As rape law is phased out of law school curricula across the country, professors and students at Harvard and Yale’s law schools are advocating to keep the uncomfortable but important topic in classrooms.
At a Harvard discussion forum on Feb. 4, two Harvard Law School professors stressed the importance of including rape law in law school curricula. In a December article in The New Yorker, Jeannie Suk, one of the professors, said rape law was not taught at law schools until the mid-1980s because victims were thought of as “emotionally involved witnesses,” which made it very difficult for a jury to reach accurate decisions. Today, many law schools acknowledge the importance of rape law, she told the News, but they shy away from teaching it because they fear making students feel uncomfortable, which, she argued, should not be the case.
At the Yale Law School, rape law is included in the curricula of many criminal law and evidence classes. Echoing Suk, law school professor James Whitman, who teaches rape law in his criminal law class, said he has also noticed that there is a new discomfort around incorporating rape law into curricula, which he attributed to changing sexual mores and concern about campus rape. He said that though campus rape is explored in Yale Law School classes, there is no overarching policy about teaching rape law, since individual class curricula are designed by professors independently.
Suk told the News that while doing research for her article, she talked to many criminal law teachers across the country who were discontinuing their rape law classes, in addition to new law professors who decided not to teach rape law at all.
“We have a lot of debate in our country right now about how to address and prevent rape and sexual assault, and for rape law not to be taught at a time when these kinds of public debates are going at full force to me seems inappropriate,” Suk said.
Claire Simonich LAW ’16 said her criminal law class last semester taught two types of substantive crimes, one of which was rape. Still, she said, the law school can improve the way it teaches gender-based violence. She said the school has three or four professors specializing in criminal law, but none of them are deeply steeped in feminist legal theory or gender-based violence.
To remedy this, she said she and other students have formed a student reading group about gender-based violence, which currently has over 30 students enrolled. In particular, she said the group is working to bring a faculty member to the law school to teach a class solely on gender-based violence and to encourage the school to hire a general criminal law professor with expertise in gender-based violence. Simonich said she is hopeful that these efforts will come to fruition.
“Yale Law School could use more classes in gender-based violence and that deal with rape, and there is a big group of students pushing this,” she said. “Some members of the administration have been responsive to us, and it sounds like they’re trying to bring in someone to teach gender-based violence next year.”
Christina Krushen LAW ’16 said that although she has not explored rape law in any of her courses, she has been following the school-wide discussion on sexual assault that has taken place following law school professor Jed Rubenfeld’s controversial New York Times op-ed this fall. She said that from her experience with this discussion, she has found dialogue at the law school about rape to be comfortable, despite the tension that is inherent in the issue for some students.
Karlanna Lewis LAW ’15, who learned about rape law in an evidence class, said channeling student initiative to bring on a faculty member with this expertise may actually be better for the law school than an administration-led effort. She said this is because students have a younger and more current perspective on the importance of rape law.
However, Lewis also said she noticed her peers can tread too lightly when it comes to talking about rape law.
“People are sometimes more delicate than they need to be because they’re trying to avoid making anyone offended,” she said. “I think people are just hesitant because you don’t want to talk about it too much so that people feel this isn’t a safe space to learn.”