Would Drying Up Greek Houses Cut Down on Hazing?S

The hazing horror story is fast becoming its very own genre of longform journalism, and like any genre, certain expectations need to be met. These chronicles feature insulated, secretive communities (you might even say cults) of young adults seeking some form of social validation and quite willing to subject either their own or other people's bodies to severe forms of abuse in order to initiate themselves into the community or reaffirm its exclusivity. Among the many horrific instances of sadism and masochism that make tales of hazing such lurid reads, a recurring narrative thread weaves its way through a large portion of the Greek system: binge drinking.

Whether reading about abuse infrats or sororities, there always seems to be an outrageous amount of binge drinking. Pledges drink until booze is overflowing their throats, vomit, and drink more. They're always underage and it always seems like the university should have done something more about, that some actual adult holding a position of real authority on campus should have at some point said, "Um, no more of this shit." Reckless boozing is to the hazing story what the villain's immortality is in a horror movie — you just know that, unless someone cuts off Jason Voorhees's head (which no one ever does because it would make too much sense), he's going to keep killing sinful twenty-somethings masquerading as teenagers. For critics of a seemingly out-of-control hazing culture, then, the clear answer is regulate drinking. Right?

The New York Times certainly offered some compelling numbers on Thursday when Michael Winerip chronicled the awful circumstances surrounding the hazing-related death of Cornell sophomore and S.A.E. member George Desdunes, who, after being kidnapped by pledges in a reverse-hazing ritual, was blindfolded, bound with zip ties and duct tape, and left to die on a couch in the S.A.E. house library. In the wake of Desdunes's death, Douglas Fierberg, an attorney who's carved a market niche for himself by suing fraternities involved in hazing, filed a $25 million lawsuit against S.A.E. on behalf of Desdunes's mother, Marie Andre. Fierberg won a multi-million dollar settlement in 2010 for the family of California Polytechnic State University freshman Carson Starkey, who died pledging the S.A.E. chapter there. (Andrew Lohse, the Dartmouth sophomore who detailed the abuses of frat hazing, had also been part of S.A.E.) Over the last five years, according to Winerip, disciplinary action has been taken against 80 of the 223 chapters of S.A.E.

Since nearly all of these incidents involve superhuman alcohol consumption, alcohol would seem like a good place to start pointing fingers. According to a 2000 Harvard study, four out every five fraternity or sorority members qualify as binge drinkers, and an estimated 80 percent of all hazing deaths have involved alcohol. Some frats such as Phi Delta Theta and Phi Kappa Sigma have gone the alcohol-free route and have noticed a significant drop in liability claims, from a yearly average of 12.3 claims and $812,851 in settlements before the dry era, to a yearly average of 3 claims and $15,388 since 2000, the first year the chapters dried up. At a S.A.E.'s 155th national convention last July in Memphis, a proposal was on the table that all of the frat's chapters go dry by 2014, a proposal, that, much to Douglas Fierberg's dismay, failed to garner support from two-thirds of the 450 frat brothers present. Fierberg characterized the failure to push the proposal forward as "a big mistake," explaining, "These decisions ought to be made by experts in risk management, not underage drinkers."

Hazing has been illegal at Cornell since 1980, and illegal in New York State since 1983. Cornell's Greek oversight council approved alcohol use at 181 social events in 2009, 244 events in 2010, and 156 events last fall. In 2010, 13 percent of all Greek social events resulted in complaints, a figure that Winerip notes has more than doubled since 2005, and disciplinary cases involving hazing rose from 88 to 108. In other words, the problems with hazing at least at Cornell have not only persisted, they've worsened.

There's a compelling case to be made that restricting alcohol consumption both within the Greek system and on college campuses — where by all indications its getting to be a serious problem — and Winerip offers limited, though nonetheless eyebrow-raising data to support dry Greek houses as a real step forward in the battle against hazing. Hazing, however, isn't merely about drinking and Greek organizations still have the capacity to inflict significant psychological trauma on their pledges even if they're not forcing them to guzzle Wild Turkey while their future brothers or sisters collectively defecate on them. Restricting the flow of booze to frat and sorority houses, then, is similar to gun control — it cuts down on the facility with which people can hurt either themselves or others, but it does nothing to address the underlying causes for why people set out to harm each other in the first place.

When a Hazing Goes Very Wrong [NY Times]