Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Unfortunately, Jeannie Suk’s recent New Yorker posting on Teaching the Law of Rape misses the point. She writes that criminal law professors are considering not teaching the law of sexual assault because of student concerns that the topic may be “triggering.” The problem is not whether the topic should be discussed in the classroom. 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.
The question is not whether the law of rape is taught, the question is how is the law of rape being taught? As Vivian Huelgo, chief legal counsel for the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence commented, the issue is responsible teaching.
Just because students are voicing concerns that rape and other sexual assault topics can be triggering and re-traumatizing does not justify professors resolving those concerns by eliminating the topics. That may be tempting as an easy solution, but it is an extreme one. Rather, professors must consider their pedagogical approach to sensitive topics and to the impact of their teaching on students.
I, too, have heard student complaints.
Those complaints center on both the insensitivity of the instructors as well as the retriggering of traumatic events. 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.
The academy is not exempt from employees who are either misogynists or, more commonly, lack empathy. Most often, professors lack knowledge on how to address serious and sensitive topics with which they might be uncomfortable. Consequently, some might avoid those topics, as many did post-Ferguson.
Sexual assault has devastating consequences for the survivors. Survivors struggle with loss of a sense of safety, fear of attacks being repeated, high rates of depression and for some, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Student concerns on how classes on rape are conducted and whether warnings should be given are valid and must be addressed.
In other contexts, professors would offer solutions. 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.
Unlike the returning veteran, the sexually assaulted student in the criminal law classroom might have her assailant sitting nearby.
Perhaps the real dilemma is the instructor’s lack of information on the frequency of sexual assault. While sexual assault rates cannot be accurately stated as the crime is under-reported,we know that 25-33% of US women report having been sexually assaulted. Nearly that many gay or disabled men report the same. Other marginalized individuals, such as transgender women, report even higher rates of assault along with women of color, particularly immigrant, African American and Native women. Men and women serving in the military, as well as the incarcerated, report frequent sexual assaults. Armed with this information, any professor can anticipate stronger than usual reactions to a discussion of rape.
The result is not perverse. These are necessary conversations.
Solutions are not difficult. Adverse consequences should not result from a student’s election to forego classes that address rape. Professors must be prepared to curb any “jokes” on the topic and quickly debunk and otherwise address any myths and stereotypes that are voiced during discussion. Sensitivity in how questions are framed is essential. While having students argue positions with which they do not personally agree is a sound pedagogical method, classes that address sexual assault may not be the appropriate setting for the method.
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.