What are Initiation Rites?

A major developmental task for teenagers is learning how to fit in and be accepted socially by their peers. It is also important for existing members of groups to initiate the new members. When initiation rites are done appropriately, they meet teenagers' needs for a sense of belonging, and the group's needs for members to understand the history and culture of the group, and build relationships with others who belong. Initiation rites are comprised of pro-social behaviors that build social relationships, understanding, empathy, civility, altruism and moral decision-making. Ninety percent of all students responding to the survey belonged to high school groups (1). Among them, 98 percent of the students - both girls and boys - responding to the survey reported involvement in at least one of community-building initiation activity. Half of the students (52%) reported being involved in only this type of initiation activities."

Percent of Students Participating in Community Building Initiations
Community Building Initiation Male Female Total
Keep a specific grade point average 68% 75% 71%
Take a test for skill or knowledge, try-outs, auditions 68% 73% 71%
Go on a trip, camp, ropes course, or preseason practice 62% 64% 63%
Dress up formally for events 56% 67% 61%
Attend a banquet, picnic, lunch table, or food event 54% 66% 60%
Undertake group projects, fundraiser, or work camps 52% 63% 57%
Play recreational games together 47% 48% 47%
Take part in group singing, chanting, or cheering 34% 57% 45%
Take an oath or sign a contract 34% 42% 38%
Be a mentor, Little/Big Sister or Brother, or buddy 26% 40% 33%
One or more community building initiation 98% 98% 98%

Students significantly more likely to be involved in only positive initiation rites and not hazing: were female, had a higher GPA than those who did participate in hazing, did not know an adult who was hazed or thought hazing was socially unacceptable. They were involved in sports, scholastic groups, music, art, or theater groups, or social organizations. Girls did more group singing (+23%), acted as mentors (+14%), and attended banquets (+12%) than boys.

Students seem to understand the importance of community-building activities to initiate new members. It was interesting to note that when students were asked in an open-ended question about what activities not listed on the survey form were expected of them to join a high school group, by a three-to-one margin they (n=415) responded with community-building activities, rather than humiliating or dangerous behaviors. Their answers fell into several categories:

  • Hanging out together: 36 percent. Specific activities included recreational times, interaction with peers, outdoor activities, dances, games, "music all day long," trips, meals, camps, bonfires, get-to-know-you games, and meetings.
  • Community service: 24 percent. They volunteer for political causes or charities, or participate in fund-raising walks or mission trips.
  • Being role models: 16 percent. Among the answers were developing leadership skills, counseling/mentoring new members, tutoring others, showing self-discipline, "being a better person," signing a contract, upholding certain attitudes, writing a paper on "why I deserve membership," treating others as you wish to be treated, and representing the school.
  • Performing: 14 percent. Students said they were expected to win games, put on plays, march in parades, play in a band, perform for the community, do "step shows," adhere to dress codes or show school spirit.
  • Spiritual activities: 6 percent. Activities included prayer and Bible study.
  • Education: 3 percent. Activities included discussion groups, study groups, cultural activities, workshops, and meeting with people from other schools to learn how they do things.

Hazing was defined as "any humiliating or dangerous activity expected of you to join a group, regardless of your willingness to participate. Many people believe that humiliating others is just fun or "horsing around" and not a real problem, but we found that more than half of the high school students (56%) subjected to humiliation were also expected to engage in potentially illegal acts. We are aware that among college athletes, 81 percent of those who were subjected to humiliation were also expected to engage in potentially illegal acts (Alfred University, 1999). Because humiliation appears to be a clear warning flag that illegal hazing behaviors are involved or may develop, we maintained humiliation as one of the hazing categories defined as follows:

  • Humiliation: socially offensive, isolating, or uncooperative behaviors.
  • Substance abuse: abuse of tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs.
  • Dangerous hazing: hurtful, aggressive, destructive, and disruptive behaviors.

Even though there is anecdotal evidence that suggests that sexual acts are definitely a part of high school hazing, we were required to guarantee the providers of student names and addresses that we would not ask direct questions about sexual activity. We were surveying high school juniors and seniors, who are generally between the ages of 16 and 18, and therefore considered to be minors. Accompanying each survey form was a cover letter with sufficient information to constitute informed consent, but a conservative position not to ask explicit questions about sexual behavior was considered prudent. This restriction limited our ability to determine the prevalence of sexual abuse compared to other behaviors.

High school students were not able to clearly distinguish between levels of severity in hazing. When asked to specify "other" humiliating and dangerous behaviors expected of them, under the category of "humiliating behaviors," they reported dangerous behaviors, such as: multiple sexual partners, performing oral sex on mentors, beating up others, inflicting pain on oneself, locking new members in lockers, and stealing. Therefore, student responses to "other" humiliating and dangerous behaviors were reported jointly (n=120):

  • Singled out: performed in front of others; were tormented, taunted, made fun of; were only allowed to associate with other members; were "ditched" in a public place; were not spoken to if they refused to do something; or were taught to boast. One student called this "mean attention."
  • Physical humiliation: were given "wedgies;" had to push a penny across the floor of the bus with one's nose; or were required to suck someone else's toes, consume a mixture of urine, spoiled milk, and eggs; or "spelled one's name with butt in public."
  • Nudity: skinny dipped, stripped, streaked, played truth or dare; were required to put "Icy Hot" on testicles; "had to shave balls (testicles), then walk around school with them hanging out."
  • Sexual acts: were expected to "allow leader to molest you;" forced to perform oral sex for mentor; were victims of a rape or gang rape, or were expected to participate in rape or a gang rape; or were forced to have sex with animals and/or with multiple sexual partners.
  • Physical danger: allowed seniors to hit you hard during practice; were locked in lockers; engaged in high speed car games; or jumped off a bridge.
Percent of Students Subjected to Hazing Behaviors
Humiliation Male Female Total
Be yelled, cursed, or sworn at 20% 14% 17%
Associate with specific people, not others 15% 16% 16%
Act as a personal servant to older members 14% 11% 11%
Undress to tell dirty stories or jokes 12% 10% 11%
Embarrass yourself publicly 10% 13% 11%
Be thrown in a pool, ocean, creek, pond, or toilet 12% 8% 10%
Skip school or refuse to do school work or chores 10% 10% 10%
Tattoo, pierce, or shave yourself or each other 11% 8% 9%
Eat or drink disgusting things 8% 9% 8%
Deprive yourself of food, sleep, or cleanliness 8% 7% 7%
One or more humiliating hazing activity 48% 39% 43%
Substance Abuse Male Female Total
Drink Alcohol 16% 11% 13%
Participate in drinking contests 13% 10% 12%
Smoke cigarettes or cigars, or use tobacco 12% 10% 11%
Use illegal drugs 12% 9% 11%
Drink or exercise until you pass out 11% 8% 9%
One or more substance abuse activity 24% 18% 23%
Dangerous Hazing Male Female Total
Make prank phone calls or harass others 11% 9% 10%
Destroy or vandalize property 10% 8% 9%
Steal, cheat, or commit a crime 9% 7% 8%
Beat up others or pick a fight with someone 9% 5% 7%
Inflict pain on self, brand, or participate in satanic rite 5% 6% 6%
Be tied up or exposed to extreme cold 7% 5% 6%
Be physically abused or beaten 8% 5% 6%
Be cruel to animals 4% 3% 3%
One or more dangerous hazing activity 27% 17% 22%

1) Unless otherwise noted, student behaviors reported are based on 1,390 students involved in one or more high school group from 1,541 total respondents.