Why Law Students Won’t Report Sexual Assault

I recently got into a heated argument with a friend about sexual assault in law schools (future lawyers arguing, shocking I know). We argued about the usual things – what exactly constitutes sexual assault, who has the onus to prevent the kind of situations where sexual assault presents itself, and what should be done about it.

Throughout our discussion, I informed him that the legal definition of sexual assault is quite simple: unwanted touching of a sexual nature. He responded with a comment, remarking that if that was the case, he had been sexually assaulted 5 times at our last themed bar night, as people had touched his backside on multiple occasions. I replied yes, that’s true – if you didn’t consent, it would legally constitute sexual assault. I surmised that that’s why sexual assault reporting statistics are so low; a lot of people are sexually assaulted, but few report.

 I then pointed to the fact that 4 students in my law school are known to have been sexually assaulted during my time at this school. It is regrettably common.

I voiced that it was my opinion that people usually tend to report sexual assault when the acts under question are closer to rape, because that is the clearest line understood by all to constitute sexual assault. I then pointed to the fact that 4 students in my law school are known to have been sexually assaulted during my time at this school. It is regrettably common. My friend responded that this was an outlandish claim; if sexual assault actually happened in law school, charges would be laid and we would all know about it.

I disagreed. I think it is quite likely, if not more likely, for sexual assault to go unreported in law schools than anywhere else. I think this because law students are part of a close-knit community, who are all generally good people, and who know how hard it was to get to law school. The stakes are high and the road is long. They also know how easy it is to ruin someone’s life with a sexual assault allegation. They also know how difficult it is to actually prove sexual assault in court and register a conviction. They know that a trial is essentially an examination of the complainant and scrutiny of the actions she could have taken but chose not to. It’s a trial within a trial of why she didn’t simply say no if she did not consent.

My friend strongly disagreed. If anyone was to understand the law of consent; the idea that only yes means yes (silence does not mean yes, and no certainly means no), it is law students. They know what the lines of the law are and that if a line is crossed, the ‘right thing’ to do is to report it and hold the offending party responsible for their actions. He felt that our law school would literally be the safest place in the world to bring forward a claim, as the entire place is filled with people who support victims’ rights; rights that are well understood and vocalized. If anyone knew how to say no, it was a law student.

It means that it would likely be two people back at an apartment after a night out, who are intoxicated, following a universally “understood” (but never explicitly discussed) sexual script, where no party expressly says yes. And therefore it’s a legal no.

I pointed out that, chances are, sexual assault between two law students would be an assault between friends. It means that it would likely be two people back at an apartment after a night out, who are intoxicated, following a universally “understood” (but never explicitly discussed) sexual script, where no party expressly says yes. And therefore it’s a legal no. Law students aren’t immune from the sexual script and its associated pressures; it’s just as hard for them to say no, clearly and forcefully. What is different is how many times they think ‘I know better’ the next morning as they process their feelings of violation.

-Lesley Campbell

 

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