A sadistic streak was revealed as our future brothers shouted, “Are you man enough to take it?”
Taking a long look at college fraternity hazing practices, the president of Cornell University, Dr. David J. Skorton, concluded his recent New York Times op-ed piece by insisting that “pledging—and the humiliation and bullying that go with it—can no longer be the price of entry.”
What prompted that diatribe was his recollection of student deaths caused by what he called “coerced drinking.” As he pointed out, “Alcohol makes it easier for members to subject recruits to physical and mental abuse without feeling remorse…” and blamed booze not only for the ritualized cruelty but also for the impaired judgment of those being hazed, their ability to resist significantly reduced.
Dr. Skorton certainly had a point, but I don’t think what he termed “high-risk drinking” is the only negative factor in collegiate hazing. Booze was never an issue when I pledged a college fraternity, decades ago. UCLA prohibited on-campus drinking; there was no looking the other way.
But that didn’t halt or temper the humiliation one had to submit to when pledging a Greek-letter group. I remember enduring a full semester of insults and put-downs that reached their climax with “Hell Week,” a Sunday-to-Saturday test of endurance and of what was called “fraternity spirit.”
My pledge class was small; we were easy prey. For seven days and nights we lived and dined like lower beasts, worked round-the-clock doing tedious and demeaning chores, then were kept up half the night by organized harassment. This was supposed to test our will, I guess, prove our worthiness, demonstrate our fierce desire to become fully accepted brothers.
What it did, actually, was put on display the sadistic streak that most of our future brothers normally concealed. It wasn’t enough that we were called “pieces of shit” routinely in the wee hours of the morning or were urged to slap each other’s faces—hard—to delight whoever was watching. We were finally pressed to become low-order exhibitionists.
On our penultimate night, we were rudely roused from sleep and told to line up, facing the brothers, each of whom took delight in tweaking our weariness. Then one of them snarled, “Take down your shorts, men,” and when we held back, the order was shouted again right in our faces.
So we dropped our drawers obediently. “Now, jack off.” What? The command was repeated. “Go at it—really pull it. We know you know how; we wanna see you come!”
We couldn’t look at each other, and it was torture to look at those watching us. We complied; that I know. But nobody came and nobody even got hard. We did what we were told in what must have been a truly pathetic display of compliance.
Reading Dr. Skorton’s essay brought that ugly episode back to mind, for at the time it left me with a cynical view of fraternity life that I never succeeded in shaking. Nor have I shucked the shroud of regret that shaped my fraternity experience. I still beat myself up for not having had the balls to obey my impulses and sound a demand for dignity.
Why didn’t I seize the opportunity to defy fraternal authority—pull up my shorts, shout “Go fuck yourselves, pervs!” and walk out?
In truth, I wasn’t brave enough to do that, to risk alienation for my remaining college stay. At the time, I needed desperately to be part of something. Why did I think being a fraternity brother would fill that void? It never did. Fraternity brotherhood was, and is, mostly a bullshit notion.
Army recruits get verbally abused during various stages of training, a form of structured harassment designed to toughen them mentally as well as physically. Yes, that experience is usually unpleasant and often cruel, but it serves a real purpose, one that’s hardly shared by the sometimes savage hazing that Greek letter organizations impose on their young pledges.
“Are you man enough to take it?” is the question that fraternity members seem to ask when raining insults and humiliation on those knocking at the door of brotherhood. I thought about this long after my pledge status ended and continue to wonder, even now: Why would anyone want to link arms with men whose abusive nature has been revealed so vividly? Further, why would the ability to take crap from people not necessarily his betters make a young man a more deserving fraternity brother?
Dr. Skelton’s essay did suggest that change may be occurring, however slowly. He pointed out one fraternity’s Balanced Man Program, which he said “replaces the traditional pledging period with a continuing emphasis on community service and personal development.”
I’m afraid that sounds pretty lofty and mostly unmeasurable, but it does hint at the possibility that, at least in some quarters, fraternity membership for new pledges will begin with their need to prove their worthiness—not by tolerating abuse but by making positive contributions to the world outside the frat house.
For young men on the cusp of adulthood, learning that all of life need not be a pissing match would be a major step toward asserting their manhood and gaining a lock on maturity. Also, I think, for each aspiring brother, having to earn a measure of personal honor would make fraternity membership a richer and much more significant association.