Law Professors

Sensitivity is the real issue in teaching of rape law, law prof says

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A recent essay about law professors’ reluctance to teach rape law focuses on the wrong problem, according to a blog post by University of Massachusetts law professor Margaret Drew.

The question is not whether rape law should be taught but how it should be taught, Drew writes in a post for the Human Rights at Home Blog. “The issue is whether the instructors are creating an appropriate atmosphere for discussion of what for many men and women is a real and devastating event,” she writes. “The solution is not to forego teaching the law of rape. For many reasons, the information is important for all law students, and especially so for any considering careers in criminal defense or prosecution. The solution is responsible teaching.”

The debate began when Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk wrote in a New Yorker article that some law professors are dropping the study of rape law from their criminal law classes—and others are considering it—because of complaints by sensitive students.

Suk said she has heard from at least a dozen criminal law professors at multiple schools who said they are avoiding the subject because it’s not worth the risk of potential complaints.

Drew writes that she has also heard student complaints. “Those complaints center on both the insensitivity of the instructors as well as the retriggering of traumatic events,” Drew writes. “One law student complained that a film shown in his criminal law class depicted a graphic rape while adding nothing to academic debate. That film was shown without warning. Others complain of ‘discussions’ that amount to nothing more than victim blaming and that those comments are neither challenged nor defused by the instructor. Others complain of the failure of the professor to respond to misinformation, such as the myth that sexual assault complainants have a high rate of false reporting.”

In other instances where a class would be tackling potentially traumatic subjects, Drew writes, professors would be likely to propose alternative solutions for students. “For example, would a film or history professor who intends to show Hurt Locker in class not consider the potential impact on the one third of his class that are recent returning war veterans? If no warning was given to the class of what was about to happen, would the resulting re-triggering of traumatic symptoms be unexpected? In Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Judith Herman documented the commonality of responses between intimate-partner-abuse survivors and returning war veterans. For whatever reason, when gender is added to the discussion, the sensitivity factor diminishes.”

Drew, a past chair of the ABA Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, suggests that law professors should:

• Allow students to skip classes that address rape law, without adverse consequences.

• Curb jokes on the topic, and address stereotypes and myths that arise in classroom discussion.

• Be sensitive about the framing of questions. Having students argue positions with which they don’t agree may be inappropriate during the study of sexual assault law.

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