“Bro Culture” Is Debate Culture

The cafeteria at a high school debate tournament is a cavern echoing with strategy and spit. A coach whispers an opponent’s shortcomings on the right. On the left, a boy practicing his speech sprays saliva like a lawn sprinkler. Teenage athletes and artists who happen to be at school may try to avoid the noise, but debaters flock to this booming room in between rounds. 

Four years ago, I was among the flock, clinging to other novice debaters as I complained about another loss. We went around the huddle, blaming mean judges and outdated evidence for our bruised egos. But Saba, another freshman on the team, didn’t lament with us. She shifted in place instead, scraping the nail polish off her nails until it was time for the next round.

On the bus ride home, she told us what had happened. After Saba had finished giving her rebuttal, the judge stood up and left. He didn’t say anything until after the debate was over, until his friend joined him in the room until he leaned over and mentioned that he’d gone to the bathroom earlier to “hide his boner.”

What happened to my teammate is only a speck of what high school girls endure when participating in speech and debate activities. Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Public Forum Debate, Policy Debate, World Schools Debate, Congressional Debate and Extemporaneous Speaking are all different variations of competitive public speaking regulated by the National Speech and Debate Association. While they differ in dress codes, judges, and rules, one thing is constant: discrimination on the basis of sex. In policy debate, criticisms of clothing and tone are common. In public forum, the win rate for female debaters before male judges is 31%. The exclusion of women debaters has become normalized, debater Sara Ann Bracket told the HPR.

“Oftentimes, I would be working on my computer and I’d look up, and half the guys have gone to another room  — including guys my age and older guys,” Bracket said. “It’s very hard to be a girl, to become a part of the bro culture or to access that level of friendship with guys.”

The effects of sexism, whether covert or overt reverberate across speech and debate activities monitored by the NSDA. As the authority overseeing these activities, it is the NSDA’s duty to ensure everyone can debate comfortably. The burden of speaking out should not fall on high schoolers. To remedy and prevent further harm against high school female debaters, the NSDA needs to foster an environment in which everyone can participate safely, starting with giving weight to students’ stories.

Why Girls Suffer in Silence

Sexism has been pervasive in the speech and debate community for so long that female debaters have accepted it as an inescapable part of competing. Unfortunately, this is a reality that extends beyond high school. The prejudice against female debaters is mirrored in the political world, a realm that shares the extracurricular’s emphasis on debates and speeches. 

Even after the 2018 midterm elections, which set a precedent for the possibilities of widespread female leadership with a record number of women running for high political office, bias against women is still palpable Women politicians must endure more conversations about their appearance and personal lives than men. But, this difference is so subtle, it can easily be overlooked. 60% of women — vs. only 36% of men — believe that gender discrimination is an obstacle to female leadership, according to the Pew Research Center. The public’s prejudice against women disadvantages them when they run for office. It can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of societal barriers: when the broader public believes that the country isn’t ready for a woman to hold office, individuals won’t vote for her because they believe she won’t win. Thus, women are held to a higher viability standard and aren’t elected for public office.

The societal view of women holding public power can turn female debaters away from considering a career with public speaking. “A lot of the girls on my team were deterred by this environment and quit,” Brackett told the HPR, even when debate and speech activities have proved to be valuable to participants. The value of speech and debate can be readily found in how it teaches high school students soft skills not taught in classes. Critical thinking, collaboration, and civic awareness are all key for competitive public speaking. Debate can also act as a gateway to college. Colleges recruit high school students to be members of their debate team, sometimes offering full scholarships. 

But even if competitors do not want to debate in college, speech and debate activities are more than just another club on a college application. According to data from the Chicago Urban Debate League, debaters outscore non-debaters on all sections of the ACT and average a 3.23 cumulative GPA. Debate has long been seen as a facilitator of personal growth and self-esteem, even in the 1980s, when current debate coach Tim Freehan started debating.

“I thought I was smart,” Freehan told the HPR. “At high school, I went to get a very good coach, and I took a class, and I did well and I had a good partner. We did well, and it got me through high school. It just builds on you.” There are critical thinking skills to be gained from debate, and it is essential that girls are able to engage in this activity safely and without the threat of discrimination.

A Voice in the Quiet

“My last round judge ranked me badly and wrote no constructive criticism, instead just remarking that ‘my skirt was too short.’”

“The same guy who didn’t look twice at me when I wore a pants suit actually stopped and asked me how I was doing and acted like I mattered when I was in a bodycon dress.”

“Why do elite debate camps cover up sexual violence and allow predators to continue working with children after misconduct at their institutions? How do these people get hired in the first place?”

These are a few excerpts of students’ anecdotes published by the Instagram account  @speechanddebatestories. Since its first post on July 3, 2020, the account has gained 2,227 followers and posted over 300 stories from speech and debate participants that want to speak up. 

After sexual assault allegations were made against a prominent high school debater, the account was created. After speaking with fellow debaters, the collective feeling was that, while they were not surprised, the time had come to do something.

Nina Potischman, the creator of @speechanddebatestories told the HPR, “Once we created the page and created a forum for people to share their experiences and speak up, it sort of unlocked a collective feeling of having been silenced that led to a lot of people speaking up in the page. [It was] catching on very quickly and expanding,” she continued. “I remember we got 50 responses or something in a day, and I just spent an entire day formatting the posts.”

While recent student stories have expressed frustration over administrative inaction, coaches share their helplessness to keep their debaters comfortable and safe. Judges are arbitrarily recommended by coaches and are not required to undergo any training prior to entering the round. Many judges are known as “lay judges” — judges who have no prior speech and debate experience. Judging at a high school speech and debate tournament is commonly a one-time gig.

If a judge says something inappropriate to a debater, there’s little that can be done. Freehan recounted,  “In Public Forum we had an incident almost two years ago at the state tournament. One of my debaters received comments to the effect of, ‘you’re dressed inappropriately. You need to button more buttons up.’” By the time his team received this comment, they were on the van ride home. He didn’t see the point in requesting to not be evaluated by that judge again to the NSDA. “There’s no familiarity with judges at all because they almost never have the same one twice.”

The NSDA Must Act Now

Now that students are starting to publicly come forward, the speech and debate community is forced to reckon with what female debaters have long suspected: There are no guidelines to hold perpetrators accountable. It’s why Potischman, in collaboration with other debate Instagram accounts, has created a petition asking the NSDA for institutional changes. These changes include an updated code of ethics, accountability procedures for misconduct, and a process of accreditation for all members.

“The NSDA has not released any sort of public statement or explicitly promised to do anything,” Potischman said. In emails, NSDA has expressed that they take these allegations seriously and that they are working on an accreditation system to screen for appropriate judges that will take a few years. But Potischman feels stumped: The NSDA continues to request the contact information of students who have come forward, data that @speechanddebate never collected in the first place. 

What’s troubling in the NSDA’s response is their refusal to acknowledge sexism in the speech and debate space. In order to create a safe space where everyone can participate safely, the speech and debate community needs to address that this is an unsafe space for some. The NSDA must reform its administrative policies. Small institutional changes can make all the difference. Implicit bias workshops and a screening method for judges could help prevent inappropriate behavior in rounds. A formal process for high schoolers to report violations could hold perpetrators accountable.

The NSDA should capitalize on the momentum of students coming forward and start to involve high schoolers in administrative decisions. The nervous debaters in the cafeteria between rounds know what needs to be fixed within the debate space. The NSDA needs to proactively create a solution to keep female debaters safe. The alternative to reform in community guidelines is a world in which students continue to be silenced in an activity where they’re trained to use their voice.

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