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Toxic traditions? Alleged sexual assault, violence creeps way into team hazing rituals

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Putnam City, Norman, Oklahoma City and Bixby are all communities that have made headlines in recent months due to concerns about hazing.

Are these events horseplay that got out of hand or symptoms of a bigger problem?

Hazing and initiation rituals have been around for decades. The increased amount of violence and sexualization are more modern inventions.

“It actually started in the 1990s,” said psychologist and author Dr. Susan Lipkins. “It seemed to be getting worse and worse and as I tracked it and wrote the book I found that sodomy on high school teens is rampant throughout the country and it is becoming more and more acceptable.”

Lipkins is the author of “Preventing Hazing" and said each generation of athletes or groups with hazing have a tendency to add their own twist to the rituals.

“Traditions happened in the (19)80s,” Dr. Lipkins explained, “There were things called the ‘Elephant Walk’ where groups would be in a circle and they would be nude and they would be holding each others penises.”

In a recent highly-publicized case in the Putnam City school district, older boys held a younger boy while another teenager used a broomstick to penetrate him.

“They are looking to humiliate you as quickly as possible and on men's teams particularly turning a male into a female by penetration is the quickest way to make them feel like they are the lowest level and to maintain that power,” Lipkins told FOX 25.

In “Preventing Hazing,” Lipkins lays out what she calls the “Blueprint of Hazing.” That blueprint shows how the first year a student is the victim and endures the hazing ritual, however harsh it might be. The following years that original victim becomes a bystander, watching the ritual be performed on others. Finally, that original victim becomes the perpetrator.

“In a way, I think, they are capturing back that piece of themselves that was lost when they felt humiliated,” Lipkins said. “They feel they have the right and the duty to pass on this tradition.”

Hazing rituals can become institutionalized. In police reports from the recent Putnam City incident, other students said the attack was well known and referred to as “brooming.”

“It is true it is not an isolated incident, it is not three bad eggs this is a culture,” Dr. Lipkins told FOX 25. “And if you see hazing on a football team, you should look for it on the basketball team and the wrestling team and the swimming team and the lacrosse team and the girls teams. Don't think it is isolated to one set of kids.”

Forced sexualized encounters are not hazing, at best they fit the legal definition of sexual assault, at worst, they can cross the line to the legal definition of rape.

Talking about a violent, sexual episode, or even acknowledging the violation is difficult; especially for teen boys, said Travis Humphrey, who is the Executive Director of Bethesda in Norman. At Bethesda, counselors are dedicated to treating childhood sexual abuse victims.

“It can be really hard to talk about and even accept sometimes that it has happened or that it is affecting your life even,” Humphrey told FOX 25.

Humphrey said untreated trauma, like that caused by unreported or unaddressed sexual assault, can last a lifetime.

“There's a lot of hope for those victims who have suffered any form of sexual abuse sexual assault, you can recover, you can heal and it doesn't have to define the rest of your life,” Humphrey said.

For parents, the question becomes, how can you help or even know a child is a victim if they don't say something?

It is not always easy.

“What you're looking for is dramatic changes in behavior,” Humphrey said.

Humphrey said the changes could include eating habits, sleeping schedules, mood, and academic performance. The effects of the trauma could even manifest itself as a child who was once very engaged in sports and excited about making the team who suddenly shows a disinterest in even going to practice.

“It is not your fault. And that is pretty easy to say but when you've gone through child sexual abuse, there's times when it feels like it’s your fault but it's not,” Humphrey said of the message they stress to child victims.

Whose fault is it when hazing crosses the line?

It is not just the perpetrator; it is everyone who accepts the status quo, Dr. Lipkins said.

Just educating the public on how hazing has changed and become more violent also is not working to end it. Dr. Lipkins believes in radical intervention.

“They get rid of a coach, there's going to be a new coach. They get rid of three kids, that doesn't matter there's three new kids. They get rid of the team, that matters," Dr. Lipkins said.

Until there are major, enforced punishments, backed up by coaches, administrators and the community, Dr. Lipkins said sexualized, violent hazing will continue.

“This sexualized hazing is across the United States and these parents and coaches need to recognize it and stop pretending it is not there," Dr. Lipkins said. "It’s there.”

There is no better time than now to have a conversation about sexual assault or hazing, according to Bethesda. Humprhey said begin young by teaching your child about their personal space and letting them feel empowered to report people who violate that personal space.

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