Teaching the Law of Sexual Assault Key to Reform, Says Coughlin on ‘Common Law’

Debates About What Women Were Fit to Hear in Law School Continue Today, Says Professor Anne Coughlin
Anne Coughlin

Professor Anne Coughlin is the Lewis F. Powell, Jr., Professor of Law at UVA. Photo by Mary Wood

March 3, 2020

Teaching the law of sexual assault, though a difficult topic for students and professors alike, is still a critical step on the path to reforming such laws, University of Virginia School of Law professor Anne Coughlin explains on the latest “Common Law” podcast.

Faced with student feedback about needing trigger warnings and empathy, some law professors are debating whether it’s still prudent to teach the law of sexual assault and rape. Though laws on rape were not widely taught in law schools until the 1980s, Coughlin says turning the clock back on teaching about sexual assault today is a bad idea. Survivors “have a stake in what the reforms should look like,” she says.

This season of “Common Law,” hosted by Dean Risa Goluboff and Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06, is focusing on times when law changed the world.

Coughlin came to UVA Law as a visiting professor from Vanderbilt Law School in part to add materials on rape and sexual assault to a criminal law casebook authored by UVA Law professors. She ended up joining the UVA faculty full-time in 1996.

“It felt risky and lonely [at the time] to be a feminist law professor,” she says. “And so, you feel like you’re putting a target on your back — right? — by doing this work.”

It has always been difficult to teach the law of rape, Coughlin explains, but the reasons behind that difficulty have changed. Professors now realize how many students have been victimized by the crime, or know a friend or family member who has.

“We have students in [every] class who’ve experienced this crime,” she says. “What they are now telling us is that conversations about rape can for them be quite difficult because those conversations remind them of their experiences and in fact, in some sense, they re-experience the rape.”

Coughlin also covers the ongoing evolution of laws concerning rape. She and several students are working with a team of lawyers from Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., and their client, the Sexual Assault Resource Agency, to reform sexual assault laws in Virginia. The state’s statutes still require prosecutors to prove “force, threat or intimidation” for a conviction.

Every state once required evidence of physical resistance.

They would say “if she didn’t physically resist by her body, she had submitted,” Coughlin says.

Concerns about teaching sensitive topics have been circulating since women began going to law school more than a hundred years ago, Coughlin explains. (Women entered UVA Law in 1920; the school is celebrating its centennial of coeducation this year.) Fears abounded about whether women were suited to the practice of law — and whether the curriculum would have to change in response.

“The idea was that women couldn’t be lawyers because if they had to enter into the spaces where lawyers work, they would be exposed to topics that would wreck their virtuous character,” says Coughlin, an expert on feminist jurisprudence who teaches criminal law courses. “They would be forced to listen to conversations that the institutional leaders called obscene, and that in some way it would ruin their virtue as potential wives and mothers.”

But women proved “that they did have the intellectual capacity for the jobs, and they also performed really well in schools.”

“Common Law” is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, YouTube, Spotify and other popular places to listen to podcasts, including devices like Amazon Alexa. This episode was recorded at the Virginia Quarterly Review, and produced by Sydney Halleman and Robert Armengol.

For more on the show, visit commonlawpodcast.com or Twitter at @CommonLawUVA.

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