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Competitive Debate: Still a Man’s World?

May 26th, 2019     by Gabriella Officer     Comments

Image: Marlee Jennings

November 2018. I was fidgeting with my folder, my head crammed full of facts about pharmaceutical price controls. My opponents walked into the room. Two teenage boys, both in suits. We exchanged awkward pre-round introductions, and took our seats before the judge came in the room. I overheard an unfortunately audible exchange between them.

“Can you see her bra through her shirt?”

“Kind of. Does she think she’ll win because she’s flashing the judge?”

The judge was a woman. I won that round.

December 2018. I was standing on a stage, in a dusty high school auditorium. I clutched my third-place medal as I smiled a little awkwardly into the audience, As I descended the stairs, my male debate partner said something so hurtful to me I’ll never forget it.

“You only got a higher score because the judges were all guys, they were perverts, and you wore a tight skirt.”

The smile slid off my face as I stared at him. He was my friend. One of my best friends, and I didn’t want to acknowledge what I had just heard.

January 2019. In the hallway, a boy in a suit and tie grins at me and runs his eyes over my body. Grabs my arm. I twist away. He’s older than me, and taller; probably a junior. I know what school he goes to. It’s a fancy, all-boys private school. My coach knows that his coach is friends with the league director.

“What’s your name?”, he asks me. For once in my life, I’m unable to speak.

February 2019. One of the coaches of the opposing team, a man well into his thirties, winks at me, making me stumble in my opening speech. A boy in a red hoodie smiles at me, I smile back, and then somehow I see him in all my rounds for the rest of the day.

April 2019. A white male judge looks at me sympathetically after a round and says, “Look, I know it’s hard for women, but try to be more aggressive in crossfire”.

April 2019. As I stand up to receive my award I hear a smattering of catcalls and whistles from two boys I debated in a round.

May 2019: After an intramural tournament, I’m chatting with a male teammate about our future career goals. I say I want to be a prosecutor and he makes a joke about how he thought I said ‘prostitute’.

“Is that how you’re going to pay for law school?”, he said nastily.

I debate on the New York City Urban Debate League circuit, and I’m grateful for that. I became interested in debate during the summer before 9th grade. Something about the atmosphere of learning and my unabashedly academic new teammates drew me in. I sent a few awkwardly worded emails to the director of the city-wide program (that was my first time writing a ‘professional’ email). Before I knew it, I was immersed in the debate culture of research and rebuttals. Having long been called out by everyone in my life for talking too much, I felt like I had found my (sarcastic, overly opinionated) people. In October 2018, after two months of hyperventilating, I wrote my first speech and headed off to my first tournament and I have never looked back. For most people, public speaking is a nightmare of sorts. In the U.S., it’s actually the number one fear, according to several surveys. But for me, standing in front of a crowded room, knowing that my words bear weight, gives me a rush. Debate is the one activity that lights up my heart like no other.

Debating as a student activity in the United States began at Princeton University. The first student debate society in the United States started at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1795, and it is still active today. But like many things in this world, competitive debate started out excluding women. It still does. I visited the website of Yale University’s debate team, and was honestly shocked. There were thirteen men, eleven of whom were white, and there were only four women. Harvard’s team? Twelve men, and two women, one of whom is a coach. Debate grows more and more male as you climb higher in the rankings from local tournaments, to city, state, and national competitions.

Collegiate debate is still predominantly male. High school debate may have a slightly higher number of women, yet the harassment and discrimination often drive away women before they can reach the most competitive levels. In spite of the incidents listed above, I know that in other parts of the country, the sexism and misogyny is so much worse.

I love debate too much to ever give up on it, no matter what I have to deal with. But I can’t blame other female debaters, some even my own teammates, who feel differently. One of my female teammates and friends experienced a prolonged incident of sexual harassment at the hands of one of our newer teammates. Our coaches, of course, turned a blind eye, even as she was considering leaving the team because of the incident.

If we complain, we’re told in so many words that ‘Boys will be boys.’ The apologetic shrug and the smile that lets you know it’s not really a big deal, honey, you’re over-exaggerating. The promises to deal with problems are never kept. When I walk into a classroom to debate about Saudi Arabian arms sales or the United Nations Security Council, I have to stop for a moment. Think. Is my skirt too tight? Is my bra strap showing? Do I look too fat? Do I look too thin? Are there bags under my eyes? Is my makeup too much or too little, are my heels too high? Should I have worn pants?

And I know I’m not exaggerating, because I know I’m on display for every moment I’m in that room. My male opponents and my male teammates all have the luxury of being able to speak freely. But I am bogged down by everyone’s sundry judgements and expectations. Be aggressive, or the judge will think you’re a weak little girl. Don’t be too aggressive, or the judge will think you’re being bossy and crass. Don’t play with your hair, it makes you look like you’re flirting. Play with your hair, use your flirtation against them.

Why can’t I have the freedom of speaking freely and loudly about geopolitical stability, fiscal responsibility, and everything else?

It’s truly the small things that showcase to me just how much the world of competitive debate needs to change. If I take off my blazer in an overheated classroom, I have to see the obvious glances aimed at my chest. I feel vulnerable and uncovered. I want to hide under as many layers as possible to wipe away the stares of those eyes. Walking down the hallway of a school to a round, especially when I’m wearing a skirt, makes me feel tense. I have to force myself not to hunch my shoulders and look sideways to see who’s staring, who’s sitting on the floor trying to look up my skirt. I try my best not to let the unwelcome attention weigh me down, and I project an aura of confidence in case any potential judges are standing around. The natural stress of a debate tournament is increased twofold just by being a girl. Sometimes, even other girls I talk to about this issue don’t understand.

“You’re boy-crazy, though!”, they laugh. I do like boys. Boys who don’t disrespect me, try to talk over me, make jokes about how ‘my place is in the kitchen’. Boys who don’t stare down my shirt while I talk about nuclear proliferation, who don’t belittle me and make me feel like a lesser debater and a lesser person.

The sexism is pervasive, even among the judges. The adults we trust to be fair and unbiased often make their decisions based on frivolous things. I’ve seen ballots from male judges who, if presiding over a round where both sides are female, pick a winner based on who is better dressed. I’ve seen debate teams take on an almost frat-like culture, with female teammates being excluded as the male teammates corner and harass girls from other teams. And most people—coaches, other judges, tournament coordinators—turn a blind eye. The culture of competitive debate has been set in stone for such a long time that to even call attention to the misconduct and inappropriate behaviour is seen as taboo.

I’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that there’s not much I can currently do. One day, I have the confidence that things will change in the world of competitive debate. But for now? I hold my head high, I wear my kitten heels and my pencil skirt, and when someone makes a suggestive comment or a sexist joke, I look them right in the eye until they turn away in shame. And I know that even if no one else believes in my debating abilities, I believe in them. And that is enough. Because at the end of the day, my hours of research and preparation will pay off. And they have. And I continue to hold out hope that sometime in the future, I will be judged solely by my capability and competence as a student and a debater.

Tags: body politics

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