If you’re a member of a sorority, you’ve most likely heard that it is National Hazing Prevention Week. You’re probably being inundated with facts on social media from HazingPrevention.org’s #40answers campaign, your chapter may do a program on the dangers of hazing, and your university will probably bring a speaker on campus to tell you how hazing doesn’t build sisterhood. So instead of boring you with facts and figures and things you don’t think apply to you, one of us is going to tell you a story.
When I joined my sorority, I was hazed. I was yelled at, ridiculed, woken up in the middle of the night, dressed up in outrageous outfits and forced to go out in public, and made to carry ridiculous things around on campus that I had to present if approached by a sister. No one ever physically or sexually abused me like the horror stories you see in the media–I’d like to think I’m a strong enough person that if someone ever laid a hand on me, I would have left immediately. But, then again, who knows? Either way, I was certainly intentionally deprived of sleep and emotionally abused. If you had asked me if I was hazed, I would have said yes, but I would have quickly followed up with that it wasn’t too bad, because I wasn’t hurt in any way, and it taught me to respect the older sisters and the history and heritage of my organization. And, of course, I lied through my teeth about it to potential new members during recruitment.
Then one night my sophomore year, I was on the other side. The hazee had now become the hazer. The event was a new member sleepover–except we woke up the new members in the middle of the night, drove them out to a field off campus, and yelled at them about how much they sucked, how they were the worst new member class ever, and so on before we drove them back to the house for a bagel breakfast. Harmless, right?
As I drove out to the field, I happened to look in my rearview mirror and catch the eye of one of the new members. She looked absolutely scared shitless. In that one, quick moment, I learned two things that shaped how I approached my membership from there on:
Lesson 1: You don’t know someone’s past experiences, so you can’t know how something will emotionally impact them. As I made eye contact with this girl who was clearly terrified, I realized that just because this event didn’t traumatize me when I had to do it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential to negatively affect someone else. You have no idea how someone will be affected by something, even if it’s something that you consider to be harmless. And I did not want to be a part of any event that even had the remote possibility of emotionally harming anyone.
Lesson 2: I didn’t want this girl–or anyone else–to like me because they feared me, because I intimidated them into it. I wanted them to like me because I was good person, who had a good heart, who truly loved the sisterhood I was a part of. By participating in events where the only purpose was to break down these girls, I wasn’t showing that I was a good person or a good sister; in fact, all I was showing was that I could be a really good bully. And that wasn’t something I wanted to be.
If this was some kind of fairytale, this story would go on to say that I stood up to my chapter and we stopped hazing and we all lived happily ever after. But it doesn’t work that way–if hazing is deeply ingrained in a chapter, one person isn’t going to change that. Instead, odds are, that one person who stood up would be ridiculed and teased and tortured until she decided to quit. I knew the only thing that I could change was myself, so that’s what I did. I didn’t attend events that I thought had the potential to cross the line; I took the time to learn about the new members instead of expecting them to know everything about me; I would stop and say hello to them on campus instead of demanding that they show me whatever stupid thing they were supposed to be carrying around that day. I occasionally would even say “Is that really a good idea?” whenever someone introduced a new hazing event into the new member program. If anyone noticed the change in my behavior or cared that I didn’t choose to participate in hazing, no one said anything.
For those of you who think I was probably some nerdy member on the fringes of a bottom-tier sorority, you would be wrong. I was a member of a top-tier sorority. I was on both my chapter and the Panhellenic executive boards. I was front and center at the formals and the date parties and the exchanges in the fraternity basement, drinking wine out of a box and beer out of a funnel. I was voted sister of the year twice by my chapter. I have seven littles, including that girl who was in my backseat that night. I was your typical member of my chapter, in every way except for one.
Those who advocate for hazing prevention would probably tell me that I should have stood up, that I should have said something or told someone about what was going on in my chapter. Maybe they are right. Maybe I could have rocked the boat, caused a shitshow, and changed how my chapter did business. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to be the person who got my chapter in trouble and I didn’t want to be the sister who lectured everyone about their choices. But maybe I changed something by instead simply doing what I believed in and being the person I wanted to be. Maybe by my choosing not to haze the new members, one or two of those new members would choose not to haze later on. Maybe my choice would help them learn lesson three.
Lesson 3: You can’t force people to respect you. You can’t bully them into it by being intimidating or by making them do stupid, pointless things that may or may not scare them, or even harm them. You may think you can, because it will seem like you’ve succeeded, but a friendship based in fear or intimidation isn’t really a friendship at all. If you’re nice, fun, and you treat people with kindness and decency, you’ll earn their respect, their loyalty, and their sisterhood. And I learned that I’d much rather get it that way than by being someone I’m not..