Recent reports of injuries and the psychological trauma experienced by students in a south Texas High School hazing sex scandal has the community asking themselves: How do sane people participate in this kind of activity?
Educators, students and families living nearby have been forced to come to terms with the uncomfortable and normally unmentionable matter. The arrest of ten boys’ athletic students in connection with at least 25 victims the past week, shows society that if it can happen in La Vernia, Texas, hazing can occur just about anywhere. There are about 1,075 students enrolled at the high school. The small town of 1,250, unknown to most of the general population, is suffering. With the psychological effects of hazing described by sports psychologists as “potentially devastating,” one father described the town as “all messed up. We are all victims.”
Experts say that for every victim that reports sexual abuse in hazing, another 20 do not report. La Vernia Independent School District Superintendent José Moreno described the acts came from an “underground culture of acceptance.”
Historically, sports — from the high school to the professional ranks — has reliably seen acts of hazing. Some point out that hazing is normal because of the violent and aggressive nature of athletics. But sports psychologist Dr. Mitch Abrams insists that is a myth. There is no truth in the idea that athletes are more likely to participate in hazing than non-athletes.
“A lot of people talk about athletes being more violent that non-athletes. Hazing is something that we have seen in many branches of society and what they have in common with sports is that the culprits tend to be males in groups and sometimes there is alcohol involved,” Abrams said.
Tim Marchell, PhD, associate director for health promotion at Cornell University and a leading expert on the psychology of hazing, disagrees that hazing is “tradition,” normal or that people “will get through it.”
“This is about mental health. People are individuals and their brains are wired differently. No one knows if someone will get through it.” Especially when no one knows what the “it” is until it’s too late.
Hazing and bullying have a lot in common — individuals who possess some kind of power abuse those who don’t — but what makes hazing strange, said Aldo Cimino, an anthropology professor at University of California – Santa Barbara, is that it’s directed at future allies.
“It’s very rare for bullies to say, ‘I’m going to bully you for three months, but after that we’re going to be bros,’ but that’s the sort of thing that happens with hazing.”
“A teenage male doesn’t get socialized to even consider the possibility of being the victim of sexual assault — and by teammates, no less,” Boca Raton psychotherapist Kristen Bomas said. “They don’t have any coping mechanism to process such an event.”
She said victims feel an array of motions that most teen males are not able to just internalize and try to forget it.
“Of course, that just leaves unresolved psychological and emotional trauma that will eventually manifest itself — both while they’re still competitive athletes and in their adult relationships,” Bomas, who has served as on-field psychologist for the University of Florida football team, said. Bomas thinks some of the reason these kinds of violent, shaming incidents occur is that the boundaries between real and digital life have become increasingly blurred — especially for Millennials.
“The perpetrators in these crimes — and they are crimes! — are being destructive in a way that suggests they don’t even see their victims as real people.”
In May 2016, a team of researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) revealed that the incidence of youth sports hazing is unknown because victims are reluctant to report or seek help. A study discovered that of the 47 percent of student athletes who had been hazed, only 8 percent labeled the behavior as hazing. Another study found that college students perceived hazing as having more positive benefits than negative effects.
One study VUMC reviewed showed that 71 percent of students who had been hazed reported negative consequences ranging from physical to psychological issues.
“The numbers are striking,” said Alex Diamond, D.O., MPH. “Very few — if they report it at all — will identify it as hazing. Then if you ask what actually happened to them or for them to describe the events, overwhelmingly, the description turns out to be hazing. We need to educate athletes to understand what hazing is versus what positive team building is.”
Diamond, an assistant professor of Pediatrics and Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation who specializes in sports medicine, said hazing could be a result of the failure to address the mental health of high school and college athletes. Student-athletes are more at risk for mental illnesses, he said, because of several stressors, including the pressure to perform and developing a self-identity dependent upon a particular sport.
Sports psychologist Dr. Casey Cooper says that hazing is not an act of sex, but rather, an act of domination.
“The goal of the hazing is to establish who is top male and for others to accept their position in terms of who is the top male and who is not,” said Dr. Casey Cooper, a sports psychologist said. “The most extreme form of extorting maleness over someone else is in those types of physical acts.”
Dr. Cooper says hazing is more an act of domination an less an act of sex.
“We know that traumatic bonding is very powerful,” said Dr. Abrams. “When people go to a potentially traumatizing experience together they tend to be more closer knit. What people don’t consider: What is the intent?”
Most cases of hazing inside and outside of the sports arena occur within groups of adolescents because their brain has not completely developed. Developmental psychologist Dr. Erin Pahlke notes that hazing is influenced by the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This development happens over the course of adolescence and plays a significant role in decision making and cognitive control.
“Decisions that involve prefrontal cortex involvement, like the decision of whether or not to participate in a hazing situation when all of your teammates are egging you on, can take adolescents longer to reason through,” says Pahlke. “Though adolescents have the capability to regulate their behavior and evaluate complex situations, in the heat of the moment, particularly when peers are present, they sometimes make choices that are consistent with what will bring them pleasure rather than what makes sense in the grand scheme of costs and benefits.”
“…full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, flashbacks, an exaggerated startle response, low-level paranoia, irritability, difficulty sleeping…”
The effect that hazing has on a victim has the potential to be devastating and last well beyond the incident.
“With trauma, it’s ultimately in the eyes of the victim. There are some people that will go through hazing and will come out of it completely unscathed with no psychological effects and no damage at all,” Dr. Abrams said. “They will even say they are better off for it. Others will have full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, flashbacks, an exaggerated startle response, low-level paranoia, irritability, difficulty sleeping — the list can go on and on.”
But guilt, shame, and denial are usual for hazing victims.
“It’s a very shocking experience,” Cooper said. “There is a lot of shame attached to being dominated in that way. A lot of the time they never report it to anyone. A lot of the people are surprised and they shouldn’t be. Things like hazing have been handed down to such cultures because it has been an unspoken type of ritual among groups.”
“The issue is, people want to stick their heads in the sand and act like it’s not happening,” Abrams said. “There are ways to come out of this intact. All of us have to own our piece of this. If we saw it and didn’t say anything, we are a part of it. If we knew about it and didn’t say anything, we failed our players. Prevention is a whole lot cheaper.”