How to Prevent Sexualized Culture

When The Ohio State University fired Jonathan Waters after saying that he cultivated a “sexualized culture” in the band, the news shocked the nation and led bands around the country to take stock of their own situations. Find out what you can do to clean up your own ensemble.

Note: The Ohio State University Marching Band declined to be interviewed for this article.

In 2013 The Ohio State University Marching Band earned so much worldwide attention for its innovative field shows that it seemed no one could touch “The Best Damn Band in the Land.”

In 2014 the group solidified its place as the most talked-about band in the land—but not for ideal reasons. The Ohio State University released an investigative report about an inappropriate and “sexualized culture” existing within the band, which led to the firing of director Jonathan Waters.

The shockingly salacious allegations of sexual nicknames and “tricks,” hazing, nudity, alcohol consumption and mishandling of sexual assault reports made national news and raised concern about Title IX violations.

The university created a task force and launched another, more in-depth investigation into the band’s culture. The task force collected testimony from hundreds of band members, university employees and alumni. The resulting second report, while revealing even more shocking details about the traditions, culture and administrative politics of the band, included a long list of recommendations to rehabilitate the group and expressed an optimistic outlook for the future.

While many of the activities described in the reports were extreme, other smaller grievances might have sounded familiar to members and alumni of bands across the nation. Whether or not your band has anything in common with Ohio State, the lessons learned in this scandal can help all marching bands prevent and/or eradicate a “sexualized culture.”

A Continuum of Violence

What was referred to in the Ohio State reports as a “sexualized culture” is what experts in the field actually call “rape culture.”

“Violence against women is a continuum: objectifying women is there at the first end, and then bullying, harassment, stalking, dating or domestic violence, campus sexual assault and then we go all the way quite frankly through murder,” says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women in Washington, D.C. “When you have an environment that breeds sexual harassment, you’re much more likely to have an environment that also breeds campus sexual assault.”

The “smaller offenses” are referred to as “microagressions” and can include anything from objectification, sexual jokes, innuendo, catcalling and more. The theory is that the microagressions add up and foster a culture where more extreme sexual violence is more likely to occur.

What is Title IX?

The Ohio State University focused on the band’s problems once it suspected that there might have been violations of Title IX, a federal law enacted in 1972 that requires gender equity in any educational institution that receives federal funding of any kind. Nearly all universities, public and private, are covered since they have students receiving federal financial aid.

“Once they accept federal funds, Title IX applies to all aspects of their campus and community,” Maatz says. “Title IX is much more than sports. It applies to sexual environmental issues like sexual harassment, and that’s where the band comes in. The whole point of Title IX is so that a student gets an equal shot to take advantage of their college education.”

Title IX is gender-neutral, and both men and women have used it to protest sex discrimination. Since a marching band is part of a campus community, it’s also covered by Title IX.

“For example, let’s say somebody who wanted to be part of the band found that the environment was just hostile, and they didn’t feel safe, so they didn’t try out,” Maatz says. “So that means that because of the sexualized nature of the environment, they decided not to participate and did not get their full access to an equal opportunity education.”

If the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights finds a school in violation of Title IX, that school could lose federal funding. Ohio State chose to be proactive and do its own investigation.

“Schools are smart if they try to handle this and do a fair, honest and balanced investigation themselves and come up with ways to improve the situation,” Maatz says. “If they let it go, they are essentially just inviting someone else to come in and do the investigation for them, and I don’t think any school wants that.”

Culture of Communication

The news about Ohio State caused directors and students to take a long hard look at their own programs. At the University of Oregon, band director Dr. Eric Wiltshire discussed the report at the band’s annual summer student leadership retreat.

“We had some pretty frank discussions and asked, ‘Are we doing things that are like this? What are we doing that could be construed in this same kind of way?’” Wiltshire says. “It opened the eyes of students in a lot of ways, and they were also shocked by some of the things that were allegedly going on.”

Wiltshire is also the chairperson of the Athletic Bands Committee of the College Band Directors National Association. Its annual symposium won’t take place until May, but he believes that issues of sexual culture in bands will be discussed.

“It’s really in the national spotlight on college campuses, and in that respect, it’s something that we need to pay attention to and not be afraid to discuss frankly,” he says.

In the meantime, he has focused on creating an open and communicative culture within the Oregon Bands, encouraging members to speak up when something bothers them in whatever way is most comfortable for them—even if it’s an anonymous note slipped under the door.

“We’re trying to develop a culture where if someone is offended by something, it’s OK—and it’s encouraged—that they come forward and say, ‘Hey, I find that offensive, and we need to talk about it.’” Wiltshire says. “It’s not nearly as simple as it sounds, but that’s something that we’re trying to do here, and that’s the direction that we need to go.”

Where’s the Line?

Many who didn’t agree with the Ohio State reports have tried to excuse the sexual aspects of the band’s culture as typical college student behavior. There is a perception that students of a certain age and in a college environment will always be making sexual jokes, drinking and engaging in other wild behaviors.

“We keep forgiving a lot of horrible, offensive, even dangerous behavior with the sense of ‘Boys will be boys’ or ‘That’s just what happens in college.’” Maatz says. “Well, just because that has been part of the college experience doesn’t mean you want to keep it as part of the college experience. Quite frankly I would like to have a higher opinion of men and college students moving forward.”

Allowing these behaviors in college can affect students for the rest of their lives. “If someone’s idea of fun is demeaning women and objectifying women, then that becomes an even much larger problem,” Maatz says. “If they think it’s OK to sexually harass women in college, then why wouldn’t it be OK to sexually harass women at work? What people learn from these experiences absolutely informs how they will behave and what they will be willing to tolerate when they graduate.”

Realistically, not everyone understands or is educated about the continuum of sexual harassment and violence. So how can students find that fine line—especially when it is blurred by media representations and foggy communications?

“I think the most difficult thing for college students, in particular, is that the line is drawn on an individual basis by the person who’s offended; there isn’t a distinct line,” Wiltshire says. “The things that are being said by [popular music, movies and comedians] would not be appropriate in a [band] rehearsal. The difference is that you can choose not to go to that [show] or to turn it off—but when things are happening at rehearsal or within what the band does, then students can’t just walk away from that if it’s offending them.”

Maatz maintains that there is no set line—it’s about a general awareness and acceptance of all. She also cautions that it’s not just about women. Any marginalized group can be a victim of inappropriate behavior, from racial minorities to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning students (GLBTQ).

“I’m not here to be thought police,” Maatz says. “What we’re trying to do is make it clear that what we’re working toward is the bigger picture, making the overall campus climate a safe place for everyone and making sure that people are not greeted with objectification and demeaning kinds of conduct or behavior as they go about their day trying to get an education. It’s not about, ‘Would this particular joke be OK?’ It’s about simply being mature and understanding what’s appropriate behavior and what’s not.”

Walking the Line

One group that is certainly walking the line of appropriateness is the student-run Columbia University Marching Band (CUMB). The self-named “Cleverest Band in the World” is the nation’s oldest “scramble band,” a term describing bands that scatter from set to set rather than march. Scatter bands often include non-traditional instruments or props and are usually known for their comedic field shows and raucous attitude.

If you saw a CUMB performance or even its website, you might not suspect that the group has perhaps the most comprehensive and progressive marching band sexual assault and harassment policy in existence.

In the summer and fall of 2014, the CUMB managing board (named the “Bored”) consulted with the university’s Sexual Violence Response office and created a sexual harassment and assault policy, named the “Bored Procedure for Supporting Band Members and Maintaining a Safe Environment,” that allows the Bored to sanction band members accused of sexual assault. The policy defines the types of sexual harassment and assault covered and outlines the protocol for reporting an incident and appealing a decision. The document is available on the CUMB website. All band members must also sign an agreement on “Band Expectations and Standards.”

Columbia’s Office of Judicial Affairs and Community Standards reviewed and issued recommendations for the policy, and the CUMB accepted some and ignored others. The university’s handling of sexual assault cases is a huge hot button issue on campus right now.

According to Karl Wagner, CUMB head manager, most students including the CUMB Bored feel that Columbia’s policy is ineffective and not hard enough on perpetrators. They wanted band members who have survived a sexual assault to be able to feel safe.

“We really felt strongly about making it zero tolerance, and they worried about language like that, but the whole impetus of writing a policy to begin with was to make sure that band was a place that people felt really safe in,” Wagner says. “We wanted to be more survivor-centric and to make sure we’re being proactive as opposed to just working within a system that a lot of people agree is not working.”

But how can the CUMB reconcile its sexual humor with its progressive take on sexual harassment? Wagner, a psychology major educated on microaggressions and the continuum of sexual violence, believes that it is truly possible.

“I think rape culture is something that exists on campuses everywhere and is not something that is unique to band,” Wagner says. “If institutionally you make it clear that those extremes aren’t accepted and that the smaller things, if you have a problem with them, can be discussed and removed if necessary, it is possible to create an environment with sexual jokes and innuendo where people feel safe.”

He believes that the creation of the band’s new policy has helped all members feel even more comfortable coming forward with potential concerns. “It just reassures people that the band is supportive of their complaints, and they realize that it is a safe space to be in, and songs and jokes are in jest,” Wagner says. “Truthfully there are some similarities between things we heard [Ohio State was] doing and things that we do. We also recognized that they were doing things that we would never do. And I think the smaller and, in my opinion, lesser things are only going to be brought up in cases where more offensive things are being brought to someone’s attention.”

Preventative Training

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Band directors and their student leadership need to discuss these issues and reach out for additional resources to help them prevent or fix a sexualized culture.

“I would caution bands against simply assuming that everything is OK in their culture just because they think it’s OK,” Maatz says. “[At Ohio State] the band director thought it was OK, but there were complaints, and there were members who did not. This is a situation where the band could have benefitted from some outside help, such as a school Title IX Coordinator or someone else.”

Every institution is required to have a Title IX coordinator, and Maatz recommends that bands reach out to that person for advice and training as well as contact campus sexual assault prevention programs, student affairs departments, a dean of students or even their local branch of the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

“It’s being proactive here that really makes the difference,” Maatz says. “You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re responding after the bad stuff has already gone down. You would rather be in a situation where you can talk freely and openly about expectations and move that forward.”

Even middle and high school bands should consider these issues. “They’re not too young, and that’s where some of these traditions start and give students the idea that it’s OK to harass and objectify, and we need to nip that in the bud,” Maatz says. “Title IX covers them too, and certain elements of bullying can be sexual harassment.”

Speaking Up

According to Maatz, encouraging bystander intervention (standing up to your peers) is one of the most effective ways to change a culture. “Peer pressure is a very tough thing, but I will tell you that in terms of the whole sexualized or rape culture, bystander intervention is really one of the things that needs to happen if we’re truly going to put a lid on it,” she says. “So many things could be nipped in the bud if people … who see it and know it’s wrong think that they can step in and say something that would be useful to stopping it. But people just don’t always feel empowered to do that.”

The Ohio State task force report concludes with a list of 37 recommendations, including administrative restructuring, increased training sessions for staff and students leaders, more resources provided for the band, regular culture checks and surveying of the students, and greater transparency regarding traditions. Some of the recommendations, such as banning certain rituals, have already been instituted by the band.

Coincidentally, Maatz is an alumnus of Ohio State. “I want to see them clean this up because the band is an important tradition,” she says. “People love the band and want to love them for the right reasons. We want our best and our brightest getting into the band and having that experience, not being scared off or somehow abused. I think they’ll be able to do it.”

With increased education, awareness and communication, hopefully bands in danger of a scandal similar to Ohio State can make the necessary changes before it’s too late, and other bands can prevent developing a sexualized culture, so that marching band can remain a safe and fun activity for all.

“As a band director, it’s my job to know what’s going on within the band,” Wiltshire says. “And that happens by developing trust with the students, so that they’re going to communicate with me. I can’t be everywhere and see everything, but with the right trust and relationship with the students, I can know what’s going on, and that’s my goal.”

Sidebar: Alumni Culture

One issue brought up in the Ohio State task force report regarding the marching band’s alleged sexualized culture was pressure and interference from alumni. The task force reported that the band’s alumni organization attempted to influence or prevent student responses to their inquiries (which the alumni have denied). Students testified that alumni pressure was a big factor in continuing inappropriate traditions and binge drinking because the students felt dependent on alumni for food, lodging and support. While most bands are not as dependent on their alumni as Ohio State was, many bands deal with the politics of keeping alumni happy and financially supportive while still making the changes necessary for the band to evolve over time.

“As a director you can’t have that same kind of trust and communication with the alumni because you don’t see them on a regular basis,” says Dr. Eric Wiltshire, University of Oregon band director. “They’re not in the band everyday, so they don’t know the current culture of the band. They just want to project the culture from when they were in it, and times have changed.”

Wiltshire has informally banned individual alumni from attending homecoming or other events if they behaved inappropriately toward or around the current band. “I’ve just said, ‘You’re not welcome because you don’t behave in a way that is appropriate to the culture of the current band, and you’ve got to respect that,’” he says. “But I’m able to do that because those instances are few and far between.”

The student-led Columbia University Marching Band (CUMB) has a policy that allows the ensemble to ban alumni accused of sexual assault from playing with the band at homecoming and attending band parties. The group has so far sent formal letters to two alums informing them of the decision.

Columbia’s alumni have been known to complain when certain jokes, cheers or songs have disappeared from the band’s repertoire as times changed and certain types of humor became unacceptable. “It’s kind of become a trope that we just ignore alumni complaints,” says Karl Wagner, CUMB’s head manager. “That being said, we have great alumni, and when it comes to [our sexual assault policy], the alumni have been extremely supportive.”

About the Author

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor for Halftime Magazine and a freelance journalist and communications professional in Los Angeles. She marched flute at Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif., and in the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band, where she now works as a teaching assistant. She has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a Master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

About author

Elizabeth Geli

Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor of Halftime Magazine and a journalist/communications professional in Southern California. Her 11 years at the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band included time as a flute player, graduate teaching assistant, and student advocate. She holds a bachelor's degree in Print Journalism and master's degree in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.

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