Assume the Position: A Queer Defence of Hazing


Mark Simpson wants to be be soundly smacked with a paddle

(Out magazine, 2006)

When I joined my local rugby team, I was made to do terrible, awful things. Even now, all these years later, I feel distressed and choked up recounting what happened. I had to stand on a chair as a full pint of beer was shoved in my groin, soaking it. I then had to drink a yard of ale (three pints in a yard-long horn-shaped glass) with a bucket in front of me. Later, several of us had to run around the rugby pitch stark naked. In January.

I was traumatized. I may never recover. This wasn’t what I had signed up for! You see, it was a terrible, awful, unforgettable, wounding disappointment.

It was just all so… restrained. I had been hoping that we would be performing some of the other bonding and initiation rites that I’d heard about, such as the one where one naked team-mate bends over and a pint is poured over his ass, down his crack, and over his sack while another sits underneath him with head back and mouth open. Or the soggy biscuit game: a circle jerk over a cream cracker where the last one to come has to eat it. Or perhaps the carrot game, where a root vegetable is shoved up the rookie’s ass and a pink ribbon tied around his erect penis (something to do with the carrot I suppose), which he has to keep on for two weeks, to be checked at each training session.

Frankly, I would have even been happy with the relatively vanilla hazing that all new recruits to a crack U.K. Army regiment have to participate in: According to a straight soldier pal of mine, the “old-timers” rub their asses and genitals over the faces of the new recruits or “crows”, as they’re called.

But, alas at my rugby club all that was on offer was a wet crotch on my jeans and a frost-shrivelled penis. Judging by the excited media reports, things would have been very different if I’d been a college freshman in the United States and joined the football team or one of those kinky fraternities with those Greek names.

At the University of Vermont the “elephant walk” is, or was, rather popular: Pledges drink warm beer and walk naked in a line, holding the genitals of the lucky lad in front of them. At Tiffin University in Ohio the soccer team has been known to strip their freshmen players to their underwear, handcuff them together, scrawl vulgarities on their bodies, and make them lick one another’s nipples. Sometimes the fun isn’t just reserved for members of the team. At a Utah high school two wrestlers stripped a male cheerleader in the school locker room and “attempted to shave his pubic hair” with an electric clipper. Attempted? Does that mean they didn’t succeed? That’s some cheerleader.

truth be told, even in the United States, hazing isn’t what it used to be. This ancient rite is under attack from all sides: the media, feminists, mothers, educational authorities, legislators, police—and also many gays. Hazing is being shamed up and stamped out. The only reason we know about the sordid goings-on in frat houses across the nation is because the authorities were involved, litigation was initiated, criminal charges brought, and the media mobilised. A big stink, in other words. Most respectable people seem to agree hazing is wrong, sexist, and homophobic and must be stopped.

Now, perhaps I’m not terribly respectable, or maybe I enjoy championing lost causes, but I think hazing can be a valuable, venerable masculine institution that is worth defending, particularly by men who are interested in other men. Hazing is the last rite of passage left for boys in a world that doesn’t seem to want boys to grow into men any more, a very physical form of male bonding in a society that wants us to remain as disconnected as possible, an antidote to individualism, which in this atomized day and age tends to just mean alienated consumerism.

Yes, I realize that hazing can be dangerous. It can turn into abuse and bullying or outright sadism, as in those widely reported instances of boys being sodomized with mop handles and pine-cones. Boys, like men, can be plain dumb and dangerous and occasionally fatal. Jocks can be obnoxious, arrogant little shits, especially to male cheerleaders. But my point would be that this is all we ever hear about. Hazing has been tarred with one self-righteous puritanical brush.

Scandalized media reports and a proliferation of anti hazing Web sites such as BadJocks.com and StopHazing.org have helped to decisively turn public opinion against hazing (though in some cases with an admixture of voyeurism for the very thing that they are campaigning against). Hazing is now the subject of a full-fledged moral panic about “our children”. This September sees the First National Conference on High School Hazing—and you can be sure they’re not teaching delegates how to conduct a successful elephant walk. Most states now have anti-hazing laws, and most universities have draconian anti-hazing policies.

Here’s the University of Vermont’s all-embracing definition of what hazing is and thus what is verboten:

“any act, whether physical, mental, emotional, or psychological, which subjects another person, voluntarily or involuntarily, to anything that may abuse, mistreat, degrade, humiliate, harass, or intimidate him/her, or which may in any fashion compromise his/her inherent dignity as a person”.

Which sounds to me like a recipe for a very dull Saturday night indeed.

Don’t we all want our “inherent dignity as a person” to be compromised sometimes – especially at university? And why on earth would you join a fraternity, or an ice-hockey team, or in fact any all-male group if you were so concerned about your inherent dignity as a person? Wouldn’t it be wiser just to stay at home knitting? Hazing is used by these groups for precisely that purpose: to put off those who aren’t really serious about putting the group or the team above their own damn preciousness or good sense.

Note how hazing is defined as “voluntarily or involuntarily”: Consent is irrelevant to the powers that be in their zeal to stamp out hazing (just as it used to be with homosexuality). They know best. Nor is it merely extreme cases such as sodomizing with pinecones that the anti-hazing zealots are against but “any act, whether physical, mental, emotional, or psychological” that might be kind of naughty, kind of dirty, kind of fun. In itself a rather convincing argument for hazing, at least for young people. Mom and the cops and the college dean don’t like it? Great! Bring on the handcuffs, warm beer, and Jell-O!

Which brings me onto the aspect of hazing that, as you may possibly have guessed, I have a fond fascination for, and is a central part of my desire to defend the practice—and probably why my defense will probably succeed in finally killing it off: the homoerotic dimension, the “gayness” of what these mostly straight guys like to do to one another and their private parts.

Granted, a lot of hazing, especially with the crackdown going on today, has little or nothing to do with homo-erotics. It may be just Jackass-style craziness involving oncoming traffic, gallons of water, and jumping out of trees. Mind, hazing does, like me, keep returning to men’s butts and penises and testicles (anyone for “tea-bagging”?) even when it tries not to. Obviously, I think this is entirely understandable and requires no explanation whatsoever, let alone pathologizing it and criminalizing it. But clearly plenty of people think otherwise.

So why is hazing so homo? Perhaps because all-male groups, according to Freud, are bound together by barely sublimated homoerotic feelings. It’s what inspires them to such heart-warming loyalty, such passionate self-sacrifice and heroic endeavour—Eros can wrestle the instinct for self-preservation to the ground. The hazing rituals with their simulated homo sex could be seen as a symbolic group fuck that gets the “sex” over with yet turns all the members of the team or fraternity into a band of lovers. Of course, I would prefer that they followed the exemplar of the Theban Band, or the Spartans of ancient Greece, the warrior-lovers who didn’t stop at simulated homo sex (and were widely regarded as invincible). But you can’t have everything.

There are also putatively Darwinian explanations for the homo-erotics of male groups. In our prehistoric past the bonding of hunters and warriors was vital to the survival of the tribe. Those tribes that survived and thrived and passed on their genes were those in which men were willing to sacrifice breeding opportunities and comforts of life with the chicks back at camp for weeks and months of intimacy with men and a willingness to serve and take orders. Prehistoric man, in other words, was a bit of a leather queen. This is probably the reason why hyper-masculinity is sometimes difficult to separate from homosexuality, especially during Hell Week.

Alas, many gays see hazing as necessarily homophobic and appear to buy into the simplistic feminist analysis of power and domination. In an online article Cyd Zeigler Jr. of Outsports.com recognizes that hazing is often deeply homoerotic (and lists some of the same scandals I have), but sees it as essentially homophobic: “Whether it’s sodomizing them or making them wear women’s panties, the notion of forcing younger players to submit to team veterans comes right out of the handbook of anti-gay stereotypes.” Clinching the matter, homoerotic hazing apparently “emasculates the victim”.

Leaving aside that the out-and-proud gay world isn’t exactly free of power, domination, and humiliation, or for that matter anti-gay stereotypes, this assertion about the emasculation of the victim doesn’t always hold true. While I have some sympathy with this approach, in its attachment to victim-hood it seems to be rather more rigidly homophobic than hazing is.

The curious paradox of hazing is that while it may well regard “fagginess” and “softness” as undesirable, it actually makes the homoerotic central to membership of the group. Besides, rather than emasculating the new members of group, the veterans wish to ‘masculinize’ them, and they use homoerotics to that end. Hazing itself is not an act of hostility but of affection: tough love. While hazing can be homoerotic and homophobic, this is not—and it’s difficult for us self-centered homos to realize this—its point.

The famous Sambia tribe of New Guinea (famous because anthropologists won’t leave them alone) don’t simulate homosexuality in their own hazing rituals: they practice it. Adolescent boys are taken from their mothers by the older youths and required to repeatedly give oral sex to them—they are told that the semen will masculinize them. In today’s universities, of course, the semen is replaced by warm Budweiser and protein shakes. From a Sambian point of view, the dominance of the anti-hazing lobby today would probably represent an insufferable victory of the protected domestic world of Mom, who deep down doesn’t want her cherished baby boy to ever be exposed to anything extreme or distasteful or dangerous or… male.

But then, it sometimes seems that our contemporary culture has less and less use for, or appreciation of, masculinity that isn’t merely decorative or good at DIY. Paradoxically, as the toleration and visibility of newfangled gays and gayness in our culture has risen, intolerance of oldfangled homoerotic masculine rituals has also increased. Very often, society’s preoccupation with hazing is, like mine, a preoccupation with its “gayness.” But in reverse.

When a private video of drunken off-duty U.K. Royal Marines running around naked together in some godforsaken place was sold to the tabloids in 2005, it caused an outcry. Officially, it was because one of the Marines was shown being kicked in the head by a drunken officer, and this was evidence of bullying. But as the repeated printing of the naked pictures showed, it was mostly about the fact that they were fit young marines, naked together, being gay.

The (extremely hot) victim, 23-year-old Ray Simmons, came forward to say he didn’t hold the officer (who was now the subject of a military police investigation) responsible, and it was just a bit of fun that got out of hand. However, the host of reader letters that the stories prompted showed the real preoccupation was not the bullying but the gayness. A typically hissy example from one male reader:

“I am utterly disgusted by the behavior of our so-called Marines…. This kind of thing would be better suited to a gay 18–30 holiday on a remote island somewhere. Our enemies across the globe must be laughing at us.”

So society apparently still expects Marines to go and kill and be killed anywhere in the world at the drop of a daisy-cutter to defend our enervated suburban—and voyeuristic—lifestyle, but ridicules and condemns them for doing what men have to do and have always done to bond and let off steam. Fortunately, the Marines aren’t taking any notice: “People think a load of men getting naked together is a bit gay,” said Simmons, “but we don’t care what others think. It’s just Marine humor.”

Well said that man. Don’t let the square civvies—or the envious homos like me—try to shame you into being as joyless, lonely, and bereft of real camaraderie and human contact as the rest of us. It’s a sign of our isolated times that most people today could never say the words “we don’t care what people think” because:

(a) they don’t belong to a group, or in fact to anything except a supermarket loyalty scheme; and

(b) they care about what people will think rather more than they do about their buddies.

The homoerotics of hazing are not, in fact, necessarily homophobic or gay. They’re just guy.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m all in favor of guys.

7 thoughts on “Assume the Position: A Queer Defence of Hazing

  1. what is everybody getting so worked up about gay hazing for these days, i am a completely straight guy and i was gay hazed at 17 on joining a local sports team. my best frend and i (who had never been naked in public before and hadn’t even expected to have to shower with the team) were made to strip naked and masturbate each other while the team watched. it didn’t leave me scarred for life, i just accepted if as part of joining the team, we certainly didn’t ‘turn’ or anything although we were never as shy again.

  2. Tim: I’m sure if I lived in the US and had any exposure to jock/frat culture I’d loathe it.

    Paul Q: “The exaggerated entitlement to which some women presume, the right to be at once judge, jury and executioner, just because some kid has crossed their cervix is hideous!” I don’t care whether this is misogynist or not, it’s a great line.

    In Anglo cultures the homoerotic ‘phase’ of male development seems to have been abandoned, along with the notion of male development. Although it’s still very evident in Mediterranean cultures where boys are almost expected/required to have crushes on one another and ‘experiment’ sexually.

    Not so sure the Elephant Walk et al are urban myths. Seem to recall coming across a well-documented scandal about this practise when researching this article. And in the UK I’ve heard (fairly reliable) reports about British paratroopers sometimes forming rimming conga lines when indulging in their ‘naked bar’ moments. (Someone shouts ‘naked bar!’ and everyone in the bar has to strip off. And yes, it’s usually me doing the shouting.)

  3. As I’ve discussed with you before, I think the immature or developmental male ‘homoerotic moment’ has been a great casualty of the joint juggernaut of gay liberation and feminism. And to that fatal mix we now must aid “Mothers against EVERYTHING!”

    You article addresses one of my personal hobby-horses, that scariest of post-feminist monsters, the EMPOWERED MOMMY. After Orwell “All people are equal only MOMMIES are more equal than most! The exaggerated entitlement to which some women presume, the right to be at once judge, jury and executioner, just because some kid has crossed their cervix is hideous! They have set themselves up (in their SUVs full of soccer balls) as the Deus ex Machina of contemporary morality. In this they are little different their prohibitionist forebears, and in both cases men, wanting only to appear ‘sensitive’ (or, in sexist terms, behave chivalrously) don’t just fall into line — they roll over and play dead!

  4. I may have posted something to this effect when you originally posted this piece. As a former member of a fraternity, the most embarrassing thing I was made to do was to walk into the dining hall with a large Italian sausage inside a silver speedo. I had just turned 18, weighed no more than 120 lbs, and as I was otherwise all skin and bones, I cut quite a figure. Other pledges of my fraternity were submitted to such acts of humiliation as being sent to a pharmacy to purchase feminine hygiene products or ‘small’ condoms. These events were videotaped and shown at our weekly meetings. It was just a lot of stupid fun.

    One fraternity would make its pledges assume ‘homo’ positions at their weekly line-up. One pledge would get down on his knees and pretend to give oral gratification to the pledge next to him, who would pretend to enjoy it. I’m sure a (very) few of them actually did, but I suspect for most it was male-bonding through collective humiliation. So far as I am aware, none were ‘psychologically damaged’, especially as they were all soon to be drunk.

    I’m convinced that several of the more extreme homoerotic fraternity hazing stunts, such as the above mentioned ‘Elephant Walk’ and the “ookie cookie” (which is much more to the point than the trans-Atlantic ‘soggy biscuit’) are actually Urban Myths, made up by embittered geeks and nerds who were never rushed.

    For the record, as I understand it the “elephant walk” does not involve any genital contact. The pledge places his thumb in the ass-crack of the pledge in front of him. If he breaks the chain, he has to suck on his thumb.

  5. Yes that word “voluntarily” is troubling, even Orwellian. Sounds like a kind of legalese maybe–covering all the bases.

    I guess these sorts of initiation rites were always meant to be tightly contained within the group, Escaping into the general public will tend to bring incomprehension or at least distortion, moralism etc.

    I’ve been thinking about this: “The curious paradox of hazing is that while it may well regard “fagginess” and “softness” as undesirable, it actually makes the homoerotic central to membership of the group. Besides, rather than emasculating the new members of the group, the veterans wish to masculinize them, and they use homoerotics to that end. Hazing itself is not an act of hostility but of affection: tough love.”

    I think this is spot on. But it also points to the problem I have with hazing. As a ritual and institution, it perpetuates and even intensifies the idea of “softness” as undesirable, as indeed “emasculating.” Which is why, reflecting on all my personal encounters with frat culture, and also via studies of frat communication, it does indeed seem to have a distinct problem with homophobia and misogyny. I recognize Mark’s point that these are ways for men in certain kinds of all-male environments to break the ice of intimacy, at least to some degree. It’s just that the paradigm of masculinity these institutions tend to inculcate just seems, well, pretty reactionary to me.

    Okay, I’m ready: go for it!

  6. Some faculties had official hazing (called “baptisms”) sessions at the start of each year at my alma mater in Belgium. The law faculty had an “elephant dance” too, as a friend of mine related afterwards. Of course, the Sociology Department never took part in that. I didn’t really mind that they didn’t partake in that tradition as it was never a single-sex ritual, which made it unappealing (to me) anyway.
    A scouts group I used belonged to as a youth also had induction ceremony but it didn’t feature nudity, genitals or single sex fun. Just eating disgusting stuff.

  7. ‘any act, whether physical, mental, emotional, or psychological, which subjects another person, “voluntarily” or involuntarily…’

    I bet Vermont does not have a local BDSM Club or sex-queer activist group, eh ?

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