Secret initiation and hazing ceremonies are rife among Glasgow University clubs and societies, even the ones who deny it.
Hazing might be something we associate more with American frat houses than the British university experience, but just because it flies under the radar doesn’t mean it’s not prevalent or that it doesn’t have lasting impacts on students across the country. Even in 2020, hazing and initiations still take place at this university. I have been told about this year’s rugby freshers intake having to shave their heads, eat raw parsnip, be forced to dye their hair, forced to strip down to their boxers, and more – all with blackout levels of drinking included, of course.
That is why I was surprised to see GUSA publish a video last month calling “full-time” on initiations. While a noble idea, it rings a little hollow knowing that the GUSA leadership and those involved in the video have overseen the union whilst hazing has been taking place under their watch. They say the video supports their existing hazing ban but it appears that their ban is not meaningfully enforced.
Hazing in the UK is generally only discussed in terms of sports societies, but it isn’t just GUSA who have been engaging in these harmful practices in Glasgow. It is an open secret amongst people close to the Union that the GUU board members go through initiations when they are elected into their positions. I've been told they sign non-disclosure agreements and aren’t allowed to take photos in the top boardroom for a reason; namely that they don’t want photos of certain initiation practices getting out and as an act of prevention against future blackmail material if any of them did something like run for public office. These initiation practices involve drinking to blackout levels, embarrassing or humiliating drinking challenges, with punishments if you fail to complete them. They can have items of clothing removed from them, be blindfolded, and even be dumped in public places late at night whilst very drunk and told to make their own way home. Apparently, the non-disclosure agreements they sign and the general culture of the Union board makes it hard to get a full picture but is known that these practices are organised and encouraged by the older members of the board including the alumni members, the previous executive committees, and the current executive committee.
Some may say that this is not a real problem because people consent to do it and can leave at any time, as well as consenting to signing things like non-disclosure agreements. However, the impacts of peer pressure and power dynamics should not be underplayed. Wanting to impress your peers or teammates is a normal urge, and shouldn’t be weaponised for the amusement of others, regardless of nominal consent. Consent must also be freely given without pressure to be truly meaningful consent, a criteria which hazing can never fulfil.
Hazing is hazing, regardless of consent. The British Universities and Colleges Sport’s (BUCS) guidelines on problem initiations state that it is “any activity that could reasonably be perceived as resulting in risk or occurrence of physical or mental detriment to participants […] regardless of an individual’s willingness to participate.” Regardless of those who consent, it excludes those who don’t. Many people are put off joining university sports and getting involved in the Union, because of the perception of them as exclusionary groups that are only welcoming to a certain (i.e. laddy) type of person whose ideal night involves downing pints and strawpedos. This perception is only enhanced and encouraged by hazing and initiation practices and those who are understandably put off and intimidated by them are unfairly denied a place and sense of welcome in student societies.
More seriously, there are deep lasting impacts on university culture through the continued allowance of initiations. Hazing normalises binge drinking to a problematic extent and it can have deep and lasting impacts. GUU ex-President Charles Kennedy’s death serves as a reminder of the damages that binge drinking can cause. The hazing at the GUU is also part of a self-reinforcing cycle of a bad drinking culture in the wider union. Strawpedos have been banned at some universities but here they are rewarded with gold leaf in the Beer Bar.
There are even deeper impacts of this. As well as making the Union and its board a less welcoming place for people who aren’t heavy drinkers, it makes people more reluctant to come forward to the board with issues about the Union as they are perceived as lads just here for a good time. Potential complainants would be justified in wondering, if they are fine with hazing, how can we expect them to take other harmful behaviours such as sexual assault seriously?
The ultimate goal of hazing is a twisted form of “team bonding”. But the reality is that it creates a cultish dynamic where people who have been initiated are overly defensive and not open to criticism of themselves or the group that hazed them. This is because initiations emphasise the importance of loyalty, and function by embarrassing the victim so much that they subconsciously internalise that embarrassment as defensiveness, and a desire to pass on the same welcome to the next generation so that they aren’t alone. Defensiveness and clinging to a sense of tradition and continuity are exactly what students don’t need from their unions and sports societies. I really hope we are on the precipice of change and that GUSA can prove me wrong over my doubts about their video.
If you have experienced or witnessed hazing from a sports society you can report it here: www.bucs.org.uk/report-an-initiation