The Ugly World of Initiations

In light of the recent ‘#piggate’ scandal it seemed worth looking into some of the UK’s worst initiation ceremonies. I expected to find some funny and strange stories but even an initial scan of the internet revealed a darker side to society initiations, uncovering some truly horrific tales of rituals often involving dangerous levels of alcohol and public humiliation. It’s no secret that initiations tend to involve alcohol but in some cases this doesn’t stop at the occasional vomiting fresher – the reality is that there have been injuries and even deaths resulting from club ‘initiations’ and ‘punishments’ across the UK.

Let’s look at some of the most recent high-profile examples:

  • Football team members at Exeter University were forced to kiss a dead conger eel and drink pints out of shoes in 2014.
  • Hockey club members at the University of York were forced to down drinks mixed with dog food, anchovies, raw eggs and goldfish in 2010.
  • In Northumbria second and third years held freshers up by their feet until they finished whatever drinks were put in front of them.
  • Rugby club members at Edinburgh University staged a nude game of rugby using a live chicken as the ball earlier this year.

And finally, perhaps the worst one is this:

  • In 2008, Gloucester University students were marched down the street with bags over their heads, drinking and vomiting, while being ‘kept in line’ by a man in a Nazi-style uniform.

All of the above were taken very seriously by the universities involved and steps were taken to curb these practices. For some, however, it was already too late.

Take, for example, Gavin Britton, 18, a first year at Exeter in 2008. He took part in a so called ‘pub golf’ initiation ceremony and was found dead by workmen the following morning. Pub golf is a pub crawl in which teams visit 13 bars, having to drink different alcoholic beverages within a certain number of ‘pars’. In this case penalties were given if pars weren’t met. It was reported that over the course of the evening Britton consumed four vodkas, three pints of cider, a glass of wine and several Sambuca shots before downing a drink called the Jackson Five. According to the bartender, this drink contained vodka, gin and pineapple juice, however some team members claim it contained as many as 12 measures of alcohol. During the subsequent hearing, a fellow teammate, Fraser Hassell, claimed that although they were not explicitly forced to drink during this ceremony “there was a lot of pressure to keep up with our peers during the initiation ceremony.”

This brings us to the central question: why do these initiations happen? Why does humiliating and degrading freshers appeal to the older members of the clubs and societies that take part in them? It is fair to say that this can sometimes be simply misguided leadership. In general their defence is that they are traditional ceremonies that the leaders themselves took part in and so it is only fair that new members also take part. Additionally, according to a private source, “punishments keep the team in line. The rules and in-jokes generated give the team a sense of cohesion.” Additionally, they said “if someone breaks the club rules it actually can upset the team if they’re not punished.”

As a result of several deaths caused by club initiations they have been made illegal in the UK, following them being categorically banned at many universities including our own. However, other drink related challenges such as ‘team punishments’ still exist in many universities across the country. The continuation of these drinking rituals relates to a power-relationship, where the older members assume (and often abuse) power over the new members. While in some teams the punishments and initiation ceremonies are kept at a reasonable level, unfortunately, as with Britton, lines can be crossed and people can very easily get hurt or killed.

This tradition of making team or society members drink to excess or humiliate themselves as a rite of passage or ‘punishment’ could reflect a worrying culture which is currently rife among students, namely hypermasculinity. Hypermasculinity (commonly known as ‘lad culture’) is a psychological term for the exaggeration of stereotypically masculine behaviour, in this case excessive drinking and ‘laddish’ behaviour. Behaviours such as these can lead to young adult men and women feeling under pressure to take part in potentially dangerous activities in order to fit in with their peers. The danger is that even though, to quote my source, “you can refuse to do things and the freshers are all well aware of that […] there are no repercussions” for many new freshers the idea of ‘chickening out’ of a challenge can cause a great deal of anxiety –  in short there can be huge psychological pressure to participate. This culture makes it difficult for young men and women to accept when an activity or challenge has crossed the line for them, as this could mean admitting that they may not be quite as fun or exciting as their peers

Whilst punishments and initiations can be funny and create a shared experience between teammates, there must be reasonable controls put in place to ensure the safety of all those taking part. In order to fully remove the pressure to drink excessively which is associated with these initiations, the issues of hypermasculinity and abuse of power in leadership roles must be addressed within universities and student societies to properly combat a fear that new students can have of being ostracised for not taking part. Additionally, it must be recognised that there are many members of our student bodies who do not drink at all due to faith or other personal reasons and they must also be made to feel included and a part of the team even though they cannot participate in drink-related initiations. The message surely must be: have fun but ensure that initiations are an inclusive and safe environment.

[Chloe Tobin-Kemmer – @CTobinKemmer]

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