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How are we discussing sexual assault in law classrooms?
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How are we discussing sexual assault in law classrooms?

Scales of Justice

Across the societal spectrum, conversations about sexual violence can be improved. One vital space that needs to reflect on this is the classroom in law school.

That is the proposition of young lawyer Anna Belgiorno-Nettis, who – at the end of her tenure as president of the Melbourne University Law Students’ Society – published an essay reflecting on the importance of engaging students more holistically in such discussions.

The essay, titled ‘Student perspectives on talking about sexual assault in Australian law classes’, contemplated the effectiveness of box-ticking content warnings, and whether legal curricula can better inspire meaningful, cathartic dialogue instead.

“I wanted to reflect on how law school curricula could encourage classroom conversations that [reflect on] sexual assault-related material beyond a blackletter law approach, while recognising this may be difficult, and not always possible, for students with more personal experiences of sexual assault,” she told Lawyers Weekly.

“To address that reality, law schools should encourage students to find the support they need, often beyond the classroom, so that they can engage in these conversations.”

Students should be given time to prepare for what certain law classes will cover, Ms Belgiorno-Nettis submitted, and to recognise that sexual assault topics are not a hypothetical concept, but rather, actual issues that may affect them.

Should this happen, she surmised, the learning space will no longer be left “unconsciously unquestioned”.

“During my law degree, sexual-assault related legal material [was] discussed in seven of my 13 compulsory subjects,” she wrote.

“The pervasiveness of sexual assault within the broader law curriculum highlights the relevance of understanding how best to deal with such content.”

University of Melbourne Professorial Fellow Dianne Otto, who teaches ‘Sexual Identities and the Law’ at Melbourne Law School, said Anna’s educational experience provides important food for thought.

“It clearly calls for a much broader discussion, extending well beyond Criminal Law, to include those who teach Torts, Evidence, Administrative Law, Constitutional Law, Legal Theory and Legal Research,” she said.

It is also crucial that classroom participants appreciate why such material is being covered, Ms Belgiorno-Nettis argued, and having transparent acknowledgements by lecturers around how discussion of the material can trigger emotional responses can bring the law into new light.

“Much of the literature that does exist on how to talk about sexual assault in law classrooms could represent student perspectives more directly,” she said.

“When reflecting on these topics, one particular challenge is balancing the focus on acknowledging the perspective of students that have experienced sexual assault, with the focus on changing student perspectives that undermine sexual assault’s gravity.”

The University of Western Australia’s Dean of Law, Professor Natalie Skead, said while there must be a place for blackletter law, such as in the prescribed areas of knowledge for Criminal Law, there are also different ways of delivering such content.

“[Lecturers should] approach the teaching of blackletter law in a variety of ways, such as in-class activities and critical dialogue, so that it doesn’t necessarily entail didactic transfers of information,” she suggested.

“What is critical is the need for structures to deal with the nature of the content, so students can be forewarned that [sensitive] material is coming up and be given opportunities to take self-care steps.”

Professor Otto agreed, saying a critical examination of the everyday effects of the law should always be part of teaching law.

“The facts in sexual violence cases – including many provocation cases – can be so graphic that they haunt you for a long time,” she explained.

“Nothing can be assumed.”

Professor Skead said having a greater awareness of the host of sensitivities that different students might have, and fostering a subsequently more hospitable dialogue, forms part of helping students understand the law in a broader context.

“We need to take care when making comments or jokes about cases we are teaching, or media reports that may be relevant to our teaching,” she said.

“Being more sensitive in everything that we teach, and understanding that students all bring a different perspective to the content, as well as different experiences and beliefs, is important.”

“The elephant of sexual assault is in the class, whether or not lecturers or students acknowledge it,” Ms Belgiorno-Nettis concluded.

“For lecturers, engaging with student perspectives holds an opportunity to enhance students’ learning in a way that is congruent with inclusivity.”

Professor Otto added: “I would hope that changes in students’ stereotyped attitudes to both gender and sexuality, as well as the stigmatising and unjust mythologies that have long held sway in the area of the sexual violence, [can] result in more inclusive, reflective and participatory learning.”

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