The following is a guest blog post by Jana Mathews, author of The Benefits of Friends: Inside the Complicated World of Today’s Sororities and Fraternities, available now from your favorite bookstore.
The storyline is so familiar that it constitutes its own subgenre of true crime: on February 26 2021, first-year Virginia Commonwealth University student Adam Oakes died from alcohol poisoning at a fraternity pledge party.
The details of this incident share key elements with other recent fraternity hazing death cases: older fraternity men welcomed the decedent into their group by gifting him a bottle of Jack Daniels and instructing him to chug it in one sitting. Despite promising to watch over all their new members and keep them safe in their inebriated states, Oakes’ fraternity brothers left him alone on the fraternity house living room sofa, where sometime over the course of the evening’s festivities, he fell unconscious and later died.
Hazing is a felony offense in fourteen states. In Virginia and twenty-nine other states, it’s a misdemeanor. Six states don’t have any anti-hazing laws on the books. In the case of Oakes’ death, eleven fraternity members were arrested and six found or plead guilty; charges were dropped against the remaining five. As part of a plea deal, none of those convicted will face time in prison. Instead, Oakes’ family advocated for and were granted a form of restorative justice. The six guilty men will travel to universities around the country with Oakes’ family members and facilitate ten educational seminars on hazing—lasting up to 8 hours each—and articulate in painful detail the consequences of what they did or didn’t do that fateful night.
Time will tell what impact these impact statements and confessionals will have on the behavior of current and future fraternity members. If we look to the past for clues about what the future holds, we have reason to be optimistic. Studies suggest that M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and S.A.D.D. (Students Against Drunk Driving)—two advocacy programs that employ similar strategies—have been successful at changing the social norms around drunk driving.
So how do we make it socially unacceptable for fraternity men to put their friends’ lives in danger? The answer isn’t as clear and forthcoming as it seems, especially considering that in contemporary American culture male bonding through violence isn’t the exception but the norm. One need only look as far as the nearest sports arena or video game console to find examples of what I mean. Whether on the court or the couch, the goal of many of these games is to hurt, maim, capture, defeat, or virtually “kill” someone else.
In contemporary American culture male bonding through violence isn’t the exception but the norm.
In The Benefits of Friends: Inside the Complicated World of Today’s Sororities and Fraternities, I argue that violent fraternity hazing persists—despite its known risks and dangers—because it works. The hundreds of fraternity men I interviewed and observed during course of my research took a short-term pain, long-term gain view: while being hazed is unpleasant, it’s also indisputably necessary for quickly converting a group of strangers who don’t owe each other anything into a band of brothers who would do anything for each other. Because fraternity bonds are rooted in the experience of shared suffering, it’s not surprising that these organizations borrow heavily from the rhetoric and rituals of war. Popular hazing activities include forced calisthenics and feats of strength and endurance; physical beatings and brandings; hostage role-play; and POW-inspired survival challenges.
If fraternity hazing is designed to replicate the spirit and comradery forged through the trauma of real battle, it’s not lost on anyone that most current fraternity members are veterans of hundreds of video game wars but haven’t had any personal experience in real combat settings. Although they lack access to grenades, landmines, and machine guns, fraternity members make do by forging surrogate weapons out of materials that are readily available in college dorms and on the shelves of local liquor stores.
Understanding why fraternities haze is key to developing a viable plan to end the practice. The solution that’s been offered up and has long been in practice—anti-hazing educational training—isn’t effective, I argue, because no fraternity member sees himself in the college students who are wearing orange prison jumpsuits on the evening news. The inability for fraternities to draw a bright line between their forced drinking initiation ritual and the one that killed Adam Oakes is because every fraternity chapter is conditioned through organizational ritual and tradition to see itself as part of the broader Greek-letter community but not of it. The strong belief in their own exceptionalism is what allows them to see how fraternity chapters with weaker social bonds might haze their new members to death but simultaneously prevents them from being able to imagine themselves in the same position.
The solution that’s been offered up and has long been in practice—anti-hazing educational training—isn’t effective, I argue, because no fraternity member sees himself in the college students who are wearing orange prison jumpsuits on the evening news.
I enter the ongoing conversation about fraternity hazing with fresh insights on the motivations that inspire the practice but admittedly no concrete solutions for how to solve it. This isn’t because I don’t think there are any, but because I’m not convinced that we—and by this, I mean both the fraternity and sorority community as well as society writ large—have sufficiently grappled with an adjacent question. By focusing so intently on how to end hazing we have neglected to ask ourselves whether we are willing to do what it takes to end it. For to engage seriously with this question involves giving up two things that are not only central to the identity of college fraternities but also our national character: social bonding through violence and the fantasy that we can control its outcome.
Jana Mathews is professor of English at Rollins College.