Fawn Or Fight: The Debate Community’s Disdain For #MeToo Is Worse Than You’ve Heard.
Last week, the Huffington Post ran an expose about the prevalence of sexual misconduct in competitive debate, with a specific emphasis on high school students who are fighting for protections and reforms. The world of high school debate is rife with abuse, some of it committed by high school competitors but a disturbing amount of it inflicted on minors by the adults who are supposedly in charge of them — like the case of Jon Cruz, a high school coach who was sentenced to seven years in jail after paying teenage debaters to send him sexually explicit photographs — which likely also models that behavior for young abusers to pick up themselves. The piece contains the voices and activism of stunningly brave young debaters and it was shocking to many — but as horrified as I was, I was far from surprised.
The debate community — high school, college, with their various styles of competition like parliamentary or policy or Lincoln-Douglas debate — is self-sustaining and interconnected. Many college students and college coaches volunteer at high school debate camps, judge at high school tournaments, or go onto create and manage high school teams, and it should make you ill to imagine that a disturbing number of those adults would be looking at a sixteen year old as some kind of sick sexual prize.
So, what would happen if you took one of those sixteen year olds and immersed her into the world of the collegiate debate community instead of the high school one? Removed all the safeguards of being in high school and instead sent her out to the collegiate community on her own, not only judged and coached by those adults, but surrounded with them as her teammates, competitors, and roommates?
What would happen is what happened to me. And five years after I stopped competing, the scale of it still haunts me — and after the events of this past week, I feel compelled to lay it all out to urge people to understand the scope of the problem and to recognize that in order to protect high school debaters, we must address the crisis in college debate at the same time.
I was never a high school debater. I was in college at an extremely young age, where I was introduced to intercollegiate forensics (speech & debate) and quickly became competitive. Shortly after my 16th birthday, I was given a scholarship to debate at the University of the Pacific on its competitive travel team in 2013. Though I was a kid and everyone on the team and coaching staff knew it, I arrived believing that it would be a cheeky, quirky, joyous experience akin to a sitcom — the brilliant little sister worthy of celebrating and protecting, a nontraditional and fun coming of age story. I was terribly wrong. I was competitively successful and earned an All American Award for my excellence in debate rounds and my service to the community, but it came at an unfathomable price. I found myself in the midst of the most relentlessly predatory world I’ve ever been part of.
Though there’s one particular string of barbaric incidents that I’m most associated with, before I get there, I wanted to take the time to paint the massive scope of what happened. It was a relentless, unending barrage of misconduct. I was frequently approached by 22 or 23 year olds in the community. It was a topic of intense discussion among men in the community about whether or not I was above the age of consent in whatever state a particular tournament or camp was at. I was constantly harassed by judges, coaches, and other competitors. Some man who had long since graduated from college and came around to judge big tournaments messaged me asking me if I liked to be tied up. Another, in his 30s, sent me strings of disgusting remarks about how TSA agents probably jacked off in my suitcase. Another man spread a rumor that he had gone home with me after an afterparty, which was news to me when I was confronted about it by my all-male teammates the next morning, all of whom were greatly amused — “oh, Kate, how was Brad Thomas last night?” I began talking to a man who had just graduated and was coaching at some of the prestigious camps and tournaments and, despite my reservations about it because I hadn’t done it before and I knew that it was highly illegal, he ended up convincing me to send him nude photos of me of my then-seventeen year old self on multiple occasions. After a particularly bad PTSD flare earlier this year, I realized I still have those messages in my possession — and that man is a lawyer now. At least two other men did that come to mind.
But there’s more. Another man, who was at the time the Executive Director of the Sacramento Urban Debate League (a local league for high school students), met me at a tournament and sent me aggressive messages telling me that “Egyptians and redheads make beautiful babies” even after I told him I wasn’t interested — he is no longer affiliated with SUDL, as a note. Both of my debate partners, one of who was a couple years older than me and one who was 25, had sex with me while I was underage — which is statutory rape in the state of California, where we resided at the time. One of them gave me several Vicodin first, leaving me so sick the next morning that I had to lay down on the bathroom floor of a department store in the mall. This is not beginning to count the times I was told I looked like a whore, that I was a bad example for women because I spoke against slut-shaming, or endless other misogynistic comments I got on ballots. Or the numerous times I was faced with random adult men putting their hands suspiciously low on my back — at least three times I vividly remember, once at a nationals-after party my junior year, once at a debate camp that fall, and once in the hallway of a national tournament my senior year. Countless men from countless teams, judges, coaches, competitors — it was not isolated, it was as omnipresent as it is to be surrounded by oxygen. All when I was underage and the whole community knew it.
And those aren’t the stories that I’m even known for telling. The story I’m known for telling is what happened to me directly at Pacific, which is perhaps the most disgusting out of an entire galaxy of sexual abuse that I endured as a kid in the debate community — but I want you to remember the instances I just told you about as context. The Huffington Post expose has been on my mind since it came out a week ago, and it created a perfect storm. This morning, I woke up to the disturbing news that the coach who groomed me, assaulted me, and in one instance forcibly raped me at 16, was making inroads into the community once again. I unblocked him to check our mutuals and found that we had eighty six mutual friends — some of whom are coaches, Directors of Forensics, and highly respected critics who most certainly heard about his misconduct when it became public years ago, but are now re-engaging.
The Director of Debate in 2013 was a man named Josh Ramsey. Upon arriving at Pacific, he invited me over to his apartment late at night for a kickback with some of the other teammates. We chatted about why I was in college so young, about the upcoming season, about everything. He was a recent national champion, taking both collegiate titles, and I was immediately fond of him and his stories and how impressive of a debater he was. He was 25 and one of the graduate student coaches, who had enormous influence over my scholarship. He gave me alcohol, got me drunk, and insisted on walking me home at 3am. During that walk, he put his hand on my ass, despite still being engaged at the moment. He asked if he could use my bathroom in my dorm, I said yes. He went through my closet and found a dress of mine that zipped down the front and asked me to put it on, I said no. When he said that he was tired and didn’t want to walk home, he sat next to me on my bed. I told him he could sleep in my roommate’s bed, as she hadn’t moved in yet, but he declined and said “in that case, I’ll walk home.”
Though I originally viewed that night as some weird drunken fluke that was unrelated to what happened in the weeks following, years later he drunkenly confessed to me what his plan had been that night and it connected every dot mentally, leading me to cut off contact and file a Title Nine lawsuit. He recalled that he could see my bra, that I was “so tempting,” and that he was disappointed he didn’t sleep with me that night. Weeks after the early August incident, he continued to invite me over for kickbacks, and this led to his grooming attempts turning more explicit until he had sex with me. Very aware that this was statutory rape, he insisted that I not tell anyone, and I had no desire to — I had left home for a reason. Besides, he had just gone through a breakup, I felt like I was special, and I pretended that it was just some intense cosmic connection that had started as an accident — not a result of grooming, which is why his confession years later toppled the trauma tower of jenga that I had been clinging to in my head.
The statutory incidents continued throughout early October, and each time I got more concerned that he was sloppy, aggressive, and probably wouldn’t stop if I said no. I resolved to avoid him and the kickbacks that my teammates went to if he was going to be there. On the night of October 17th, 2013, he unexpectedly joined us at my debate partner’s house after saying he wasn’t coming. My intuition had been correct. He made advances on me, took me out the front lawn after everyone else was asleep, and decided he wanted to have sex right there, not bothering to walk home. I said no. I said no, not here. He was too belligerent to care. On the ground, I tried to crawl away from him unsuccessfully. In the middle of forcibly raping me, the commotion apparently woke someone in the house up — my debate partner’s sister, who was a coach at a nearby college and close friends with the Associate Director of the program. She promised me that she wouldn’t tell, and I chose to carry it in silence. I sent a note about the incident to a sexual assault & sex education resource site on Tumblr, detailing the experience and asking if it was rape. The answer was yes.
Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t the only person he was pursuing. He had harassed competitors and coaches the year before and continued that trend with a couple of the other women on the team that year. It was widely known and accepted. He would get so drunk that he’d get the team into trouble, including an incident where he pissed in an elevator at a hotel we were staying at, nearly getting us kicked out. The rest of the coaches found his antics amusing. The “good debater syndrome” that the Huffington Post article noted was in full play here — he was successful and fun at parties, so people let him get away with whatever he wanted.
When the only female coach got wind of a “rumor,” she called the Associate Director, Jeff Toney, who asked her “what are we going to do about the Kate and Josh situation?” She remarked that if there was a situation or he had any suspicion, he needed to report it. Soon after, other women on the team heard she was talking to Title Nine and thought about joining her. The Associate Director approached me on multiple occasions in the early spring of 2014, telling me he “knew what really happened, and that’s fucked up” and coerced me into silencing their complaints, under threat that if I didn’t, the University would be told about what did happen and would call the police and my mother. I had detailed some of the more brutal emotional abuse I faced at home to Jeff, and he knew how to pressure me effectively. When I agreed, he laughed in my face, taunting me and asking me “where are your feminist values now?” After successfully squashing the complaint, he gleefully encouraged me to seduce men in the community to get them to come to Pacific’s camp, which he ran even after leaving Pacific as a professor. His influence gave me undoubtedly inappropriate views of what a healthy relationship should look like, and it numbed me to the amount of abuse happening to me. He frequently told me that everyone had known what happened and that there had been a roundtable discussion between himself, the Director of Forensics, Josh, my debate partner’s sister, and a coach that was coming on the next year to replace Jeff.
More incidents happened with Josh that year before he graduated with his Masters, like when he got drunk and sexually assaulted me on a plane in front of horrified onlookers on our way back from a national tournament. He moved away, but continued to hit me up for nude photos from time to time, and came to national tournaments. I was so ingrained in it and I continued to talk with him, and even after I was 18, I continued to sleep with him — and of course I did, because I had been surrounded by adults who were telling me that this behavior was not only acceptable, but admirable. This is how the successful people play the game, right?
The high school debate community is infected with sexual misconduct because the college community is. The same people who gleefully tripped over themselves to abuse a sixteen year old like some sick sexual conquest are the people who are coaching high school teams, founding programs, hosting their tournaments, and recruiting them to continue competing in college. Everything that happened to me is proof that when these predators think they can easily get away with abusing a child debater, they absolutely without a question will. And there are lots of them.
Many victims whose accounts I’ve read in the debate community, particularly the ones I’ve heard about from the high school community, feel ashamed or unable to speak out because of continued contact with their attackers. In some ways, the hyper-intimacy and exclusivity of the debate community is very alike to the struggles faced by victims coming forward in Hollywood. Perhaps someone abused you, but you didn’t report it for years and maybe even carried on a relationship with them. In such insulated communities, reputation is everything and connections are necessary for success — you may feel compelled to be silent and to continue to play nice, to be friendly, to not draw attention to yourself because of the risk of being cast aside or punished. A number of Weinstein survivors documented this sort of experience as they came forward about incidents in the entertainment industry.
That insulation also gives quite an impetus for trauma bonding, or a “fawn” response — a response in the same family as fight/flight/freeze. If you’ve been traumatized and your brain evaluates that you can’t get away from the threat without some drastic consequence to yourself, your mind can shift to a people-pleasing response in order to appease the threat. In such an exclusive community, getting away from your attacker or reporting them comes with enormous consequences. Slut-shaming and victim-blaming are of course at the top of the list, and in the debate world, the consequences are compounded by many complex structures in the community.
Is this person on your team? Now you have to go through a Title Nine process that might break you and also might not believe you, and it might make everyone turn against you. Is this person a coach at a different school? Now you have to play politics with both sides and people will start to draw battle lines. Is this person a judge? Do you constrain them or strike them from judging you and try to come up with a different explanation when you note that to your coaches? If you’re underage and you report something, how will your parents be told and is it a safe enough situation at home to risk that? These are all practical concerns that pile on top of your brain recognizing that something violent and invasive happened to you. Coming forward is costly in situations like that, and it’s no wonder that so many people in the debate community — and other insulated communities — exhibit fawn responses. Escape feels hopeless, especially if debate is the only place you fit in or if it’s what your scholarship hopes are based on.
Your feeling of safety suddenly becomes tied to the feeling of appeasing your abuser. It’s a well documented phenomenon that is not discussed nearly enough, and not only does it account for delays in reporting — it’s an important part of how abusive relationships function. People have historically been judgmental and enraged towards survivors who return to abusive relationships, as though it strips them of the future right to be angry about their abuse. Women leaving abusive relationships try to end it an average of seven times before it finally sticks, even after legal accusations or serious physical abuse. For young teens who are abused, the effect can be even more profound. I know this firsthand. It’s why I continued to see my rapist after I turned 18, which was just a few days before I graduated from college.
After his startling accidental revelation about the grooming, I immediately came clean to my therapist and told her everything. She immediately identified this as an abusive relationship and told me to leave. I did, and wracked with guilt over my coerced role in protecting him years ago, I contacted Title Nine and then filed a lawsuit in 2016. I intentionally don’t go by the last name Earley anymore, but here is a link to the suit.
During the lawsuit, the coaches at Pacific — one of whom was my rapist’s younger brother — told all of their students that I was “crazy” and “unstable.” Facing a huge backlash from the community, who rightfully didn’t want anything to do with the team or the school at the time, they also relentlessly pushed a narrative that “we’re the new Pacific, we weren’t in charge of this, we didn’t know about this.” Except that’s not true. The Director of Forensics is Steven Farias, who had taken Jeff’s Associate Director position and coached me my senior year before ascending to the top of the program. I was directly told by Jeff Toney that Steven Farias had been told about it at the roundtable, and he thought that I would be “trouble” as a result. Reed Ramsey and Jonathan Bruce, both of whom were my former debate partners and by then were serving as graduate student coaches, had certainly known about it and were supportive of me right up to the second that I wanted to do something to hold the team accountable.
Furthermore, if an administration wants to prove that they are new, different, and not associated with grotesque sexual violence, they could easily demonstrate that by standing with the survivor who came forward, instituting progressive new policies, and demanding a culture change. They did none of those things. Instead, they smeared me, gaslighted their entire team about me, and engaged in ruthless dishonesty. A student who had formerly been my best friend confessed over text that she had lied to Title Nine because her “degree was on the line,” which would be an exceptionally illegal way for someone to tamper with a Title Nine hearing if someone did say that to her. They furthermore allowed my rapist’s younger brother to throw fits about me in front of the students and scream that I had ruined his brother’s life. Not exactly the kind of environment that makes your new students feel safe and comfortable in coming forward with their own complaints. When you see such a blatant example of how survivors who come forward are treated by your coaches and how they are systematically blamed and smeared, why would you want to sign yourself up for that? And that, of course, was the idea. It was how they cultivated an actively hostile space for survivors, with somewhat obvious consequences that became apparent shortly.
The process broke me. By the time the lawsuit settled out of court in early 2017, it wasn’t because I wanted that — it was because I had attempted suicide three times in the past six months, had been smeared and abandoned by people I spent some of the most formative moments of my childhood with, and had faced numerous people in the community deciding to continue funding Pacific, supporting their events, and actively accusing me of lying. It was the lowest point of my life, unsurprisingly leading me back into the very same “fawn” response that had dominated my undergraduate career. Though I haven’t spoken widely about it before now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it here. I actually went back to my rapist several times in 2017, desperately seeking closure about what had happened to me. As usual, he had all the right initial words of “I’m so sorry,” clearly designed to manipulate me and continue a sexual relationship with me, morphing into comments he’d make about how sad he was that his friend’s wife wouldn’t let him see their daughter. Like many young women trapped in abusive relationships with predatory older men, I felt like I had somehow permanently ruined my ability to speak out against him. I refuse to give even an ounce of my power away to that idea now.
I left the area in early 2018 and never saw him again, undoubtedly due to a combination of the intense trauma therapy and EMDR I did upon returning to California and the disturbing pieces of the story that came out around that time. In the late spring of 2018, I was told by former coaches that Josh’s abuse had pre-dated me and that he had a habit of belligerently assaulting or harassing women, which made me cognizant of the level of his manipulation. Then, I started being contacted by students who had been in the program under that “new” administration. Many of them were apologies to me — apologies that came from the experience of finding out firsthand that I had been right after buying into the gaslighting. I do not blame any of them, just like I don’t blame myself for being coerced into defending Josh, and I’m thankful they reached out to me.
Apparently, the program’s Director of Forensics, a man named Steven Farias, had begun a sexual relationship with a student and was sharing hotel rooms with her. This, as I learned from a former competitor from a nearby school that I spoke to that year, was a widely known fact in the region. Several other students on the team noticed this and were understandably disturbed. They approached the other coaches — Reed, Bruce, and one additional grad student — with their concerns. They were told not to press the issue or bring it up, explicitly being told that it would cost Steve his job. When some of them did press the issue, they were apparently greeted with threats of the price of “spreading gossip,” including during a conversation one of them had with the Provost’s office. Steve, who also faced a rape allegation that derailed his bid to be the President of the National Parliamentary Debate Association, announced his engagement to the student shortly after she graduated. The program still operates today, and they host a very large high school tournament every year. Yes, some of the people who attacked a child rape victim, if not outright participated in her abuse, are in charge of your children when they go to the Jon Schamber Invitational.
I’m not sure what writing this will do. I’m not sure if it’s different. I know that there have been many, many reckonings about sexual violence in the debate community. Some of the disturbing texts I mentioned at the beginning of the piece were texts I shared publicly in early 2016, as part of a collective effort by survivors in the community to organize and fight for awareness and reform. Though my lawsuit certainly made a splash years ago, it wasn’t even the first big Title Nine scandal that had come to the community. The debate community has had multiple #MeToo moments. There has been lots of outrage. But what there hasn’t been is any actual change. Years after my case rocked the collegiate parliamentary debate community, some of its top administrators are still engaging with a man that has been outed to them as a child rapist. And because of what — because he won some trophies a decade ago?
Some people in the debate community choose to stay in it permanently, becoming professors of communication or professional coaches. But a vast majority of them don’t — they take the formative experiences and patterns of thought from the community and bring it to the rest of the world. An astoundingly high number of debaters end up as politicians or lawyers, like the man who had me send him nude photos as a seventeen year old. They bring what they learned with them, including any learned toxicity — of which there is obviously plenty in the community. When we allow this kind of abhorrent, sickening, rampant behavior to go unchecked in the debate world, we’re guaranteeing that people who move on to do exceptional things with their lives and wield an incredible amount of power bring its corruption with them.
The institutional betrayal of the community towards survivors at every single level of competition is staggering. We have been screaming about this for years, we’ve been given platitudes and concerned looks from administrators instead of them actually fixing the problem. There needs to be entire systematic change. The activity should come to a halt until it achieves that. The community must be trained on trauma comprehensively — from a very basic neurobiological level of how our minds work and how trauma affects the brain, to information about how dynamics of power and influence operate and impair consent, to a systematic survivor-empowered and survivor-led reform of policies. This system of removing predators individually and saying that’s good enough is ineffective and reckless. The fact that my rapist was already gone by the time I filed my lawsuit didn’t stop further abuse from happening at Pacific. The fact that countless people have come forward about pervasive harassment, misconduct, and assault at all levels and styles of the community has not prevented it from continuing.
I’m sending my love to the brave kids who spoke to the Huffington Post. I’m sending my resilience to the kids fighting against debate organizations like the National Speech & Debate Association at the high school level and the National Parliamentary Debate Association at the college level. I’m sending my strength to the kids who have to compete in the shark-infested waters teeming with sexual predators, their accomplices, and the institutions who help cover up violence. May you find the peace to always fight and never fawn, and may this be the #MeToo moment that fundamentally transforms the world of debate.