Tertiary Level Debate Leaves Much to be Desired

“This House believes all forms of forced, penetrative sex should be classified as rape.”

This was the moot at the recent J-FLAG tertiary level debate, part of their campaign to raise awareness about the proposed amendments to the Sexual Offenses Act. The teams were from the UWI Mona and WJC and UTech campuses, composed of what we were assured were seasoned and capable debaters. But most of the debate left audience members wanting more, the speakers danced around weak points or resorted to fire-and-brimstone tactics to get their points across.

The first speakers from UWI-WJC were the main culprits. They approached the mic stand like it was a pulpit and then proceeded to use a combination of exaggerated gestures and raised voices to convince us of their righteousness. It didn’t help that UWI argued for the moot, rather than against. Most of the audience was on their side, and the overall attitude of the UWI speakers was one of smug self-righteousness.

Fire and brimstone tactics

Fire and brimstone tactics

They pontificated about the need to protect all groups equally, and therefore the need to punish sexual crimes equally but they ever really explored the scope of the motion, and never talked about how they would go about implementing it. They talked about the damage to personal dignity, a concept which is difficult to classify, much less in legal terms.

Even though UWI’s first speaker was supposed to define the terms of the moot (that’s what she said she would be doing), she didn’t. No one in the debate defined ‘forced’ or ‘sex’, or (if they did) they breezed right on past it.

For their part, UTech was a bit of a disappointment. Their first two speakers dropped the ball, leaving their last two speakers to try and salvage what they could (difficult because in a debate the very last speaker can’t introduce any new points). UTech’s first point was, well, bad. Their speaker tried to challenge the ‘degree’ of penetration and then failed to develop his point properly. Then they brought up the issue of jungle-justice and the need for social change before legal reform and failed to argue that one effectively as well.

UTech's best speaker

UTech’s best, and last, speaker

There is cause to consider how hard it is to argue the opposite side of this debate, so I was on UTech’s side from the start, rooting for the underdog. But there’s so much to take apart in this narrowly focused, black-and-white moot and I’m disappointed that they didn’t run with it. Of course, debaters also have the disadvantage of having to construct structured arguments in a mere fifteen minutes, with limited time to get their points across. I can’t even construct structured arguments on a good day.

UWI won, and not just because they had the easier side to argue. Their speakers (especially the two young men from Mona) were articulate and unflappable, but still. So much more could have been done with this moot – or maybe, as one judge suggested, they needed a different moot. They got a litany of adjective and nouns to define as they saw fit – take it apart and run with it!

One half of the winning team

One half of the winning team

The issue of consent comes up – who can give consent? What exactly constitutes consent? How to protect the victims who come forward? The definition of sex becomes important – is it exclusive to the sexual organs? That definition has changed and continues to change – what constitutes a sexual object? – how can one law hope to wrangle all these variations under one absolute edict?

Following the debate was an open-floor discussion where the audience was invited to share their own opinions on the moot. It was very lively, with ideas being shared on issues like getting victims to come forward, the connotations of ‘force’ vs. the explicit definition of consent, and the use of ‘sexual objects’ (one memorable analogy involved a broomstick and the assertion that since “it’s going the same place as a penis”, it should be classified as rape).

A good portion of the audience was young adults (yay) who appeared interested in the changes being proposed, or at the very least invested in the fight for equal rights. Let’s hope this proposal brings about some of the major changes Jamaica so desperately needs.

**

The Jamaican Joint Civil Society proposed a 21-item list of recommended changes to the Sexual Offence Act 2009 (you can read the full list here, and a more extensive background document here), parts of which were promoted at the debate. I’ve blogged about the issues with our Sexual Offences Act here

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