Resolved: That We Should Talk about HSLDA Debate, NCFCA, STOA, and CFC/ICC, Part One
By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator
I was introduced to the world of speech and debate by Communicators for Christ in 2003. From that moment, I was obsessed with speech and debate. For four years, I competed in tournaments across the country, even interning and touring with CFC.
For me, as a child raised in a fundamentalist homeschooling cult, the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), speech and debate was a welcome diversion. It emphasized critical thinking, research, and discussion about issues. All of these concepts were relatively foreign to me, despite my inclination to argue at an early age. Debate gave me the tools to deconstruct my fundamentalist worldview. Most of my highschool “network” consists of students I met through NCFCA or CFC. Some of my closest friends are the other CFC interns I toured with.
So everyone is clear, CFC was a non-profit ministry that held conferences around the U.S. teaching public speaking and debate. When it began, it acted as a sort of feeder for NCFCA, but has since evolved its own purpose (and changed its name to the Institute of Cultural Communicators). NCFCA is strictly a competitive forensics league, only open to homeschooled students, that sanctions local qualifying tournaments for an annual national tournament. While NCFCA and CFC are not the same organization, in the 2000s there was much crossover in people and ideas.
While my experience was liberating and empowering, I was surprised to hear many of my female peers from NCFCA/CFC complaining about the sexism they experienced first-hand in these environments. The patriarchal attitudes also lead to discrimination against any males that did not conform to the dominant ideal of “Godly masculinity.” The male youths were given leaderships roles in worship (before the tournaments), while women sang or played an instrument (usually piano). I can only imagine the torment of being homosexual in such an environment. I know many of my former NCFCA friends now openly identify as homosexual and they have dealt with other NCFCA friends saying they should be stoned to death.
As a high school student, I remember noticing that everyone seemed preoccupied with the way women dressed and looked, but as an ATI student this was nothing new. ATI discouraged women from wearing pants and a strict dress code was enforced at all the events. I remember some of my female friends complaining about the strict enforcement of dress codes at events like formals and awards ceremonies, but it seemed normal to me at the time.
As I became more aware of my own patriarchal inclinations in college and became more of a feminist, I remember thinking “wow, if all these ideas about gender messed me up, I bet they really did a number on my female friends.” One moment that stood out from the rest was a regional banquet I attended after touring with CFC (during a gap year before college). The regional coordinator, Jan Smith, was literally standing at the entrance to the event passing judgment on each woman’s modesty. Always the provocateur, I decided to enter the banquet with my arms locked with another guy’s. As the banquet had a nautical theme, Mrs. Smith informed me that there were “no gays allowed aboard this ship!” and we were told to stop.
My conversations in the last few months have identified some troubling themes from our collective experience in the NCFCA. (Caveat: I am six years removed from the league, but I’m sure some of these attitudes are still prevalent in some regions.) It seems that, as a whole, men were given a sense of entitlement and women were held to an impossible standard of “Godly modesty” and submission. The arbiter of all competitive rounds in the NCFCA is the judge (or judges), who are trained and informed by the NCFCA prior to their judging. A mix of community volunteers, competitors’ parents, and alumni judge the events. Often, sexist ideas about gender influenced a judge’s decision and they commented on ballots about girls’ appearance of modesty. These sort of critiques of personal hygiene and “modesty” were encouraged usually before every tournament, if not every competition day, by tournament representatives.
All of these misogynistic themes are underscored by the fact that, in reality, women ran the league, coordinated the tournaments, and did much of the coaching of speeches and debate clubs. In my experience in the Deep South, women would speak and lead public assemblies, but a man would always pray. There was a certain sense of women in leadership having to defer ultimate responsibility and authority to a man, even if she was more qualified and informed.
Ultimately, the standards of modesty promoted a rape culture (which is not to say that they promoted rape), where women would be “at fault” for dressing immodestly if they turned a man on. The purity culture’s inversion of guilt can be detrimental to some young women. Fundamentally, a binary is constructed where the “good girls” wear modest clothes, don’t lead boys on, and get happily married at a young age, whereas girls who dress in pant suits or develop friendships with male competitors are “slutty” and will not be “desirable for marriage.” In a culture that extols “godly motherhood” as the life purpose of females, not being desirable for marriage is an affront to a person’s intrinsic worth. Recently, Elizabeth Smart discussed how the purity culture influenced her negatively to feel worthless like “an old piece of gum” during her captivity.
Now that I’ve established that this problem is somewhat systemic and promoted in a top-down manner, I’ll provide some examples of this sexism in action (these examples are from eleven different women). In debate rounds, young women were often chastised (or given a loss) if they took an “aggressive tone” with male debaters. If young women wore pant suits, they would be criticized for looking slutty, or even lose the round because they wore pants. Female debaters were expected to prove their points in a submissive, womanly way, while males were given more leniency with tone. In many cases, a young woman’s confidence in “looking good” would be smashed by a snide criticism of her modesty. One young woman who struggled with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia would have comments about her “immodest appearance.” Young women with natural curves faced the most potential for trouble and they were ordered to hide their body’s shape.
Sexual contact at tournaments (usually kissing) was strictly forbidden — and those restrictions were enforced. On one occasion, a young woman kissed a boy at a tournament and her parents told their host family. As a result, the host mother approached the young woman and told her that she did not “feel safe” allowing her son to be around her slutty behavior. Some young women were barred by their fathers from even participating in competitive debate, instead being forced to participate only in speech. To be sure, any insecurities a young woman faced about her appearance would be challenged and highlighted at a speech and debate tournament. Despite often spending hours picking out “appropriate” attire, they still faced criticism.
I sent the above to a close friend from NCFCA to have it proofread. She responded with some reflections about her own time in NCFCA — my essay stirred some memories. I asked for her permission to post her thoughts alongside my essay because I wanted a female voice on this topic and her response was very sincere, visceral, and empathetic. Read Bethany’s post here.
Contribute your story or thoughts to homeschool speech and debate week!
Is this a healthy or unhealthy environment for young people to grow up in? What are your stories and experiences with the homeschool speech and debate world? Were they positive, negative, or a mixture? These organizations were a vital part of many of our experiences with homeschooling in high school and no subject or institution is off limits here.
As always, you can contribute anonymously or publicly.
If you are interested in participating in this series, please email us at email@example.com. The tentative deadline for submissions will be Saturday, June 29.
I did get comments critiquing my hair, body, dress, and said I should act more womanly as a debater instead of being a spitfire in cross-ex. My main problem with speech was I had to parrot my parents in my speeches. But overall, speech and debate was a positive experience that provided me friends, a chance to think for myself, skills that serve me incredibly well, and most importantly, an opportunity to escape the abuse.
great post. My friends and I did stand up to ATI at the pre-excell event in Knoxville and ask if we could wear pants and rock climb. We were naive and were told if we ever mentioned it again, they would tell our fathers, and that we should be grateful to be a girl an get to sew. Telling our dads was a threat. It’s an insane way to live.
I got stuck with a male debate partner once who criticized my (very modest) clothing and wouldn’t listen to anything I said. He tossed out any evidence I have him and said I was overbearing so he refused to be dominated by me. I was shy and barely gave him any information much less commands so I dunno where that came from. What’s worse is he flirted with me too. Ugh.
Oh my goodness, Lana, you’ve gotta PM me and tell me who! CRAZY.
My own (slightly more recent experience) in NCFCA was similar in some ways and very different in others.
Almost all female competitors wore pants, a lot of them were VERY aggressive in CX, and I can only think of one or two boy/girl teams where the male half seemed to dominate.
On the other side of the coin, yes there were plenty of “modesty talks” (mostly in club,) and yes they were very female-oriented. The point about men being chosen to pray struck me. That was definitely true. To be fair, I don’t know if that was because they specifically preferred men or just because they usually got people with pastoral experience to pray and denominationally most of them wound up being men by default. I do remember one or two instances of women praying.
To be fair, I found that as a male I was much more often criticized for having an aggressive tone than my female debate partner (in response to one of the points made above). Granted, I understand that much of NCFCA culture is influenced by fundamentalist Christianity, which can contain some misogynistic language, but the criticism for dress/behavior went both ways, in my experience.
Absolutely. I tried to explain the double-edged nature of patriarchy. Both young men and women are held to expectations of “godliness” or what-have-you.
“The patriarchal attitudes also lead to discrimination against any males that did not conform to the dominant ideal of “Godly masculinity.” The male youths were given leaderships roles in worship (before the tournaments), while women sang or played an instrument (usually piano). I can only imagine the torment of being homosexual in such an environment. I know many of my former NCFCA friends now openly identify as homosexual and they have dealt with other NCFCA friends saying they should be stoned to death.”
Granted, that may make it seem like I’m only talking about homosexual males, but I do agree with you. Even straight males faced persecution if they didn’t conform to the expected gender ideal.
SOME misogynistic language! Stewart (and all homeschoolers), read “The X-Rate Bible” and “The Bible Handbook,” both available at Prometheus Press and Amazon. They’ll guide you to scripture your pastors will NEVER tell you about.
I was in CFC for a while, and spent some time in NCFCA. Pants and pant suits on ladies were allowed and didn’t seem to be criticized in my time, and I remember some of the more popular girls wearing them. I can’t speak to attitudes towards female debaters, because I didn’t really do debate… I had the option, but I preferred story interps and impromptu to having to carrying around files full of research.
I’m geeking out a bit that this site is run by former debaters. It’s kind of fabulous that the patriarchal, follow-blindly culture encouraged critical thinking enough that so many of us were able to break free! Sadly, I think they will catch on, and debate will be watered down more and more over time to prevent this from happening “to” the next generation.
In fact, I remember when we switched from HSLDA to NCFCA. Quite a bit of watering down happened then. Debate theory was all but tossed out the window, and appeals to emotion became the prevalent theme. I remember running topicality against a team of sisters whose father was prominent in NCFCA. Their response? “Our dad said this is okay, and he’s a framer, so…” I remember being unable to hold back laughter that their response was “daddy said so.” But by that point, it wasn’t surprising. Judging depended on the area of the country you were in, how well the people running the show liked you or didn’t like you (since they were training the judges)…and yes, the comments on appearance! I had one speech round where one judge told me I looked nice, and another told me I was immodest and distracting. So much for being judged on my speech.
I wish I had old ballots to go back and look at how they commented on aggressiveness or whatnot. I wasn’t quite as aware of it all at the time. My mindset was just to go in and be me…which meant I wasn’t always a parent favorite.
I will definitely allow my kids to participate in speech and debate when they are older, but you can bet my husband (also a former debater) and I will be coaching in some way, and likely butting heads with other coaches as necessary. Maybe we can bring some substance into it.
Your attitude is very encouraging. 🙂
Could we convince you to coach STOA?
I switched from a male/male team policy duo to being the male half of a male/female team about halfway through my NCFCA career (2005ish). Suddenly, my ballots stopped mentioning the issues and started mentioning appearance and “Chistlike attitude”. I was oblivious to misogyny at the time, but this makes a lot of sense in hindsight.
As someone who did NCFCA slightly more recently (2009-2011)… I am amazed I got away with as much as I did. I consciously and consistently broke dress code – ’tis the curse of being a long-legged female, skirt suits were easier to find but not the most practical look-wise – and no one seemed to bat an eyelash. On the other hand, my senior year I did an interp that ended with me miming self-harm (which my coach and parents were completely okay with)… from some of the ballots I got, you’d think most of the homeschool moms who saw it had never HEARD of such a thing before (and given who some of them were, I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true). I learned a lot about myself through that experience, but to this day I wonder if it was worth it…
My husband and I thought that experience with public speaking would be a good life skill for our kids, and they were active in our local chapter of ICC for about two years. In the end, we had to quit because the level of complaining that our kids engaged in regarding “speech club” was unbearable to my husband. During those years, we attended one CFC conference; four days of pure stress for me personally, and pure hell for my dear young children. That is when I first began describing ICC as a cult. Actually, after 14 years of home schooling, I am beginning to describe most of my friends as cult leaders.
I am a Christian, but I give my kids the freedom to be non-Christians. How in the world can someone become a believer, if they are not first given the freedom to be an unbeliever?
I think this site and others like it are WONDERFUL and excellent and thrilling, and I am so proud of you all for thinking OUTSIDE THE BOX. Keep searching for the truth. It is out there.