Sorority Hazing Increasingly Violent, Disturbing

Pledges complain of being beaten, violated and verbally abused.

February 10, 2010, 2:16 PM

Feb. 17, 2010— -- Joanne said she had to stand silently with her nose touching a cold, dirty wall while her potential sorority sisters screamed that she wasn't worth their time. If the pledges moved at all, Joanne said, one of the four Penn State Altoona sorority members would shove their heads into the concrete bricks until they had lumps or bruises.

Even now, Joanne said, a year later, she still gets harassed by her former sorority sisters, which is why she asked that her real name not be used. When she first decided to pledge as freshman, and eventually join, a sorority at Penn State-Altoona, Joanne had hoped for the comfortable camaraderie of a close-knit group of friends; not "the semester from hell."

"One night the sisters made us cook them dinner," she said. "Since I obviously wasn't into cooking and then cleaning their dishes, the sisters forced me to clean the kitchen floor. I didn't have any gloves and they would tell me to do it again until it was spotless. I used my fingernails to scrub the ground.

"The water was pitch black," Joanne continued. "They asked me to drink it. I refused and left the apartment. I ended up coming back [to carry out a different punishment] because they called me and yelled at me. I didn't know what else to do."

Joanne's experience in the fall of 2008 is one example of an ingrained cultural tradition called hazing, which, experts say, has triggered increasing violence among women that can lead to depression and self-esteem problems as the hazers take cues from reality TV or try to emulate the behavior of male fraternities.

Other examples range from simple name-calling to the demeaning practice of "boob ranking."

Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden of the University of Maine-Orono point to their research as evidence of its pervasiveness, even though most colleges have policies banning the practice.

"We found that 68 percent of women in Greek life have experienced hazing in order to become a member of these groups," Allan said, based on the 2007 findings in their National Study of Student Hazing, which tabulated e-mail questionnaire responses from more than 11,000 students at 53 different institutions.

Joanne has plenty of experience.

She said the Penn State-Altoona pledges would get calls at 2 a.m. demanding that they gather for a meeting at the sorority president's apartment as soon as possible.

"They would test us on one of the sorority's prayers or songs, and if we got it wrong they would call us fat or ugly until we cried," Joanne said. "So many of us cried in front of them."

After Joanne got fed up with the hazing, she sent an e-mail to Tracy Maxwell, the executive director of Hazing Prevention, one of the leading non-profit organizations working to eradicate hazing. Eventually, the sorority's national organization began to investigate the sorority chapter.

An executive at the sorority confirmed that the national office investigated the hazing claims and took disciplinary actions. The sorority would not disclose its findings.

Marissa Carney, a spokesperson for Penn State Altoona, said the school was not notified of Joanne's allegations. In an e-mail to ABC News L. Jay Burlingame, the Director of the Office of Judicial Affairs at Penn State Altoona, said that the school takes accusations of hazing in its sororities and fraternities seriously, and that these allegations are "immediately referred to and investigated by the appropriate college office."

Burlingame added, "Penn State Altoona strictly prohibits any and all activities, actions, or situations which recklessly or intentionally endanger the mental or physical health or safety of a student."

Joanne said she switched campuses at the end of her first year because of the hazing. But despite the switch, Joanne said, she is still receiving hateful Facebook posts and messages from the young women she once called sisters.

"All the sisters and pledges turned on me," Joanne said. "My car was keyed. I was getting threatening text messages every day. The second semester I couldn't sleep because I would have nightmares."

Dan McCarthy, who runs the Hazing Hotline for the law firm Manley Burke in Cincinnati, said the hotline received 55 calls from mid-August to mid-December in 2009, its third year in business.

"Last year, for the entire year, we received 150 calls and we expect to receive around the same amount this year," McCarthy said, adding that the calls were split between the genders.

'Pure Emotional Blackmail'

Sally Spencer-Thomas, a suicide expert and author of "Violence Goes to College," said she was hazed while joining a co-ed fraternity in the late 1980s. Spencer-Thomas defines hazing as "the pure, emotional blackmail of a person.

"Students join these organizations because they want a quick group of friends," Spencer-Thomas said. "Even though the pledges form close bonds from surviving the hazing together, they often have invisible scars."

Invisible scars can mean anything from depression to a lack of self-esteem resulting from the hazing. But the scars can also be visible.

A Sigma Gamma Rho pledge at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., went to the hospital last month because of injuries allegedly sustained during a violent paddling incident.

The school arrested six girls from the sorority the night the pledge went to the hospital. All six girls have since been released on bail and have entered not guilty pleas. Gregory Blimling, the university's vice president of student affairs, said, "When we hear about [hazing] issues, we move aggressively to stop them.

"Rutgers has a no tolerance policy. Every student organization is required to go through an anti-hazing workshop and sign a pledge saying they will not participate in hazing."

Despite that, a 21-year-old senior at Rutgers University who said she is friends with the sorority members who allegedly paddled the pledge said that hazing in campus sororities was common.

"Hazing is something that everyone knows is going on here on campus," the senior said, requesting anonymity. "All the fraternities and sororities use paddles here. It is really nothing new at all.

"People are just more upset that this girl ratted. Some people actually found out who the girl that ratted is and she will probably be shunned now. They probably won't, like, talk to her at Greek events or anything."

Maxwell of Hazing Prevention said that violent hazing seems to have worsened in the past five to 10 years.

"Hazing is a societal problem," she said. "Especially with reality-TV shows forcing people to do something crazy to win a prize. I am sensing some of the hazing happening today is for entertainment purposes. Now we are seeing more of a prevalence of hazing based around, 'Let's see what we can get them to do.'"

Maxwell said she often receives e-mails from distressed girls like Joanne who say they have nowhere else to turn.

"I received an e-mail last week in which a girl told me that her sisters said she had to either take a hit of cocaine or use a dildo in front of them," Maxwell said. "Another woman from New York sent me a detailed schedule of the hazing that she was subjected to, and the sheer hours involved were more than a full-time job. The sessions went all night in some cases and were often violent."

Rhea Almeida, founder of the Institute for Family Studies in New Jersey and board member of the Council on Contemporary Families, said one reason violence and male-oriented hazing activities are becoming more commonplace among females could be because "in opposing femininity, girls feel popular and strong.

"Today, women are experiencing different gender roles and therefore are using more aggression and violence than they did a decade ago," Almeida said.

The University of Maine's Allan echoed that sentiment in a chapter she wrote for "The Hazing Reader" by Hank Nuwer, titled "Hazing and Gender: Analyzing the Obvious." Allan wrote, "Increasingly, girls and women gain credibility and status by proving they are tough, rugged and strong."

Alexandra Robbins, author of the book "Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities," said, "I saw a definite trend toward physical methods."

Robbins spent a year undercover following four sorority girls and was surprised by the amount of physical hazing that the women experienced, she said.

"One example was a girl named Arika whose pledge class had to answer trivia questions and drink straight vodka when they got a question wrong," Robbins said. "They were also presented with a sharpie, a knife, a hammer and a dildo and the sisters said if they got enough wrong they would be violated with one of those four.

"Arika ended up walking out but then she decided to stay in the sorority because her whole family had gone Greek and they said that's just what happens. That's how ingrained hazing is."

Even though there is a growing trend toward violence in sororities, the emotional hazing that women's organizations have long been known for is still pervasive and equally scarring.

Emotional hazing can be hard to define but experts say it can include verbal harassment, such as calling a pledge fat or ugly, and games or rituals that aren't physically abusive but can leave an emotional mark: yelling out how much someone weighs or circling the fat on their bodies.

Some national organizations even define it as anything that differentiates pledges from sisters, meaning it can include sorority members telling pledges when to go out, who to speak to or what to wear.

The Cornell University chapter of the Pi Beta Phi sorority sent a seven-page e-mail to its pledges in January detailing what is and isn't appropriate to wear at different functions. The tone of the e-mail -- with lines such as "No muffin tops or camel toe" and "I will not tolerate any gross plastic shizz [jewelry]" -- drew criticism from the Huffington Post and many online young adult forums.

The Pi Beta Phi national headquarters does not believe that the e-mail constitutes hazing but, according to a statement e-mailed to ABC News from their Executive Director Juli Willeman, "The content in this communication in no way reflects the values of Pi Beta Phi nor the policy the sorority follows in its recruitment of new members."

Hazing Prevention's Maxwell, as with many other experts, said that psychological and emotional hazing is anything that will damage someone's self-esteem.

"This type of hazing takes a group of individuals who already have issues with self-worth and highlights them," Maxwell said. "You never know what kind of psychological trauma a girl may have in their background or what kind of mental health issues they may have."

Lining Up in Order of Breast Size

Robbins ran into a lot of emotional hazing while researching her book, calling "boob ranking" one of the worst.

"The sisters would bring pledges into a cold room and tell them to strip off their shirts and bras and line-up in order of breast size," Robbins said. "Then they played mental games with the girls and made fun of them.

"Another woman I spoke with was forced to stand on a bench in front of a fraternity and everybody got to yell out parts of her body that need work. This happened in the '90s and almost a decade later she still had emotional scars."

Mike Dilbeck, the president of Beck and Co., a nonprofit video production service, and the creator and producer of the RESPONSE ABILITY Project, an educational video program that addresses bystander behavior, used to be the president of a fraternity, which was kicked off campus for hazing, among other reasons, years after he graduated.

Dilbeck said that the worst part of emotional hazing is that it could "validate things that women could already be saying to themselves.

"When you're told stuff like you're too fat, you're ugly and you can't dress right, it takes an internal toll on young women," Dilbeck said. "It can have a long-lasting emotional impact on them."

Hank Nuwer, author of four books on hazing, echoed the idea that sisters can forget about the emotional state of their pledges.

"The girls need to remember that you don't know somebody's background during an initiation," Nuwer said. "You are playing with a loaded weapon when you emotionally haze."

Even though there is more awareness of the issue than ever before, it continues to be a major part of today's Greek life.

Robbins said that getting rid of hazing is easy: just get rid of pledging.

"Sororities are just social groups and it is ludicrous and pointless to have pledges 'earn' their letters," Robbins said. "These girls are fresh to college and vulnerable. It is hard to stand up when you have a sorority telling you have to do something or get kicked out."

Many experts believe that students must take it upon themselves to stop hazing.

"It can't be only policy because that just drives hazing underground," Spencer-Thomas said. "It has to be students saying it's time for no more death and no more loss. There are other proven ways to forge bonds than to hurt people."

For Joanne, she said, switching campuses and meeting a new group of friends has given her a renewed sense of confidence.

After the sorority's national organization completed its investigation, two members of the chapter were dismissed from the sorority and two other members were put on probation.

While Joanne said that the girls continue to harass her on Facebook via "mean" postings, she tries to ignore them and to focus on the people in her life that build her up.

"My experience made me scared to think about who I can trust and who I can't," Joanne said. "When I was on the other campus, I never understood why people said college was the best time of your life. This year is a complete 180-degree change and I am really happy."