Teaching Sexual Assault
posted by Khiara M. Bridges
This week, I began teaching the unit on sexual assault to my Criminal Law class. I – untenured, female, and in my second year of teaching – walked into my classroom and wrote “carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly and against her will” on the chalkboard, thus beginning a two week exploration of the law of rape. Am I brave? Am I foolish? Or am I simply doing what I am supposed to do as a Criminal Law professor?
A couple of senior professors from other law schools had advised me not to cover sexual assault as part of my Criminal Law class at all. It was too risky, I was told. And this is generally true. All classes have an element of risk and uncertainty: one can never be quite sure how any given class is going to turn out on any given day. The most beautifully constructed notes containing the most carefully (and charmingly!) written lecture can produce quizzical looks, yawns, and dead silence during the discussion period; meanwhile, those notes that might as well have been written on napkins during the faculty meeting that preceded the class can produce the most brilliant, Socratic unveiling of that hard-to-understand, but oh-so-fundamental concept. So, yeah: there’s uncertainty built into all classes. But, the uncertainty associated with teaching sexual assault is terrifying. Will my question about the mens rea of nonconsent yield a response that indicates that one of my students has been accused of rape? Will another response indicate that another student has been raped? Will a screaming match break out? Will someone break down in tears? Will that person be me?
I have my strategies, though: first, I avoid any attempts at humor during the unit, which is a departure from my approach to the rest of the class. Criminal Law frequently involves people doing horrible things to other people. The fact patterns of the cases are awful much of the time. So, as a professor, one could go into the classroom and lament man’s inhumanity to fellow man for an hour and a half; or, one could treat it like a dark comedy. I typically choose the latter. I prefer the Fargo approach to the There Will Be Blood approach … except during the unit on sexual assault. During those weeks, I am Daniel Day-Lewis as a turn-of-the-century oil prospector. (Interestingly, even dark comedies tend not to make light of sexual assault. People are killed all the time in dark comedies; but they are infrequently raped. If they are (think of Ving Rhames’ character in Pulp Fiction), the rape scenes are not supposed to be funny; they are supposed to be horrifying.)
My second strategy: instead of calling on students at random, I only call on volunteers. But, I am not entirely comfortable with this strategy. Undeniably: rape is terrible, and talking about it can make some people profoundly uncomfortable. But, you know what else is terrible? Murder. Voluntary manslaughter – which involves case after case of men experiencing sometimes adequate/sometimes inadequate provocation and killing their wives – is terrible, too. Yet, I do not hesitate to call on students randomly during the homicide unit. Some Constitutional Law professors tell me that, during their units on abortion (and definitely on the day that they teach Gonzales v. Carhart, if they teach it at all), they only call on volunteers. The exceptions that professors are willing to make to their usual pedagogy might be a bit problematic. Both abortion and sexual assault are gendered subjects. Is there something about topics that disproportionately and distinctly affect women that makes it appropriate to remove them from normal classroom procedure? One cannot argue that professors make these exceptions with respect to abortion and sexual assault because these topics are especially controversial. You know what else is controversial? Same-sex sodomy. Also controversial: affirmative action. But, the professors whom I have come across do not make exceptions to their practice of cold-calling when they teach Lawrence v. Texas or Grutter. (Indeed, I feel for the student who is a racial minority and who is called upon to be Socratically drilled about Grutter. A sufficiently competent performance may exonerate him or her from an implicit accusation that he or she is a beneficiary of the very program upheld in Grutter. And a bad performance? Well, that’s pretty good evidence that Justice Thomas was absolutely correct in that vigorous dissent….) So, why should we, as professors, be especially sensitive about abortion and sexual assault? Does our sensitivity construct women as especially sensitive? Or does it reflect the belief that crimes against women and gendered issues such as reproductive rights are Other?
Nevertheless, I shall adhere to my strategies, and I shall humorlessly and sensitively teach my students the law of sexual assault. And I shall sigh a huge sigh of relief when the unit is over and we can move on to lighter things – like Bernie Goetz shooting four, young, unarmed racial minorities on a New York City subway. [sigh]