Students demand law profs. eliminate traumatic, 'triggering' rape law lessons

Suk says that removing rape law from classes will only hurt victims of sexual violence.

Law school students want to eliminate rape law from the curriculum because it is too traumatic, according to Harvard Law prof. Jeannie Suk.

Law school students are demanding professors eliminate rape law from the curriculum because it’s too traumatic, according to one Harvard Law professor.

Professor Jeannie Suk penned an op-ed in The New Yorker decrying students’ hesitancy to approach the subject,, defending the nature of the topic and why it is so important to educate America’s next generation of lawyers on how to address sexual violence in the courtroom.

“[M]y experience at Harvard over the past couple of years tells me that the environment for teaching rape law and other subjects involving gender and violence is changing,” Suk wrote. “Students seem more anxious about classroom discussion, and about approaching the law of sexual violence in particular, than they have ever been in my eight years as a law professor.

“Student organizations representing women’s interests now routinely advise students that they should not feel pressured to attend or participate in class sessions that focus on the law of sexual violence, and which might therefore be traumatic.”

Suk says that these same interest groups encourage professors to warn students that the rape law unit “might ‘trigger’ traumatic memories.” Students have also requested that any questions relating to rape law on exams be removed so as to not negatively affect their performance. One professor Suk knows was allegedly asked by a student to “not use the word ‘violate’ in class class—as in ‘Does this conduct violate the law?’—because the word was triggering.”

“Some students have even suggested that rape law should not be taught because of its potential to cause distress,” she wrote.

The professor says rape law curriculum outlines the definition of consent and how it should be properly communicated, uncovers what information is relevant and important in cases of sexual violence, and how social inequality might contribute to whether or not something is classified as a crime. She also requires students to debate in favor of positions with which they may disagree, which she says is a common occurrence at law schools.

However, some professors are giving it up when it comes to rape law.

“About a dozen new teachers of criminal law at multiple institutions have told me that they are not including rape law in their courses, arguing that it’s not worth the risk of complaints of discomfort by students,” wrote Suk. “Even seasoned teachers of criminal law, at law schools across the country, have confided that they are seriously considering dropping rape law and other topics related to sex and gender violence. Both men and women teachers seem frightened of discussion, because they are afraid of injuring others or being injured themselves.”

Suk credits feminist reformers for professors’ unwillingness to tackle rape, as they claim the cross-examination during a rape trial often feels like a “second rape” to victims.

“On college campuses, the notion that a complainant should not have to see the accused, because it would inflict further trauma, is now commonplace,” Suk wrote.

That thinking has now permeated the classroom, a phenomena that Suk encountered over a year ago when she showed a documentary about a criminal-sex-abuse investigation to her students. They complained that she should have given them trigger warnings or not shown the film.

“For at least some students, the classroom has become a potentially traumatic environment, and they have begun to anticipate the emotional injuries they could suffer or inflict in classroom conversation,” the professor said. “They are also more inclined to insist that teachers protect them from causing or experiencing discomfort—and teachers, in turn, are more willing to oblige, because it would be considered injurious for them not to acknowledge a student’s trauma or potential trauma.”

Suk, among other educators, has objected to the new university policies that favor the victim and in turn, provide an unfair due process for the accused, claiming the “unfairness” stops cases of sexual violence from being taken seriously. Suk also adds that pulling rape law from the classroom would hurt victims of sexual violence more than anything else.

“[M]any students and teachers appear to be absorbing a cultural signal that real and challenging discussion of sexual misconduct is too risky to undertake—and that the risk is of a traumatic injury analogous to sexual assault itself. This is, to say the least, a perverse and unintended side effect of the intense public attention given to sexual violence in recent years,” wrote Suk. “If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss—above all to victims of sexual assault.”

Suk did not respond to Campus Reform’s request for comment in time for publishing.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @MaggieLitCRO