The case of a student who died after a university society initiation ceremony has been across the news over the past couple of weeks and has sparked fresh debate about hazings and binge drinking among students.
For those of us that have been working around students for some time, the details of the case, the coroner’s comments and the inevitable moral panic have a miserably familiar ring to them.
For as long as I can remember, initiations have been a feature of student sports clubs and societies – and every time there’s a tragedy, an inevitable debate ensues about how to tackle them. Some say that banning them is the only option – and many universities and students’ unions have done just that, stressing that they take a zero tolerance approach. Then critics argue that this just pushes the activity underground – and so attempts to regulate the practice, or train the student leaders involved, or run awareness campaigns on the dangers of drinking, all ensue – apparently to no long-term avail.
The debate never really gets resolved. The often junior staff involved in sports club and society administration – some of which took part – remain baffled as to what to do or how to do it, let alone why it needs to be done at all.
It’s certainly not much fun to try to tackle these behaviours and there’s a dearth of support and guidance available. Meanwhile the institutional and national debate usually moves onto alcohol, usually a key feature in the high profile cases. The problem is that initiations aren’t really about alcohol, and understanding just what they are about is key to understanding what sort of action we should take in the future.
Features of initiations
It’s true that in all the cases I’ve seen over the years, alcohol is a feature. It is also true that incidences of student deaths following pub crawls and nights out has escalated, and both the NHS and university health services report more students admitted to casualty after drinking. And work like the NUS/Home Office Alcohol Impact scheme has done much to shift perceptions amongst students (and those that sell alcohol) on binge drinking dangers and social norms.
But there are some specific characteristics of these incidents that can be separated from general, social binge drinking. First, the rapid and competitive consumption of sometimes-spiked drinks (usually by new members).
Alternatively, it’s often just as much about nasty foodstuffs. Technically students are told that they can “opt-out”, but the subtle messaging is clear – to be accepted here involves doing dangerous things. In secret, organisers do what was done to them, and participants weigh up the dangers and conclude that the social and hierarchical benefits of participation outweigh the potential danger.
Sexualised behaviour is also a less discussed but common feature. Acts of public nudity pepper the case studies. Homophobia is frequently involved. There are tales of students (and not just young men) being “dared” to degrade themselves, or sexually assault or degrade others. In these examples, the acts are not about sex, or sexuality – they are about power. The group social benefits of degrading oneself or being seen to degrade others, mixed with the disinhibiting impact of alcohol, are central ways in which students end up doing things that they would otherwise never consider.
And related to that are challenges and forfeits. Students are again often told that they can “opt out” of a dare that is dangerous, or humiliating, or unpleasant. But performance in those tasks marks someone out as being loyal, and heroic – someone that is prepared to go that extra mile for the group. Opting out could bring social exclusion, and opting in can bring rewards.
And then there is the issue of abuse. For those that survive and thrive in the challenges, some light physical or sexual abuse is part of the bonding experience – and never did them any harm. It was just a bit of fun. But they miss those that decided not to join groups and teams given the rumours, and those that witness or experience the abuse and never come back. And in any event, the problematic message in the culture is clear – if you can survive this, you are fit to be a popular leader.
There is actually surprisingly little research into initiations. What there is traces back to public schools, and old-fashioned selection rituals of leadership and power. Others trace a clear link between the culture of sport and initiations – where being the best, and not betraying signs of weakness, are linked to perceptions of performance. And others take a patriarchal view – stressing that the behaviours and incidents are signs of toxic masculinity (whether carried out by men or women).
On the ground, there is often a fruitless search for motivation in cases – why, when there are so many other ways of getting to know new people, do some students put others at such risk? But regardless of why these activities have persisted, the critical question is what might be done to stop what in truth is dangerous, ingrained, ritualised bullying. And I’ve identified over the years several mistakes that people in power on campuses make in attempting to tackle initiation culture.
- Individualisation: In many university (and, where they exist, students’ union) disciplinary policies, punishable acts are imagined to be carried out by individuals. Accused individuals in these cases often pass the buck to others. But it is groups and their culture that lead to initiation activity. We need policies and systems that are more prepared to hold groups of students responsible for their actions, and be prepared to penalise individuals that might not have been directly involved in leading an activity or incident.
- Location: The bulk of these cases surround student sports clubs, but often these are separated from other activities, and embedded in sports departments that operate their own quasi-disciplinary codes that are rarely keen to be seen as a source of problems. The result is that across the sector, much more meaningful work has been going on in students’ services departments and students’ unions on harassment in general. However support for student sport is delivered, it needs to be inside, not adjacent to, the harassment conversation.
- Orphaning: In many cases, there are procedures in sports departments or SUs that tackle incidents – but in many cases there is no link back to university disciplinary procedures. This might be sensible for low-level incidents, but joining up the procedures (and handling capacity) is arguably a necessity – particularly if the extent of the threat is a club ban or small club fine.
- Definitional: Most universities think they’ve banned initiations. – but what have they in fact banned and are we satisfied that students understand? To prevent or take action on something, you need to be able to define it, but many of the definitions of initiation I’ve seen just don’t understand the issues. Initiations are almost never about forcing – they are about a culture of expectation around task performance. Both naive students and staff need to understand that.
- Targeting: Another phenomenon is that particular pockets of problems – medical courses, ancient student societies and elite sports clubs – complain that anti-initiation activity unfairly targets them. “Not all X”, they cry, just as “not all men” pervades Twitter debate on tackling sexual assault. The available evidence suggests that the targeting is anything but unfair – and that more generalised campaigns and initiatives don’t go near to tacking the core issues or repeat offenders.
- Investigation: Whenever a case of this sort emerges, a common feature is that members of a group (particularly its leaders) go to ground, and legal push back from students and their parents is deployed. Just as with sexual misconduct, the kind of investigatory capacity and competence required to penetrate this just doesn’t exist in many universities or their SUs. It needs to.
- Scope: In these cases, the scope of the SU or university in controlling behaviour also always raises its head. When is a social activity between students a matter that is governed by enforceable rules? US debate about the campus walls limits of Title IX cases hardly helps – and it would be useful to have legal advice and national leadership over what we should consider to be freedom to indulge in hedonism for private individuals and groups, as opposed to behaviour in a university or union’s name that can and should be regulated, risk assessed and controlled.
A way forward
As well as correcting the mistakes, there are other things the sector could be doing to address the issues. First, we need to know much more about prevalence and attitudes to initiations. That there has not been funded, national research that can both get at what is going on under our noses and what students think about the value or perniciousness of the practice is a real gap.
The second is about reporting and whistleblowing. Much of our emergent understanding about increasing reporting of sexual misconduct centres on raising the profile of reporting routes, and reducing the risks involved for students that come forward. Equivalent efforts, run in partnership between SUs and universities, would really help in this agenda.
Instead of acquiescing to it, we should tackle head on the agenda of Spiked! and their ilk, that claim that tackling issues like these is part of a nannying, killjoy culture of political correctness. There’s no better example of the daft debate about “safe spaces” than this, where a free for all can make an already difficult rite of passage process even more harder and unpleasant than it really needs to be.
There is much more that we can do to support those trying to change the culture of their group. In so many of the cases I’ve come across, the student leaders of sports clubs and societies feel powerless to argue against the challenges and forfeits and “dirty pints” that are deep in the traditions. This involves something more than a compulsory PowerPoint session for club presidents, although that would be a start.
We should also have a serious conversation about strength, resilience and toughness. There are versions of sporting success and conceptions of leadership that appear to value the very things that we might regard as problematic in the more general student mental health space. We should know who is being put off from student society and sporting activity – especially if the hunches of colleagues over the years are right, and that diversity is a real problem. And when we’re loading people onto coaches next April, we should probably ask ourselves why it is that the Mayor of Salou famously exerted pressure to have British university “sports tours” banned from the city, shifting them largely to other locations in Europe. It probably wasn’t because of his hatred for hockey.
But perhaps the most important thing that we can do is to stop believing that we are powerless. This isn’t just about alcohol, or the “kids will be kids” hedonism of youth. Initiations are about bullying and power. If we are on a long-term journey to convert higher education from a finishing school for the elite to a force for much wider social good, developing a proper strategy in this area is vital. Some might say that doing this is all the sector needs right now given the potential for bad publicity. Others might argue that that’s exactly why clever, coordinated action is needed now.