In response to students’ calls for more coursework on the topic of rape law, next semester Yale Law School will introduce a new seminar dedicated exclusively to the study of gender-based violence.
The seminar, titled “Law Reform and Gender-Based Violence,” will be taught by two visiting professors from the City University of New York School of Law: Dean of CUNY School of Law Michelle Anderson LAW ’94 and law professor Julie Goldscheid. The majority of its content will be devoted to rape law — a topic not introduced at law schools until the mid-1980s — but the course will also cover domestic violence and culminate in a study of campus sexual assault. Visiting professor Edward Stein LAW ’00, who teaches at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, will also teach a gender-oriented class called “Sexuality and the Law” in the spring. Stein said that although rape law could potentially be discussed in the class, he has not currently included it in his syllabus.
Faculty and students interviewed said that in light of recent media attention to campus sexual assault, students have developed an increasing interest in rape law, and that in the wake of the recent Association of American Universities survey on campus sexual climate, it is important to continue the study of rape law in law school classrooms.
“[The AAU survey] will increase students’ interest in the topic [of rape law] to be sure,” Anderson said. “And although there is still a lot of discomfort surrounding such discussions — [and] appropriately so — the intensity with which students grapple with these issues and the importance of the issues can’t be denied.”
Anderson added that she specifically included campus sexual assault on the syllabus because of the increased visibility and importance of sexual misconduct on college campuses.
The course will cover topics including force and consent in rape law and the consequences of rape convictions. During the section on campus sexual assault, the class will analyze issues surrounding Title IX — the law that prohibits gender discrimination at universities that receive federal funding— as well as current controversies on sexual misconduct and prevention strategies, Anderson said.
Goldscheid said the class will give students an opportunity to examine several interpretations of Title IX and some of the controversial state laws surrounding it. Students will also have the chance to voice their opinions about what is lacking in the law and generate conversations on the pros and cons of current approaches.
Currently, some Yale Law School classes on criminal justice do touch on rape law, but none are entirely devoted to that subject. Last spring, several law school students proposed a weekly, student-led, ungraded reading group called “Gender-Based Violence and Law” in response to the lack of courses offered on the topic. Claire Simonich LAW ’16, one of the approximately 20 students who enrolled in the reading group last spring, said she and her peers are excited for the new class. Although insightful discussions came up during their reading group discussions last semester, she said, a full-blown class — taken for a grade and taught by a faculty member — will meet more often and will allow students more guidance from the professors.
Simonich added that she has observed an increased student interest in rape law recently, pointing to a daylong conference on Title IX that the Yale Law Journal held last month after the release of the AAU survey results.
“[The AAU survey served as] one more signal to continue talking and studying [and] doing everything we can to make Yale a more comfortable place for women and free from gender-based violence,” she said.
Jeannie Suk, a Harvard law professor who teaches criminal law and procedure, said she has seen an increase in interest in rape law coursework in the last few years, adding that she is not aware of any criminal law professor at Harvard who does not include rape law in his or her course. Students seem very interested in learning the criminal laws governing rape, and particularly how they differ from the policies about campus sexual misconduct to which they are consistently exposed, Suk said
In December 2014, Suk wrote a column in the New Yorker defending rape law coursework in law schools, in response to some advocates’ and colleagues’ concerns that teaching such a sensitive issue in the classroom could upset students and affect their performance. Suk argued that the topic’s sensitivity is precisely why it must be taught, in order to teach students how to engage in difficult conversations and to remove the taboo around sexual assault. She told the News that the atmosphere in her classroom during rape law discussions is engaged and open.
“The suggestion that the release of the AAU survey and other public attention to these issues should lead to less class discussion and analysis of sexual assault rules, rather than more, is mind-boggling to me,” Suk said. “Problems don’t get addressed by not talking about them. A good way to address a very serious problem is through education, which is what we’re doing in classrooms.”
Stanford Law professor Robert Weisberg said the majority of sections in criminal law — which is a compulsory first-year, first-term course at Stanford — include rape law coursework. Still, he acknowledged the paradox that although students are increasingly calling on their professors to cover this material, many continue to be uncomfortable discussing it in class. Weisberg spends one week on rape law in his class on criminal law.
Weisberg added that he has always begun the week on this material with a “gentle admonition” about the sensitivity of the subject. Although he has never had an overt problem in class discussions, he cannot be sure that there is not some student discomfort or disagreement with his approach, he said.
The AAU survey further justified law professors’ attention to this subject matter, Weisberg said, as even the low estimates are so alarming that the subject demands academic attention. And if the higher estimates are true, he said, the argument for study is stronger still.
Despite the increasing attention to rape law nationwide and Yale Law School’s efforts in expanding the discussions to classrooms, Simonich said she still feels that Yale can do better. She said she would like to see more tenured Yale law professors who have a feminist background and perspective, adding that the school does not currently employ any criminal law professors whose scholarship is centered on feminist legal theory. If faculty were trained to teach rape law, she said, they would be more comfortable handling such sensitive discussions in class.
George Fisher, another Stanford law professor who devotes a chapter of his class to rape shield laws — which protect complainants from media and defendants during rape proceedings — agreed that it is important for professors to include rape law coursework.
“I think our understanding of difficult topics always benefits from reasoned discussion. If law students can’t discuss freighted social issues, who can?” Fisher said.