Teaching Sexual Violence
posted by Jaya Ramji-Nogales
I’m into week two of Evidence, which is one of my favorite classes to teach — full of vivid examples and fun hypotheticals, which make it relatively easy to keep students engaged. Each year, however, I hit the tricky problem of how to deal with the sections of the course that cover crimes of sexual violence while maintaining the pedagogical goals of maximizing participation in class discussion and encouraging thorough and comprehensive study habits. There are two main parts to this question — how to approach cold-call questioning in this area of the course and how to test these issues. I’m sure others who teach evidence, criminal law, international criminal law, and similar courses have faced these problems, and I’m eager to hear how you’ve addressed them.
My approach to the first is to explicitly note my sensitivity to the difficulty of teaching and discussing these issues and to ensure that the entire class is aware of the need to proceed sensitively on related topics. So, on the first day of class, I note that one in six women and one in thirty-three men have been victims of sexual assault, and that it’s therefore likely that someone in the class is a survivor of sexual violence and nearly certain that someone in the class is a close friend or relative of a survivor of sexual violence. I leave it at that, and hope that students who find it impossible to speak in class on these issues will seek me out in office hours. That has happened before, but would it happen more frequently if I explicitly stated that students may be excused from class discussion of evidentiary issues relating to crimes of sexual violence? If larger numbers of students seek to opt out of this discussion, should I institute limits on who can opt out (is it even possible to do so — e.g. only those who have suffered sexual violence can opt out) or simply allow a self-selection process? Or should I just let go of the broad class participation goal in these sections of the class, knowing that there will be enough students who feel comfortable speaking on these issues to enable me to get through the material?
My approach to the second is, so far, to test law relating to sexual violence through exam questions that don’t actually discuss sexual violence. So, in my evidence exam last year, I tested the Rape Shield Law through a hypothetical defamation suit relating to alleged promiscuity — of course, those of you who teach evidence know that the rule doesn’t apply in such cases, but the question determines whether students have paid attention to that important distinction. Not entirely satisfying and not a solution that’s likely to work forever — as a colleague reminds me, with old exams on file, at some point students are going to determine that I never test in that area and will simply stop studying evidence rules that relate to crimes of sexual violence. On the other hand, every time I think about testing these issues any other way, I am reminded of stories I’ve heard from more than one student of seeing a question that focused on rape in a criminal law exam and simply freezing up, unable to respond — one even had flashbacks to her experience of sexual violence. There are no easy solutions here, but I’d love to hear how others manage to balance sensitivity with pedagogical goals.