Legal Education Digest
Encounters with the Volcano: Strategies for Emotional Management in Teaching the Law of Rape
 LegEdDig 14; (2006) 14(3) Legal Education Digest 18
39 Law Teacher 2, 2005, pp 129–149
The literature about teaching rape law is replete with volcanic metaphors: ‘turmoil,’ ‘ignition,’ ‘combustion,’ ‘explosion’ and ‘eruption.’ Classes on rape law have been described as capable of igniting ‘an emotive maelstrom of responses from students’ or plumbing ‘depths of feeling and tensions well beyond the normal.’ Emotions are at the centre of these metaphors and the anxieties they express. However, little has been written about managing emotions in the criminal law classroom. Like other law classes, the teaching of rape law may proceed as if the painful things we talk about happen to other people, and not to any of us. However, teachers are acutely aware of the emotional implications of this area of the curriculum for ourselves and for the students we teach.
Rape law is the area of the criminal law curriculum in which student anxiety and emotional responses are at their most intense. In classes on rape law, it is particularly clear that the implicit premise of emotionally disengaged approaches — that everyone in class can take a dispassionate view of the subject matter — is inaccurate. The experiences are part of context of our classes, whether acknowledged or not. Students who have experienced sexual assault deserve the attention that might be necessary to allow them maximum access to the material. However, failure to attend to emotional management in class not only jeopardises the educational experience of this fraction of the class. We can most effectively address this reality by acknowledging it and explicitly engaging classes in the process of emotional management.
Research suggests that those who have already experienced sexual assault as perpetrators or as victims/survivors are also those whose attitudes are hardest to change. Each group may take quite different messages away from the same presentation, so educative strategies need to keep both groups firmly in mind. Inclusive teaching approaches are critical. To achieve this goal, pedagogical strategies that build safety and trust and acknowledge the teacher as a human resource and not merely a knowledge bank are essential. It is important to choose classroom strategies focused on the whole class. Vulnerable individuals can choose whether or not to identify themselves and can assess support without divulging information they consider private. De-emphasising individuals also makes sense because the majority of people affected by sexual assault do not report to the police or tell specialist services, doctors or counsellors.
Rather than viewing this process as a distraction from developing students’ capacity for critique and analysis, the author believes it can actively contribute to skill development. Students need to develop the capacity to recognise and respond appropriately to emotional reactions in themselves and in others in order to rigorously critique such depictions. The author tells her classes that the law of rape raises more emotional responses than anything else she teaches. Providing classes with advance knowledge of how this part of the curriculum may affect them seems to her an ethical responsibility. She initially thought that students who had experienced sexual assault might be made more vulnerable by having emotion discussed in class, but repeatedly hears what a relief it is to have the potentially painful and distressing nature of these issues acknowledged. She tries to acknowledge that it is human to feel angry about the fact that rape occurs, and the inadequacy of the law’s response to it, while emphasising that students should not take other people’s anger personally should it be expressed in class.
Providing information about your approach to teaching removes the element of surprise and allows students to do their own ‘mental preparation.’ Students need this information in order to prepare themselves to self-manage their own feelings during class. For this strategy to be effective, appropriate support for all teachers in the topic is essential. Addressing rape myths is a key component of many rape prevention programs, and one with demonstrated positive outcomes. Classes on rape law provide an opportunity to address those myths with an audience that is not self-selected for its openness to new information on this subject.
Teaching rape law offers a chance to model that people of all sexes, genders and sexualities deserve complete respect and that all sexual behaviours can be described in a relaxed way. Because people seldom confront these ideas explicitly, they have few opportunities to reject them. Rape law classes present opportunities for critical analysis. We can question the hegemonic models of masculinity, femininity and sexuality embedded in policy debates and proposals for reform.
Finding out which strategies are effective in changing adherence to myths about rape has been a central focus of rape prevention programs. However, it has received very little attention in legal pedagogy. Teaching rape law is a deeply gendered experience. Reading some of the key texts on pedagogy in this field shows quite distinct concerns voiced by male and female authors. In spite of our best efforts, we cannot guarantee that the classroom will be a safe place for people to make disclosures about sexual assault against them.
Many sexual assault services suggest that people who have experienced rape will find it useful to be listened to in a non-judgmental, supportive and validating way. Like people who work with traumatised populations or research sensitive topics, we need to take seriously the potential for impact on a range of people, both inside and outside the classroom. This includes recognition of the risks to ourselves, including the possibility for vicarious traumatisation and other emotional distress.
Classes about the law of rape which evade or deny the emotionally challenging nature of the material can place student learning at risk. Rather than teaching classes in an emotionally disengaged or clinical manner, we can create classes which are attuned to and respectful of participants’ emotional needs. Teachers can assist students to effectively manage their own emotions in order to ensure that they are able to have the benefit of learning as much as they can in the classroom.
Teaching sensitive topics, like researching those topics, generates challenges. However, it also provides the chance to address critical issues about policy and culture. Teaching rape law creates unique demands on teachers and learners alike. It is necessary to take the nature of the material seriously and take concrete steps to respond to these demands.