again brings the issue of violence back on the front burner. That these incidents continue to take place is proof that colleges and universities and the greater society are not taking the problem seriously, and are failing to address the larger issues of how men are socialized.
In Centre County, 18 frat brothers have been charged with more than 1,000 counts in Piazza’s death, after the young man was forced to drink excessive amounts of alcohol and fell 15 feet down a flight of stairs. Police arrived on the scene and found him unconscious 12 hours after the incident. Piazza’s parents said their son had been treated like “roadkill and a ragdoll.” Penn State permanently banned the fraternity and instituted a number of reforms to combat hazing, but it is too soon to tell whether these will prove effective.
This comes after four men recently pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the hazing death of Baruch College student Chun “Michael” Deng at a rented house in the Poconos. Deng was assaulted by members of the Pi Delta Psi fraternity as he was made to run blindfolded across a frozen yard.
Fraternity hazing in the black Greek letter organizations was dramatized in the recently released Netflix film Burning Sands. Set at the fictional HBCU Frederick Douglass University, the movie focuses on the brutality of a fraternity during Hell Week, whose pledges suffer injuries from hazing-related assaults, and one pledge is beaten to death. Black fraternities and sororities hold a special place in the community as service organizations with a long, proud history and a long roster of distinguished alums. People take their membership seriously. And yet, some of these organizations have crossed the line and engaged in violence, not unlike gang initiations, internalizing racial violence and perpetuating the brutality of past enslavement.
As these killings of college students continue, we should consider the root of the problem, and ask why some fraternities insist on a violent gang initiation as the price of membership. Toxic masculinity is the culprit, and it reaches far beyond fraternities to all aspects of society. Men are socialized under a narrow and rigid form of masculinity based on dominance and control, as they are told to act like a man, a “real” man. And it is killing them. Men are harming and killing themselves, and committing murder — even mass murder — in a society that provides men with no other options than to resort to violence, as anger is the only emotion they can express.
Rituals and traditions have their place, and at their best can be life affirming. Inside Hazing defines hazing as “a process, based on a tradition that is used by groups to discipline and to maintain a hierarchy (i.e., a pecking order). Regardless of consent, the rituals require individuals to engage in activities that are physically and psychologically stressful. These activities can be humiliating, demeaning, intimidating, and exhausting, all of which results in physical and/or emotional discomfort.” Hazing involves someone proving his or her worthiness to become a member of a group. With hazardous hazing, things get out of control and participants may suffer from psychological trauma. After the hazing victim is accepted into the group, that person becomes a bystander to the violence, and with seniority eventually becomes a perpetrator.
According to the University of Maryland, more than half of college students are involved in some form of hazing in fraternities and sororities, other student clubs and organizations, and varsity athletic teams. Sadly, 95 percent of those who knew they were hazed — and 25 percent of coaches and advisors aware of hazing incidents — did not report it. One common form of hazing is alcohol consumption — which is responsible for 82 percent of hazing deaths and most commonly includes drinking games and drinking until one is sick or passes out. Other hazing practices include humiliation such as being yelled, screamed, or cursed at; singing or chanting in public; isolation; sleep-deprivation; and sexual acts. Each year since 1970, there has been at least one hazing death on a college campus.
Over the past two decades, hazing involving sexual abuse has been on the rise. For women, toxic masculinity means sexual assault and domestic violence. Fraternities are incubators for misogyny, rape culture, and white supremacy, as evidenced by the racist and sexist themed parties held in recent years. Studies show that one in five women in college is sexually assaulted, and frat boys are three times more likely to rape than other college students. The more men fear being labeled as weak, not a real man, or feminized, the more they embrace hazing.
It is not by happenstance that male-dominated professions such as professional football, law enforcement, and the military have a prevalence of domestic violence. Sexual assault has increased throughout the military, and the Marine Corps operates as a fraternity, with a culture of sexual harassment that has been resistant to incorporating women into its ranks.
Given the problem, what can be done to prevent hazing? Education is the key, as schools have a role to play in setting policies where hazing is not tolerated, breaking the conspiracy of silence, raising awareness, and holding people accountable. Student organizations should assess their traditions and rituals and amend accordingly, striving to build trust, relationships, and commitment rather than humiliate people, tear them down, and break them apart. Adults have an important role in leading by example, and exhibiting the types of behavior we want our children to follow. That includes developing leadership among young people, and challenging the cultural norms and toxic masculinity, which result in physical and psychological harm and deadly consequences.