A dark room, a jeering mob. A young man, trousers around his ankles, eyes closed, teeth clenched, furiously rubbing himself to a climax. He raises his head and leans backwards, his mouth forming a perfect circle. Welcome to the world of the society initiation.

It’s usually not always this grim, of course. But they can be humiliating and extreme exercises, ones which rely upon stripping the subject of dignity and moulding them into some different kind of person. Last month the BBC released a video of an initiation ceremony at the University of Gloucester where a student in Nazi uniform paraded up and down in front of his troops, cowering drunken messes wearing plastic bags on their heads and slobbering vomit down their chests, marching through the streets, pausing only for squat thrusts and more beer.

The national response was predictable. The university promised to “probe” the incident; the NUS President, Wes Streeting, said, “We are totally opposed to student initiations,” and called for a complete ban. Our own university’s policy is that, “Student clubs are advised that it is against Students’ Union policy to hold initiation ceremonies, to force any member to take part in an activity against their will, and to promote activities based exclusively around alcohol. These activities may not be used as a prerequisite for a member to be included or excluded from the club. The University will always seek to take appropriate action with regard to disruptive and anti-social behaviour, up to and including formal University disciplinary action.” There’s even the threat of the Police being brought in for particularly anti-social events, but judging from the continued popularity of these initiations these warnings can only have barely registered as credible.

Initiations

For this article many anonymous students came forward with tales of initiations, both positive and negative, and various ‘solutions’ to any problems there may be. All of them were clear that they were told by their society heads never to mention the initiations to outsiders for fear of university repercussion, but similarly all of them spoke highly in favour of initiations, and pointed out that most of them are harmless and safe – all that official regulations and warnings seem to have done is drive any dangerously ‘extreme’ elements underground. But why? It may serve as an education to list some of the stories divulged by these tipsters – though we must clarify from the start that the anonymous nature of these stories mean that they are all, at best, allegedly true.

Those motifs that repeat throughout these tales tend to be assaults upon the following – sexuality, rationality, and legality. There are variations and exceptions, but these seem to be the most common themes of the extreme, secretive initiation ceremonies. The first of these usually gives us the most severe and twisted scenes.

As the initiations seek to damage and humiliate in the most effective ways possible, it is no surprise that they often attack the things most new members will hold dearest – their rugged sexuality. Again and again, tales were told of sexually themed initiations. One university rugby club lined its initiates up on the sports field in female underwear and nought else. A few years ago, another unspecified society allegedly constructed, “a human train of freshers with one thumb in their mouth and the other up the guy’s arse in front of him, gladly watched by many fellow members of the club. If the thumb came out of the guy’s bum the fresher had to lick it clean as a punishment for his bad behaviour and put it back in. Thus the train was back on its tracks, and continued.”

Then there is this year’s aforementioned grim masturbatory manifestation of some kind of mass sexual repression, as if the tight sweaty shorts and group showering drives some repressed members of these societies insane with erotic lust, unleashed when given the authority to control and abuse those willing to put themselves in their power. New members come to play a game, but the admission cost is to put on a good show. They appear to be subscribing to the theory that that which does not kill us only makes us stronger, more heterosexual, more manly. An inoculation. For only when confronted with another man’s penis, in direct and unhindered contact, and then neither flinching nor experiencing rising excitement, well. It is on that day that they become Men.

But really – why are so many initiations so gay? “I find myself asking that more and more every year, as initiations take one more step to full-on gay sex,” replies one anonymous informant. Never mind the grossly homophobic implications, that these sorts of initiations must stem from an assumption that homosexual qualities are somehow intrinsically inferior and less desirable in a comrade; that they must be weeded out. It’s that usually this obsession with sexuality and gender isn’t seen outside the pages of feminist academia. There must be a reason for this.

Many initiations also focus upon the absolute and complete destruction of rational, independent thought, by soaking the members in enough booze to make Oliver Reed nervous. Dented buckets of flowing beers and spirits can make any party, true, but often the alcohol is the ends, not the means. The most common foundation of any initiation, as any fool knows, is the dangerous levels of alcohol, and the attempts to repress initiations tend to focus almost exclusively on limiting the alcohol consumption in the assumption that this is where the problems stem from.

Every year, dozens of students end up in hospital, most of them towards the beginnings of the year as they try to integrate into their new surroundings. The three deaths in the United Kingdom officially determined as being related to initiations were all drinking-related incidents. One example of drunken hi-jinks from recent university history occurred last year – the hockey society was reprimanded for the following incident, as recounted by one of our anonymous informants:

“We played a match in Leeds, then went to a pub afterwards. The freshers were, well, not forced, but strongly encouraged to drink copiously – which everyone enjoyed. When it came time to leave we went into the car park and were lined up against a wall, and everyone had to, without anyone actively forcing us, but as close as you can get to being forced, to down a can of super-strength lager. But then we had a two-litre bottle of something strapped to our hands, which we had to drink on the bus. And generally, the bus was a picture of filth. All sorts of vomit, urine, excrement all over the bus. Then the freshers were encouraged to steal things from a petrol station, and that was when the university found out about it. You hear these things from every other university as well.”

Without doubt this story has been mirrored across societies, across the country – including the conclusion, with several students in hospital with alcohol poisoning.

This anecdote also brings us to the third trend – illegality. After snorting a line of powdered orange squash, one military-based society held a competition in a university bar over the most expensive stolen item. The winner grabbed a pair of horns from the wall, leading to victory and barring. Petrol stations have seen several societies strike after a particularly drunken initiation session. Challenges are issued – for example, the ‘Masterfoods Challenge’, to steal any item manufactured by the food giant. In practice, this meant five-finger discounts on Pedigree Chum and Mars Bars.

So we have initiations where the greater the level of gender confusion the stronger it leaves the straight survivor; where alcohol is consumed to immense levels and near-death poisonings are trivialised; where petty crime is a petty amusement, all done in hunt of the elusive creature known as ‘banter’. Why is this the case? Why do so many head down these routes to humiliation year after year, smiling as they lose those qualities that define them as human?

Explanations

“The more harrowing and the more painful (not necessarily physically so) an initiation rite is, the more likely the person is to rate that group as valuable, and one to which they wish to belong,” explains Dr Martin Hagger, a research psychologist at the University of Nottingham with a particular interest in the way group interaction affects human behaviour. Much research has been carried out in this area, and specifically on students in the USA, where ‘hazings’ are a much more common (and often, much more violent) affair – and the results are interesting and enlightening as to the reasons people endanger and degrade themselves.

“We all have a sense of belonging, a desire to belong to a group, because that’s how we define ourselves,” continues Dr Hagger. “We choose to join groups where we have shared or common interests. We all have strong attractions to groups because they feed into our self-esteem, so when someone criticises that group, or a member of that group, it is often taken as a criticism of ourselves. It is as if it is you that is being criticised. You can see this every day on different levels, from joining a hockey club to different nationalities.”

This explains a key observation, the lengths people happily go through in order to belong to what is ostensibly a trivial team – and it’s echoed by people who have gone through these. When asked why he didn’t leave during a humiliating episode, one rugby team member replied, “I could have left, but no one does. It’s good fun and you don’t want to miss out. There’s also an element that if there’s 60 of you doing it and you’re the only one to leave you’ll feel a bit stupid, but no more so than with any situation like that.”

But the nature of these tests and trials is still somewhat confusing. Why do we value painful or challenging ones over other forms of bonding?

“There are arguments that we have a desire to join groups for evolutionary purposes,” says Hagger. “It’s likely to be sexual selection, where people select their mates on the traits they have. If someone is more successful in a group then they are more likely to mate and pass on that trait.”

Whilst it is true that initiations tend or tended to be quite severe in tribal societies – the Satere-Mawe tribe of Brazil traditionally make the young men place their hands in gloves containing 200 bullet ants, whose collective bites will render the arm useless often for days, before they could be called Men – I still feel the nature of the initiations is more determined by the broader culture. This could potentially explain the constant focus amongst male sporting societies on twisting gender as a form of humiliation – a shared definition of manliness, arrived at through a faux-homosexual trial by fire. It should be no surprise that those societies most associated with wild initiations are those with the most masculine traditions, where homosexual or feminine traits are rare and the team mentality is intensely cultivated through group activities like drinking and clubbing. Theft becomes a way of sticking two fingers up to wider society and declaring allegiance to the new team; getting collectively drunk lowers inhibitions, leads to shared stories, and the all-powerful ‘banter’.

“To the question of whether it’s nature or nurture, the answer is a bit of both. The question is how much our attraction to groups is determined by what we learn from our parents and others,” Dr Hagger explains. “A lot of these are things that ‘seemed a good idea at the time’, but peer pressure does play a role. People will do things in group situations which, if you interview them beforehand, asking ‘would you do this?’ they often say that, of course, they wouldn’t. And yet, in the situation, they will do these things.” The Milgram obedience experiments from the 1960’s showed that most of us would willingly electrocute strangers if ordered to, and in the bowels of Stanford friends were shown to quickly become ruthless bastards towards each other if given half a chance.

The evidence points towards a simple conclusion – that people enjoy these things because we naturally want to join groups with similar interests, but we won’t be truly integrated until we’ve paid some kind of physical or mental price that allows us to define ourselves in that group’s terms. Never mind if we don’t like it, the collective stares of ours peers are more than enough motivation to discard principles.

Solutions

Before discussing ‘solutions’, it would probably be more sensible to ask whether this is truly a problem that needs solving. “I think if initiations stopped the sports teams would definitely lose something. It really makes you bond as a group, and also it’s a tradition that it would be a shame to break,” says one informant. We’ve already seen that initiations are popular – much to my puzzlement, but then I’ve never played team sports. Yet I don’t want to condemn initiations, because for all the ridiculous stories they’re still primarily voluntary, and amusingly absurd. Recent attempts to limit the damage of extreme initiations have appeared to work to a degree – all sports teams have introduced an official ‘no nudity’ policy, society heads meet with the Athletic Union and (appear to, at least) tell them of their plans for initiations, and any sniffing out of truly shocking incidents tend to get dealt with quickly. There are entire generations of freshers who get to play team sports without seeing a single testicle, or downing a single pint, which must be called progress. Yet, from what we’ve heard in the course of investigating this, it’s clear that there are still issues to be dealt with.

Our hockey team tipster gives some advice – “The power of a senior over a fresher is pretty massive because the fresher is desperate to be accepted, and the senior is the one with the power to accept him. It depends how the people with the power use it whether the initiation is bad or not. They’re not a bad thing, there just needs to be more control over how people wield their power. You want to keep it open and transparent. Some of the freshers were driven away last year because they didn’t feel welcome. We lost a lot of players, and that shouldn’t be what university sport is about. Maybe having a welfare officer who doesn’t drink and who can draw a line [is a good idea], and it’s pretty obvious where that line should be.” Alcohol is the central peg here – whilst it binds groups who enjoy drinking heavily, it’s just as much the wedge that can drive some away. There’s nothing wrong with drinking alcohol, but there is something intensely insidious in actively seeking to poison people for fun. And it’s not untrue that most problems that initiations are criticised for stem from a lack of an overseer, someone in a neutral position to calmly take the drink out of someone’s hand and tell them to get a taxi home.

After all, most initiations are little different to a standard night out. Those that exceed these limits and approach lethality are hardly even then in the realm of the strict and brutal hazing traditions of the Russian army’s ‘dedovshchina’, where hundreds regularly die each year in ritualised beatings and intense torture sessions. This is just a group of young people, people who have more money than responsibilities, with intense lusts for power, inebriation and acceptance. They shall go out and get pissed, steal road signs, simulate sodomy and sing along to chart hits down the pub. In three years they will begin their jobs as accountants, retail managers, pastry chefs and soft-porn impresarios, and these experiences will be little more than a welcome memory in a quiet moment. It seems ridiculous to punish people for merely acting out their cultural and evolutionary programming, but when people are regularly picked out of the gutter, gin-soaked and unconscious for another night in the ward, then perhaps it isn’t unreasonable for those overseeing this to ask for some cooperation. How much each side is willing to give or accept is unclear.

Ian Steadman

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1 Comment

  1. Vanessa Anne Esi Brown
    November 22, 2008 at 03:18 — Reply

    I was talking to my friend that goes to Uni in London and she told me EVERYONE’s talking about Nottingham’s reputation for being kinda ‘freaky’. The behaviour seen at Miss Nottingham is, I’m told, the most discussed of all Nottingham Uni’s madness!

    Vanessa.

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