By Cayla Thames
Content Warnings: S*xual Ass*ult, R*pe, PTSD
I want to preface this by saying that this is by far the hardest thing I have ever had to write, and that typing this with the intent for it to be read by others scares the living sh*t out of me. I have never spoken about my experience being r*ped and s*xually ass*ulted. Even typing this makes me feel anxious and shaky. I don’t know what will come of this. But, after attending a total of 18 tournaments and competing in over 100 rounds against hundreds of different people, I am speaking out for the sake of the other survivors who had to suffer in silence this year like I did.
The first POI I ever watched was Ari Moore’s "Smile While You Suffer" from 2018 NSDA Nationals. It was the first week of freshman year, and my coach asked us to have a list of events we were interested in by the end of the month. Mind you, I had never watched a speech event other than the typical Original Oratory videos that pop up when you search "High School Speech" in the YouTube search bar. In fact, my stumbling upon POI on the NSDA Resources page was an accident; I didn’t know how to navigate it, and I clicked around until a video played. After the first minute of Ari’s performance, I was hooked.
I watched the entire 2018 POI final round in one sitting. I eventually stumbled upon DI, Prose, Poetry, and even HI videos to binge as well. Every performance was more inspiring, raw, and unflinchingly honest than the last. I fell absolutely and completely in love with interp.
Fast forward to the summer before junior year after quitting policy debate (it was never meant to be), I finally broke out of my shell and decided to put together a POI. After two years of being too intimidated to do interp, I didn’t want to leave high school without trying it out. I learned how to do book work, how to transition between pieces, how to create levels and dynamic characters, and how to inject passion into every word and every movement. I fell in love with the craft, and I worked harder than I ever had before to perfect my piece.
The 2020-2021 season inevitably came to a start. By the time Jack Howe came around, I was beyond excited and ready to share a message that was near and dear to my heart. POI was so much more to me than a performance or a script in a binder; it gave me the voice I craved to speak up about a topic that deeply affects me in my day-to-day life, and using POI as an outlet made it easier to deal with the issue I discussed in my piece in my own home.
My first round of Jack Howe was the most raw performance I have ever given to date. I opened my heart to my audience and let the words flow out of me. By the time I entered the room for round two, I was feeling even more excited than before. The idea that this could become a regular thing--that I could feel like this after every performance for the rest of the year--made me even more excited for all of the tournaments ahead.
Then, a following competitor was called up to perform. Within the first two minutes of their piece, they began enacting out a graphic, extensively long scene of a person being r*ped.
I had a panic attack and left the virtual room. I could barely get myself together in time to perform for round 3, which I gave a 4 minute performance in because I could no longer remember my piece. All my mind could do was flip through the numerous instances when my body was violated. My deeply rooted PTSD took over and I could not breathe.
This was not the craft I fell in love with. This was not the interp I knew.
Nearly every tournament following Jack Howe, my prelims were filled with pieces depicting graphic scenes of s*xual ass*ult. After beginning to double enter in DI, the amount of performances with detailed accounts of r*pe increased twofold. Every single time these pieces started, I muted my phone, held back tears, counted down from 100, and tried to push the traumatic memories from materializing in my brain. Every single time these pieces started, my body’s immediate reaction was to shut down and drop from the tournament. Every single time these pieces started, my love for interp steadily decreased.
Being a survivor in silence, I never spoke up about the instances that would become a routine during tournaments: mute, close your eyes, countdown, ignore the thoughts, repeat. I never told my coach why my performance at tournaments was declining. I never told my mom why my grades were dropping. I never told my teachers why I stopped coming to class. From October to December, I competed nearly every weekend, and for the entirety of that time, I suffered from daily nightmares recounting being assaulted. I could not close my eyes without the blackness materializing into flashbacks of the trauma I still carry with me to this day. I relived my trauma for the great majority of 3 months and contemplated quitting speech all together several times. I still have not recovered, and as of April 22nd, 2021, I have gone 10 days without having a PTSD episode.
Until writing this, my trauma being a survivor of numerous instances of r*pe and s*xual ass*ult has been shut in a box in my mind and stored out of reach. As a result of years suppressing this, my PTSD from the incidents is an internal battle that I fight on a daily basis. Every day, I feel like I will never be able to escape the nightmares, the panic attacks, the flashbacks, the permanent feeling of loneliness and the overwhelming dread that I will never be able to live without constantly being at war with my mind.
To anyone in interp reading this, your performances have real life impacts on real life people. When you depict graphic scenes of bodily violation, that shit has a fucking impact on people. Interp is an amazing opportunity to share a message you are passionate about and to give a voice to those who do not have one. But if your performance compromises the wellbeing of those who are subject to the issues you discuss in your piece, you are not being "an activist." You are harming the people you are supposedly advocating for in order to get the ballot. You are not "spreading awareness" by making survivors recount their trauma. You are hurting people, you are traumatizing survivors, you have traumatized me.
I know I am not the only s*xual ass*ult survivor who has been in these kinds of rounds this year. The amount of people who suffer in silence during these performances for the sake of maintaining neutrality has to be undeniably high considering 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18 (aka, including people of high school age). That’s at least one person per round.
You know what would be actual activism? You know what would keep people from being traumatized? You know what would have prevented me from being permanently impacted by this season?
Putting a goddamn motherfucking trigger warning.
Seriously. If you are in speech, specifically POI and/or DI, you cannot continue to call for content warnings/trigger warnings on Instagram posts, Tweets, debate cases, and videos if you are not putting them in your speech. If you can’t include a 3 second trigger warning because you think it’s "cringe" or you think it’ll "give away your topic" or "it’ll eliminate the shock factor," you are not promoting activism and you will continue to harm people like me who have sat through rounds with people like you and will continue to drive away people from speech because of it. You are actively telling survivors that as long as their trauma results in a trophy for you, you don’t care about the real life impact your speech has on them. Do not weaponize the trauma of s*xual ass*ult victims for your own competitive success.
I will never love interp the same way. I will never be able to forget the 2020-2021 speech season. I don’t know how to move forward from my trauma and I just hope to fucking God that writing this can make a difference in at least one person’s perspective.
I don’t know if there is a way to conclude something like this. I don’t even know if I am fully okay after writing this. I just hope that anyone in interp reading this hears me. I will never be the same. I hope that no one has experienced the same thing I did this year, and I hope that no one ever will. If you have read to this point and you or someone you know has a piece that could impact a survivor in a negative way, I am asking you to please put a trigger warning. It makes all of the difference, and it will change the speech world for the better. No negative can come from putting a trigger warning for s*xual ass*ult, r*pe, s*xual violence, etc. To all of the survivors who have swallowed your pain to spare the feelings of your competitors, I hear you, I see you, I am here for you. To anyone reading this who needs someone to talk to, I am here for you. My Instagram DMs are always open: @caylaalynn as well as my email: firstname.lastname@example.org . I just pray that this reaches someone, somewhere.
Cayla Thames (they/them) is a junior at Green Valley High School. They compete in DI, POI, and HI.
Note: The Beyond Resolved blog reflects the ideas of individual authors and not necessarily of the organization as a whole.