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The Truth About Sorority Hazing

The National Panhellenic Conference defines hazing as “any action or situation with or without consent which recklessly, intentionally or unintentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student, or creates risk of injury, or causes discomfort, embarrassment, harassment or ridicule or which willfully destroys or removes public or private property for the purpose of initiation or admission into or affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in a chapter or colony of an NPC member fraternity.” Despite being prohibited in all national sororities and women’s fraternities—and illegal in 44 states—hazing is still shockingly prevalent.

One senior at an urban East Coast college, a school with a relatively small percentage of Greeks—when she rushed the percentage was only 12% but has since risen to 22%—talks about her experience with hazing: “Panhellenic said that there was a zero-tolerance policy at [my school],” the very involved sorority sister explained. “They passed out pamphlets outlining any activity that could be considered hazing, anything from walking in a straight line, being forced to wearing a sorority t-shirt on a given day, and much more serious things. There is a hazing hotline that they told us about that we were to call.”

She reported feeling no pressure to rush and even waited until her sophomore year to do so, when most students at her university rush in the fall of their freshman year. During the fall of her sophomore year, despite the stringent rules against hazing, she was subject to a series of rules and events dictated by her pledge mom. These tasks included having to dress a certain way every day (for example, “Wednesday was Buddy Day. I hated Buddy Day. You were assigned a buddy in your pledge class and the sisters told you two that you had to dress alike.”), greeting all sisters with a standard greeting (“you sounded like an idiot saying it.”), and attending spur-of-the-moment lineups organized by a pledge class phone chain where sisters would ask you questions about the sorority and just tell the pledges what to do—“and you had to do it.”

She also explained some special hazing events that her pledge class endured.

  • “We have an event that has to do with ice cream. You get into a room and there’s ice cream all over the ground and they tell you, you have to make it disappear but you can’t eat it. You have to put it all over your arms and in your hair. You have to get rid of it.”
  • “We had an event called Apple-Onion where you’re all in a small room and one by one you’re told that one girl in your sorority has to leave, and you have to write down a pledge sister that you think should be forced to quit. Afterwards you have an apple and an onion and they say, “here is an apple and an onion, whatever you choose to take a bite out of, your pledge sisters have to finish the other.” The point of it is that the whole time during pledging you’re told that you’re a pledge class of one, so it’s all a test to see if you understand that you guys couldn’t be divided and you can’t write down someone so you’re supposed to write down yourself to sacrifice yourself against your sisters. You’re also supposed to sacrifice eating the onion on behalf of your sisters.”
  • “Hell week,” which is traditionally the last week of pledging where hazing is most severe, “is now a weekend because the school cracks down. You have to all sleep at the same place, you can be kept up all weekend, you have to write a song about pledging, and sisters can line you up any hour of the day. There’s not a lot of sleep and you have to cook all of the sisters dinner on your own budget. If a sister wants a pack of cigarettes or Chapstick you have to go and buy it for her. You have to do whatever they want. You do puzzles and we had to sort sprinkles. They can put stuff in our hair like eggs and sour cream and we weren’t allowed to shower. Then you get initiated the next day.”

While these stories aren’t as horrifying as some rumored hazing traditions such as sisters circling fat on pledges or being forced to perform sexual acts on fraternity brothers—all things I have personally read about or heard of—they are still very much outlawed by the NPC. Eve Riley, the chairman of the NPC, includes in their definition of hazing, a sample of included activities that are construed as hazing. “Such activities and situations include, but are not limited to, creation of excessive fatigue; physical and psychological shocks; wearing, publicly, apparel that is conspicuous and not normally in good taste; engaging in public stunts and jokes; participating in treasure or scavenger hunts; morally degrading or humiliating games and activities; late night sessions that interfere with scholastic activities or normal sleep patterns; and any other activities that are not consistent with fraternal law, ritual, or the regulations and policies of the member fraternity or the educational institution.”

Riley explained the way the NPC tries to prevent hazing is through supporting “the anti-hazing hotline 1-888-NOT-HAZE or 1-888-668-4293 where students can anonymously report incidents across the country for investigation. In the first year of the hotline’s operation, 150 calls were logged reporting hazing incidents—and more than 100 were considered serious enough to report to law enforcement, campus authorities and others charged with investigating hazing.” The events are dangerous, Riley explains, because of the “abuse and misuse of alcohol” and the emotional and physical harm to the pledges.

Alexandra Robbins, author of the book “Pledged” echoed the sentiment of emotional harm. “I’ve talked to thirty-somethings who are still haunted by their sorority hazing,” the popular author explains. Yet the above sorority sister, and a number of other sorority sisters I have encountered, look back fondly on their hazing experience. “Everyone calls it the best time you’d never want to have again,” the sorority sister explained. “When pledging is over and you become a sister, you understand why you had to do some of this. I later became pledge mom and I understood even more how important all these events were, even though they appear stupid and demeaning to other people they bring people together and sororities who don’t haze have much less of a cohesive group in their sorority.” But she doesn’t believe in abusive hazing. “I don’t agree with people being mean, but I agree with people being forced to go to things.”

Robbins is familiar with this feeling that sorority girls have—believing that hazing has bonded them. “There’s a psychological phenomenon by which people who suffer through something like hazing together think they feel bonded because of it. It’s a shared history. But it’s a false bond. If sisters feel they need to be hazed in order to bond with each other, then maybe that bond shouldn’t be there in the first place. That’s not what friendship—and shouldn’t be what sisterhood—is about.”

Riley also does not subscribe to this belief. “We don’t support the notion that a negative experience helps bond young women and result in positive outcomes. A positive challenge which also provides a group bonding experience is community service, for example. Community service is a major tenet of the sorority experience.”

Robbins refers to the act of ‘pledging’ a sorority to be at the root of the problem, “If these are really just social groups, it’s ridiculous that there’s a period during which pledged have to “earn their letters.” Pledging is what leads to hazing and the hierarchies that make some girls feel like they have power over others, which is dangerous.” In an excerpt from her account of life in a sorority house, “Pledged” she further examines this.

“Representatives of the national sororities say that anything chapters do that distinguishes a pledge from a sister is hazing. But these same Nationals still call for a mandatory pledge period in between rush and initiation – unlike the African-American sororities, which eliminated official pledging entirely in 1990. Moreover, under the hazing definition, chapters would be vilified for doing to pledges what sororities are already allowed to do to rushees, such as suggest they wear certain outfits, herd them around in groups, or make them wait outside the house until the end of a “door song.” Further, by banning all ways to distinguish pledges, Nationals have pushed more dangerous forms of hazing underground. Because they aren’t allowed to send pledges on scavenger hunts or similar activities, many sorority sisters figure that if they are going to do anything to the pledges and perhaps get caught anyway, then they might as well revert to the forced drinking and fat-circling of the 1980s.”

Hazing is a hot topic—to many unfamiliar with it, hazing seems like something that should definitely be unacceptable, but due to so many sorority girls appreciating it and then keeping it under the radar, hazing still very much exists to this day. To girls who are pledging or participating in hazing in any capacity, reviewing each school’s individual policies (usually found on the Greek Life section of university websites) is important, as is utilizing hotlines to report any hazing, but particularly activities that are emotional and physically harmful. If you are being hazed (or are hazing and uncomfortable with the practices):

  • Suggest another bonding activity such as philanthropy. You should also suggest this before rush and pledging. Group bonding does not need to be dangerous or reinforce sorority hierarchies. Feel free to speak up about your objectives. Remember—these people are supposed to be your friends or sisters and most likely cannot afford to lose you as a member!
  • Talk to a trusted adult or peer about what is going on. Whether or not they have an association with the Greek system, they can still be a valuable resource. If you have a big sister in the sorority that you can trust she can also be a good person to voice your concerns to.
  • Call either a specific hotline at your college (generally available on the Greek Life webpage) or the official Panhellenic number 1-888-NOT-HAZE and report the hazing.
  • Talk to a mental health counselor at your student health center about your experience if you feel that the hazing was detrimental.

Eve Riley, the chairman of the National Panhellenic Council
Alexandra Robbins, author of “Pledged”
Sorority sister at urban east coast school
“Pledged” by Alexandra Robbins
NPC Policies and Guidance on Hazing

Cara Sprunk has been the Managing Editor of Her Campus since fall 2009. She is a 2010 graduate of Cornell University where she majored in American Studies with a concentration in cultural studies. At Cornell Cara served as the Assistant Editor of Red Letter Daze, the weekend supplement to the Cornell Daily Sun where she also wrote for the news and arts section and blogged about pop culture. In her free time Cara enjoys reading, shopping, going to the movies, exploring and writing.