Sex assault debate theme slammed

AIMEE GULLIVER
Last updated 12:24 27/11/2013

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An international debating competition held in Wellington has been criticised for mooting that girls should be told to drink responsibly to avoid sexual assault.

The New Zealand British Parliamentary Debating Championships hosted by Victoria University last weekend debated that "This House, as a parent, would tell their daughter to drink responsibly to avoid sexual assault".

The topic left female debaters "forced to defend their own rights to consume alcohol and have consensual sex", a spectator, who wished to remain anonymous, said. 

The tournament was held on behalf of the New Zealand Universities Debating Council, and included teams from around the country, and some from Australia.

The spectator said many of the female participants in the tournament were adamant they did not wish to engage in the debate, but were pressured into "hardening up" and arguing the motion.

"What resulted were many of the male debaters literally laughing at their female peers as they tried to defend their own rights to consume alcohol and have consensual sex, and there was also much joking about the circumstances in which sexual assault occurs," she said.

Participants were reduced to tears both during and after the debate, she said.

"One woman began crying during the debate which she participated in, and others were crying after the debate, for reasons ranging from personal experiences with rape, to the sheer shock of feeling they had to defend those rapists."

Debate topics across the weekend were set by chief adjudicator Stephen Whittington, a former member of the Victoria University Debating Society.

Considering the sensitivity of the topic, he discussed the motion with five other adjudicators before setting it, he said.

Each of them agreed it was acceptable for the purposes of a debating tournament, Whittington said.

"As part of that discussion we discussed what the purpose of debating was, and as part of that discussion we talked about the fact that debating often requires people to defend ideas or arguments that they don't personally agree with, even in circumstances where people do in fact have very strong views about those issues."

Debating the morality of abortion, or whether Israel had a right to exist as a country, were instances in which people could have strong views on a topic and be forced to take the other side of the argument, he said.

Whittington said the idea for the premise of the debate was based on an article in Slate magazine, written by Emily Yoffe.

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After the debate, Whittington was approached by a group of four people concerned the motion could be difficult to emotionally disengage from, and that it could be triggering to some people.

"I was glad that they felt comfortable approaching me to discuss the issue, and I explained the process I had gone through in appointing the motion, as I was aware of the sensitivities and importance of the issue and explained it was on the basis of that broader discussion that I was willing to set the motion."

Debates took place in seven rooms simultaneously over the weekend, and no one in the room Whittington adjudicated had cried during the debate, he said.

Adjudicators from other rooms reported back to Whittington after the debate, and he received no indication anyone's debating performance had been affected by the motion, he said.  

"I would be very surprised if someone did cry during a debate and it didn't come back to me, but it is obviously possible and I'm not accusing someone who said they did cry during the debate of lying, but I was certainly unaware of it."

The role of an adjudicator was to be objective, and not let their personal views interfere in a debate, Whittington said.

"But in terms of my personal view, I disagree quite strongly with [the topic]."

Victoria University of Wellington Debating Society President Jodie O'Neill said she had not received any complaints since the weekend.

"I didn't see anyone crying, but obviously I can only speak to my own experience"

"The topics are set by the chief adjudicator. My own personal feelings about the topic are irrelevant."

Whittington's appointment as chief adjudicator of the tournament was based on his past experience with judging, and his upcoming role in the World Debating Championships this year, O'Neill said.

* This article has been corrected to reflect that the debates were premised on an article for Slate magazine.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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