Sexual Harassment in the Debate Community

by Etta Humes

As most of you already know, there have been problems recently in the debate community with regard to sexual harassment. It is not my story to tell, and I will not tell it. It is for the victims to decide in what way, or if at all, their story is shared. But I can tell you, when I heard the news, I also heard that people were belittling the experience and saying it was an individual incident and that because attention was being drawn to it, it proved it wasn’t a real problem. Or, my personal favorite, that the elimination of lay judges would solve the problem. 

If these statements didn’t make me feel physically ill, I would probably laugh at them. They are truly absurd.  I wasn’t even surprised when I heard the news. Disappointed, sure. But not surprised. The fact was, I was more surprised that anyone was doing anything about it. Despite all the great organizations like BR that try to raise awareness, most cases of sexual harassment in the debate community are never talked about. Victims rarely speak up and when they do, are often silenced or not listened to. This instance was surrounded by powerful debaters and was far reaching, and the victims were brave enough to take action against it. That’s why it got noticed. But it’s not isolated at all, it’s just a more visible and concrete example of the prevalent sexism that spans our community. 

Picture this, a debate round, you’re a femx debater. Your opponents, both male. Your partner, male. The judge in the back of the room, an older man who has recognition in the debate community. This might sound familiar to some female/female presenting debaters. It certainly does to me, it sounds like every other round that I go into. But here’s where it changes, because the judge says something. Something directed at you, not too overtly sexual or demeaning, but just enough to make you feel fully isolated and uncomfortable. If you’re lucky, everyone in the room will pause for a breath and wait for a second to see if anyone will speak up. If not, only you will feel time slow as you process what just happened. Your partner might look mildly upset; your opponents, slightly uncomfortable. Or maybe not, maybe only you feel a sudden weight in the room. Either way, chances are that no one says anything. YOU don’t say anything. What is there to say? You’re powerless, a mediocre debater who has no power over a well established coach. Even if you were a top debater, there’s often nothing to do. So you go back to your coaches and they pat you on the back and apologize. But then they tell you to not talk about it too much. Because this is an established member of the community, and the coaches need to talk to each other and to some other community members  before you do anything drastic. So you keep quiet. In the hallways you see them. You try to look away, because looking into their eyes would just isolate you further from a community that already seems so male-centric. Would they have the same look in their eyes as they did when they said those things that make you sick? Or, even worse, would they be void of recognition, because they don’t even remember saying those things? Why would they? You were just another girl on the circuit they judged (maybe debated). They never thought that what they did was out of the ordinary. No one told them. 

Here I’d like to interject to talk about “lay judges” and “tech judges”. The idea that lay judges are the root problem of sexism and sexual harassment strikes a nerve with me. Firstly, the argument that lay judges are inherently more sexist, I believe to be blatantly false. This argument is based on the influence of “perceptual dominance” on most of the flow decisions. I am not going to say this doesn’t happen, because it does. However, I personally have never had an experience where a lay judge has said something directly to me, about me. Not to say this doesn’t happen, but in my experience tech judges are much more likely to make these comments. But, if a lay judge does make a comment, you can go to tab and/or conflict them. You might not even have to, because chances are you probably won’t see then again. However, with more established judges, it’s harder to speak up because they have power. It’s potentially harmful to your debate career to talk about what happened or take action against them. And, even if you do, if you conflict them, you have to see them at tournaments, and hear about them and their debaters.

But back to the story, my story. What I am really trying to do is tell the story of every girl who didn’t quite think it was worth reporting. It wasn’t that bad, was it? Just a queasy uncomfortable feeling when they were in the room, and the distance between you and the community. But I’m lucky, honestly. At least my coaches had the decency to apologize, to be upset along with me, despite their urges to not take my anger too far. 

In my freshman year I heard crying in the bathroom at a tournament. A girl locked in the stall was ready to tell her story, and I was the only one who seemed to be willing to listen. And so she told me. She didn’t think she would be able to travel on the national circuit anymore. A judge had tried flirting with her, openly going after a high school girl, maybe half his own age. She told me that she didn’t want to have to think about it again, or have people know anything. Sometimes you want to forget it happened, and move on. So she didn’t tell her coach. But her coach heard about it somehow, and got angry because they were not told. The coach said that they didn’t trust her anymore. She was blamed for a situation she only wanted to forget. 

And that’s what happens. As much as the harassers are punished, the victims are always punished just as much or more. Sometimes with decisive action, but even when not, with the constant weight of the words said and actions done. 

That’s just talking about judges, but don’t get me wrong, it’s not just judges. It’s also debaters. Hundreds of debaters have done and said terrible things. Things that make their female/gender minority (and many male) opponents and teammates feel uncomfortable. Hundreds of debaters who never got held accountable. Who took cues from coaches and judges and other debaters, that this type of behavior is okay. It’s our responsibility to show them, to show everyone, that it’s not. 

– Etta Humes

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