Its debatable…Speak Up!

June 29, 2007

Sexual Harassment in Forensics – 6 years later…

Filed under: Debate,Feminism/Gender,Forensics - General — bk2nocal @ 3:07 pm

In relation to this previous post on a study from 1994 on coaching debate and raising children, I thought I might post some other studies that deserve revisiting.  This post refers to a study done by Pamela Stepp, former Director of Forensics at Cornell University, the results of which were published in an article in the journal Communication Education, in the January 2001 issue. 

Here is the abstract:

Recent court rulings have made incidents of sexual harassment more worrisome for professors, particularly those who coach students in forensics (individual speaking events and intercollegiate debate extra-curricular activities).  Participants were 611 students and coaches from four national forensics organizations who filled out a modified version of the Sexual Experience Questionnaire to assess understanding and experiences of sexual harassment.  Results indicated that sexual harassment is widespread in forensics, that women are harassed more than men, and that women in intercollegiate debate are harassed more than women in individual speaking events.

The study included behavior ranging from the quid pro quo harassment to sexually inappropriate behavior and talk that created a hostile environment.  Here is an excerpt from one of the narratives in a survey:

One of the worst experiences I had in college was at a large national NDT Tournament.  A debater from another school had expressed an interest in me.  When a judge from his school judged me, the judge began to question me before the round about my relationship with the debater.  This happened in front of my partner (a male) and the other team (both male).  The judge asked me if I had sex with him, if I was planning to have sex with him, if I wanted the judge to arrange for us to be alone at the hotel that night. . .I was so embarrassed that he was asking me these questions, and I didn’t know what to do.  (NDT female debater)

Whenever I read things like this, I wonder if incidences such as these are result of ignorance or malice.  I have to think it is often ignorance.  What I mean by this is in many of these situations if you spoke to the person who behaved inappropriately after the incident, they would have no awareness of how they made the other person feel.  And if they did know how it made them feel before they said it, they would never say it.  Obviously, there are those who are malicious and who do say things like this to hurt the other person, but much of the time in our community I think these things happen because the person thinks they’re being funny, and that everyone is enjoying the joke.  And they continue to think that because so many of us remain silent about our objections in order to “keep the peace” or to “fit in”.  Its a difficult place for one to be located.

Although Stepp recognizes that surveys are not the best way to collect information, as those who were harassed may be more likely to respond than those who were not, I think it would be interesting to have some similar studies done as a point of comparison.  In the article, there is a suggestion that would be interesting to explore in this era of “self-disclosure debate,” (for lack of a better term), where teams are choosing to disclose their personal experiences, including past sexual experiences, as narratives in policy debate rounds.  Although this is not what I would call widespread, it has appeared enough to become relatively known within the community.  The suggestion from the article is:

Research should explore the sexualized atmosphere of sexual talking and jokes, which appears to be so common in the forensics community.  Gutek (1985) claims that when women have a male supervisor more co-workers are likely to harass.  This may mean that forensics coaches can have an influence on the climate in their organizations in terms of the types of behavior that is encouraged or forbidden.  Lack of action represents tolerance for sexual harassment.  Fitzgerald and Shullman (1993) claim a dire need for a method to assess organizational climates and environments for these behaviors.

I am a strong believer in organizational culture and the leadership of an organization being responsible for that culture.  So, I agree that on teams, the coach can do much to alleviate the problems of harassment.  In addition, we can be the person to speak up in gatherings where inappropriate sexualized comments are being made.  But, with the new personal disclosure in rounds, it becomes a whole different concern of who is the manager of that environment?  Should the judge be responsible for that?  How do you know when disclosure crosses over into harassment?  As a coach and as an educator, I have responsibilities to my team and my classes, but as a judge, to whom am I responsible?  What about my debaters?  If they feel a disclosure crosses a line, how should they handle that?   I don’t have firm answers to these questions at this point, but I do think they are something that needs to be discussed for the forensics organizational culture, as the 2001 results indicate. 

I think this is worthwhile of research so we have an idea of where we stand as organizations (CEDA, NDT, AFA, NPDA, etc.) in the area of sexual harassment.



  1. I agree that there is a definite need for this sort of research. Of course, the structure of debate likely causes some of these problems. Perhaps if we could adopt some of the elements of something like Foss and Foss’ invitational rhetoric, we might be able to soften some of these impacts.

    In addition, I’ll add that I think individual events in forensics are probably worse for this sort of abuse than even debate, though I have never been to a CEDA-only tournament. Often in rounds, I find myself listening to a piece of literature that is abusive to the members of the audience, but because it is “only literature”, it is excused. I am not suggesting censorship is an answer, but sexual harassment is based on effect, not on intent. If I, as the critic, believe that the performer is using crass or abusive language not as a rhetorical choice meant to give depth and understanding to a character, but as a form of shock value to show how avant-garde they are, I will often penalize them on the ballot.

    How about a project where we somehow sample some debate rounds and/or I.E. performances, and use discourse analysis or something similar to identify examples of sexually harassing speech? Or perhaps for a tournament or two have a very brief survey for judges concerning the content of the rounds? Just brainstorming… This might provide some triangulation for the research you cite which surveys competitors.

    Comment by Mike Marse — June 30, 2007 @ 12:35 am | Reply

  2. Definitely great ideas. I know that CEDA has been at a lack for debate-related research in recent years (I’m not sure about AFA or NPDA), so one of the things we had hoped to do through the mentoring program was provide ideas for graduate students and faculty members for using their time in speech and debate to contribute to their research and publishing experiences. I think the discourse analysis sounds really interesting. I know that a graduate assistant (who is currently teaching at Long Beach) at Chico when I was there used discourse analysis to analyze cross-examination samples for interpersonal aggression. Perhaps I could get a copy of her research to help provide an example…

    As far as the survey for judges – this should be relatively easy to do. We may even be able to use the questionnaire from Stepp’s survey as a starting point and make a few adjustments. And I do think it would be interesting to survey both competitors and judges and do a comparison of their perspectives.

    Very interesting ideas…let’s keep them coming!

    Comment by bk2nocal — June 30, 2007 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

  3. […] also be an explanation to the occurrences of sexual harassments in debates or forensics. Click here to read […]

    Pingback by Debate And Masculinity « The Naked Truth — June 30, 2007 @ 7:53 pm | Reply

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