09/23/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Cosmopolitan's Sorority Hazing Article Sets Us Back 20 Years


Ever since Joanna Coles took over at Cosmopolitan, we've noticed a slew of positive changes coming from the magazine: more articles about politics, a more progressive take on sex and relationships, equal pay advocacy.

But the iconic magazine took a huge step backwards last week, in an article about sorority hazing that's making the rounds on Twitter.

The piece, "Why Getting Hazed by my Sorority Was Weirdly Worth It," was published on the health section of Cosmo's website last Thursday. In it, writer and Union College graduate Tess Koman describes how she was degraded and bullied by her sorority sisters during pledging -- but argues that since she made some friends out of it, the experience was worth it.

Koman writes:

As horrible as hazing felt, it allowed me to bond more closely with some of my now-best friends than any experience ever had.

However, the rest of her piece details how she was forced to participate in a "line-up," the notorious sorority practice in which pledges are forced to strip down so that sisters can point out their physical flaws. Koman says she was insulted and degraded by sisters, forced to dance provocatively, and was made to participate in so many activities that her mental health began to suffer.

She says:

I was made to feel pretty terrible about any activity that I was doing that wasn’t sorority-related. We were constantly monitored and scheduled throughout the day. We had mandatory group lunches and library hours during which time we had to sign in and confirm that we weren’t skipping any activity without a legitimate reason. It got to the point where I called my poor mother hysterical each time I had to about how I was missing out on what I had determined was going to be the most defining term of my life.

Despite all of this -- and trips to the counseling center -- Koman argues that hazing is essentially a good thing because it bonded her with other pledge sisters. In fact, once she became a sister, she enjoyed hazing newer pledges.

It's surprising that, given Cosmo's new, more feminist look that Coles would approve something like this getting published. Research and evidence has shown time and time again that hazing is bad. It causes psychological harm and can be extremely physically dangerous. Hazing has been responsible for several high-profile deaths on college campuses. In 2011, Florida A&M University student Robert Champion died after being beaten by several fellow band members. The same year, Cornell University student George Desdunes died after being duck-taped to a couch and forced to drink alcohol.

And yet, hazing persists. A 2008 study found that over half of college students who join greek life, sports teams or similar groups experience it. 1.5 million high school students are also hazed each year.

For women, hazing can be a particular kind of cruel. Popular hazing techniques like line-ups, physical and verbal harassment, and forced sexual conduct with fraternity members promote the victimization -- rather than the empowerment -- of young women. The message is clear: you are not a real sister (or a real woman), until you allow yourself to be degraded.

It's unclear whether schools are unaware of the hazing or whether they turn a blind eye. A Union College rep told its school newspaper, the Concordiensis, that "I don’t have any sense of whether the allegations are true or not."

Though Komen says hazing gave her new best friends, one former sorority member from another school, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Huffington Post via chat that she disagrees:

For me, it was very difficult to overcome what had happened during the hazing process and turn around and be friends with the sisters. In fact, I wasn't able to. I don't have a single close friend from my sorority because of hazing. There's no way someone yelling at me and telling me I'm worthless can ever turn into a friendship for me, and I don't think that makes me crazy -- it makes me human.

Women on Cosmo's Facebook page felt similarly.

"If this magazine is for women and empowering them, why are you writing articles that show us its 'weirdly worth it' to be degraded and disempowered? If anything this will make young girls never want to join a sorority," wrote Noor Clamage.

"This is appalling," wrote Jen Nelson. "I can't believe Cosmo endorses women humiliating and degrading each other. My sorority experience was 110% hazing free and I have just as much love and respect for my house and my chapter."

There are many ways to create lasting, life-changing bonds with other women -- degradation at the hands of your "sisters" simply isn't one we'd choose to endorse.



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