A professor at Harvard Law School warns that law students have grown so sensitive to psychological “triggers” that it is becoming difficult to teach about rape law in law school, and that many professors are considering abandoning the subject entirely.
In an article penned for The New Yorker, Professor Jeannie Suk begins by asking readings to “imagine a medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood.” That situation now more or less exists at Harvard, she says, where a number of students are actively avoiding instruction and discussion on the topic of rape law.
Student groups at Harvad, Suk says, now routinely advise students to simply avoid classes and subjects entirely that may traumatize them. Sometimes, it goes beyond avoidance, and students intend seek to modify the classes themselves to accommodate their neuroses.
“Individual students often ask teachers not to include the law of rape on exams for fear that the material would cause them to perform less well,” writes Suk. “One teacher I know was recently asked by a student not to use the word ‘violate’ in 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.”
Suk says professors at other law schools have reported the same problem, and that these complaints aren’t merely nettlesome, but are pushing professors to change how they teach.
“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. 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,” says Suk.
Suk warns that this development should not be allowed to continue. Events like the recent scandal over Rolling Stone’s questionable reporting of an alleged rape at the University of Virginia show that encouraging fairness and due process in rape law is more important than ever, she says.
“It is critical that law students develop the ability to engage productively and analytically in conversations about sexual assault. Instead, though, many students and teachers appear to be absorbing a cultural signal that real and challenging discussion of sexual misconduct is too risky to undertake,” says Suk.
This isn’t the first time Suk has spoken out on the topic of sexual assault in recent months. Last October, she was one of 28 professors who objected to Harvard’s new policy for adjudicating alleged sexual misconduct, saying the policy undermined the rights of the accused.
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