Protecting persons, not positions

by Bekah Boyer

My name is Bekah Boyer. What I have to say below is my own opinion and has nothing to do with any institutions or people with whom I may be affiliated. I apologize for any triggers in this article, but I need a forum to speak.

I was never a great debater; my butt was constantly whupped by those who worked harder than I did. Coincidently, that selfsame butt was apparently more interesting to some people in the community than my identity. I was harassed, insulted, and demeaned by members of my own team and others. Sometimes statements were as trivial as “go make me a sandwich.” Most of the time though, actions escalated to demands for oral sex in exchange for a card that the boys were already sharing. Troubled, alone, and not knowing what to do, I spun into a depression.  I wasn’t a lone wolf; I just had no one in whom to confide. Thankfully, an adult in the community noticed that I wasn’t doing well.  She kept me from quitting debate or doing anything drastically permanent because of a fleeting feeling.

I got help. The kicker is I had to tell an adult first.

As adults in the community, we have a responsibility as educators and as chaperones, ethically and legally, to support kids. The question is: does this mean I have to vote on a micropolitical position?

No. It does not.

I had the pleasure of judging two very talented debaters in the Harvard bid round last year, one of whom read a personal narrative in the AC. The ballot story indicated that I must vote for the debater who read the narrative so she could advance and “spread the message.”

I sat. I voted her down for a simple reason: she lost on the flow. The other debater had decisively won a conceded, weighed argument against the nature of her performance while she was busy discussing what had happened to her.

After the round, I approached her. I came out to her as a survivor of domestic and sexual abuse. I thanked her for sharing her story, asked her if she needed access to resources for survivors, and begged her to warn those watching next time. I proceeded to have my panic attack in private, and subsequently went to prep out one of the debaters for whom I was responsible, who was about to hit her in the next round.

Does my decision render me a foe to the solidarity of the movement? Absolutely not: I am a vehement advocate for survivors’ rights, both as president of the feminist organization on my campus, as a survivor (I was assaulted in college, but that’s another story), and as a personal advocate for “safe spaces.”

Space is a critical contributor to agency: a phenomenological approach would dictate that I evaluate lived experience, and as such, I must pay attention to where that lived experience has occurred. A debate round is not a forum for crucifixion. If you are a survivor your story is important, especially to professionals. I have seen many men and women, cisgendered and transgendered, walk through the doors of the women’s center on my campus, seeking help. I am not trying to say that everyone must decide to prosecute; that is a personal decision for those affected. When someone’s autonomy is so vilely infringed, it is vitally important that all possible avenues are open to them.

If you decide that reading your story in a debate round is crucial to your healing process, it is important to remember three things:

  1. This is not the time for specificity. I may be a judge, but without training and/or a degree, I am powerless. Reading a narrative of an unprosecuted crime is very different from reading a narrative about living life in prison, for example.  Most lived experiences, when witnessed, do not immediately implicate the viewer as a court of law. In being specific, you have made your opponent, judge, and audience witnesses: If they do not assist when called upon if legal events do transpire, they could potentially be held legally complicit or in contempt of the court. If you truly want to punish the accused, there are better avenues to do so.
  2. Please disclose the nature of the case to the judge and to your opponent and to the audience before the case is read. With one in four adolescent women and one in ten adolescent men affected by sexual violence, you can’t make assumptions about who is in the room. I was only able to handle the round at Harvard because I had my medicine with me.
  3. Instead of asking for a ballot, which could make some doubt your sincerity, donate your speech time to the cause. Silence, when speech is expected, is often more powerful than anything else. Moreover, should you choose to ask for the ballot, clearly articulate why the opponent ought to lose the round or why you must be voted up.

If you hit one of these nuanced narratives what should you do? First, do not pivot your attack around a victim-blaming mentality. It is not your job to cast aspersions on either of the characters mentioned. (This issue is entirely avoided if the person running the case avoids specificity.) We may indict authors, researchers, and philosophers but they are speaking to a universal experience. Narratives are all about perspectives, which cannot be “wrong” since they are not objective facts. What you should do is question the technicality within the case: articulate problems with the internal warrants of the ballot story. If they do not read a ballot story, the best thing to do is merely to point that out, thank them for sharing their story, and move on to your case.

Though I support and understand the educational value of micropolitical cases, I strongly urge people not to run micropolitical positions that speak of an unprosecuted crime – especially in front of me. I will write to the guidance counselors and principals of your schools and I suggest that other adults do the same. We have too much groupthink in debate: we cannot let someone who is suffering fall to the wayside merely because of a bystander effect. As adults we must take responsibility and notify the authorities. Though an event may have occurred in debate, we must keep in mind that we are not a sovereign nation; there is a “debate world” and a “real world” and the two are linked.  So though a round may not be the ideal forum for this issue, it is an issue that the debate community must address – but how?

  1. Coaches can work closely with their school’s guidance counselors. Debaters are smart kids; smart kids are generally more vulnerable. We have to remember that these young adults look up to adults more than even a narcissistic coach would expect. Treat your debaters as human beings, not as trophy cases. They have real life problems and unless you are trained to handle that, you need to work with someone who has the training.
  2. Tournaments hosted at schools can, at minimum, have cards detailing local resources for confidential and legal reporting of assault and harassment available in the registration packet. At best, they can encourage their guidance counselor or a representative of an assisting organization to be available at the tournament so that immediate action can be taken.
  3. In addition to having a licensed counselor on staff, camps can create anonymous exit surveys for attendees to report instances in which they were threatened or felt unsafe. Again, local and national resources should be attached to these.
  4. Judges, after hearing a case, should figure out if another adult knows what has happened.  They can then take steps to ensure that the right people know what to do. There is no confidentiality clause in debate. Most rounds are explicitly open to the public. Protect yourself and the kids you have judged by reporting.

The next step is to encourage your coaches, judges, schools, and opponents to follow these measures or any others that may come up in the dialogue surrounding this issue. We need to heal as a community as well.

If you, or someone you know, is a victim of sexual or gender-based violence, please tell someone who can help you. You are not alone.  Here are some resources at your disposal:

I am happy to answer any questions about this article. You can reach me at ; please indicate that this is what you are writing about in the subject line.