Cross Country Checkup

When it comes to hazing, female athletes are just as vulnerable

In a study released this summer, two-thirds of Canadian varsity athletes reported that they've experienced hazing. Researchers also found that women athletes are more likely to report hazing compared to men.

Study finds more Canadian female university athletes report experiencing hazing than males

As more women join typically male-dominated sports, hazing among female athletes may be on the rise. (Shutterstock)

Hazing rituals are alive and well among Canadian university athletic teams, and may even be on the rise in women's sports, despite awareness programs designed to root out the practice.

That's the conclusion reached by kinesiology professor Jay Johnson at the University of Manitoba, after co-authoring a study of hazing rates among more than 400 Canadian varsity athletes.

"We expected a much lower rate," Johnson told Cross Country Checkup.

"I don't think things are really improving. I just think it's gone more underground."

The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology this summer, suggests hazing is common in both women's and men's athletics. Nearly two-thirds of Canadian varsity athletes reported that they've experienced some form of hazing.

Jay Johnson is a kinesiology professor at the University of Manitoba. He studied hazing rates among more than 400 Canadian varsity athletes. (Submitted by Jay Johnson)

Johnson links hazing rituals among female athletes to the rise of women's participation in typically male-dominated sports, such as hockey and rugby.

"Initially, there wasn't as much hazing on women's teams in universities ... certainly not as violent and as aggressive as we saw with men's teams. But, slowly, over the last two decades, that's changing," said Johnson.

"As [women] make more inroads to play, we're seeing more mimicking of what men do."

Male and female athletes in the study reported veteran players subjecting rookies to a wide range of humiliating or abusive activities, including wearing embarrassing clothing, singing or chanting in public, ingesting vile concoctions or forcing rookies to act as servants.

While the study found more female athletes reported experiencing hazing behaviour than men — 57 per cent for women, compared to 43 per cent for men — Johnson hypothesizes that women may be more aware than men of what constitutes hazing.

Rookie initiations

Parissa Safai experienced and witnessed lots of rookie hazings over her 20-year career as a women's rugby player, which included playing varsity at McMaster University and the University of Toronto between 1994 and 1997.

"Oftentimes, the belief is that women don't engage in these practices, and the evidence is quite to the contrary," said Safai, now a kinesiology professor at York University who specializes in gender inequality in sports.

Parissa Safai is a kinesiology professor at York University and a former varsity women's rugby player who says she saw quite shocking hazing rituals. (York University/YouTube)

"Women athletes do engage in these practices."

Safai emphasizes that she wasn't humiliated or degraded during her own rookie initiation, which involved drinking games and being required to wear a crop top that exposed her midriff.

But she recalls her women's team being invited to a men's rugby rookie night where veterans forced drunken male rookies to expose themselves naked to the women's team while singing songs and dancing.

Parissa Safai, centre, played on the Varsity Blues. (Submitted by Parissa Safai)

"It was much more harsh; it was much more degrading. There was alcohol throughout this whole thing," Safai said, comparing the men's experience to her own initiation.

She also remembers being shocked after witnessing the initiation ceremony of a women's varsity volleyball team where veterans plied rookies with alcohol and forced them to wear clothing with cut-outs to expose their genitals.

"It was extraordinarily sexualized, but then they [the rookies] were also supposed to be coated in flour and have horrible makeup put on to them and their hair made in this horrible mess ... it was just jaw-dropping."

Gender differences in hazing

Based on his interviews with varsity athletes, Johnson found female athletes are less likely to engage in sexualized hazing behaviour, though it certainly exists.

"We've heard about simulated fellatio on bananas or licking whipped cream off of each other," says Johnson, who points out hazing rituals often reinforce heterosexual norms.

If you look at male hockey players and women cross-country runners, you'd find a big difference.- Ryan Hamilton, professor at University of New Brunswick

However, University of New Brunswick psychology professor Ryan Hamilton suggests hazing behaviour is more specific to the type of sport than gender differences.

"There are more similarities between men and women and their initiation practices than there are differences," said Hamilton, who co-authored a 2012 study on the influences of gender on hazing among Canadian varsity athletes.

"If you look at women hockey players and male hockey players, there are very [few] differences in the hazing practices among those two groups. If you look at male hockey players and women cross-country runners, you'd find a big difference."

While many universities have instituted codes of conduct for varsity athletes designed to eliminate hazing, Johnson says progressive policies have yet to change the deeply rooted culture of hazing within some sports.

"They really have to kind of let go of the idea that this is the way we've been doing it for so long, and examine what it is that we're doing and whether it really is achieving those goals," said Johnson.

Johnson says the goals of hazing — bringing the team closer together, building team unity, and encouraging stronger team communication — may actually be defeated, because the humiliating rituals destroy trust.

"It can do just the opposite of what they think it's achieving."