I have been teaching classes on sexual violence for ten years. In that time, I have grown as a researcher and scholar, but more importantly, as an authentic human being. When I walked into the classroom this summer to teach Sex, Crimes and Culture I had no idea how much my own personal growth would impact my teaching. I also had no idea how much the students in this class would impact me.
Part of the beauty of this course is the dual perspective the students receive. On the first day of class I explain to students that they have the unique opportunity to hear the personal perspective of a survivor and the professional perspective of a sex crimes expert. While many academics tend to shy away from the personal, I truly believe that the personal is the professional. Likewise, the professional is the personal.
I also recognize that my perspectives on sexual violence differ substantially from most people. For example, the research is clear that current sex crimes policies do anything to prevent sexual violence. Yet, most people believe these policies are necessary. They make people feel safer, even if they don’t make us any safer. Learning this can be very confronting for students. That is why I seek to create safe spaces in the classroom for students to unpack their beliefs about sexual abuse and the people who perpetrate it.
The course only lasted for five weeks, but in that time some amazing realizations and transformations occurred. It was an experience that truly shaped all of us in the room. We cried together. We laughed together. Some students got angry with me, but for the most part we all acknowledged how much we all took something important from our time together.
Many of the women in the class expressed their dismay that the course only lasted five weeks. All of the men expressed their exhaustion and readiness to be done with the course content.
During the last week of class, I invited a guest speaker who is open about the fact that he committed a rape when he was 18 years old. He spoke to the students via Skype for over an hour, sharing his story and answering questions they had. Again, we all shared mutual tears and laughter. When it came to the end of our Skype session, the students gave him a huge round of applause. After we hung up, one of the students raised her hand and said, “Had you told me five weeks ago that I’d be genuinely clapping for a man who had committed rape, I would never have believed you.”
That is the beauty of creating spaces for students to grapple with difficult topics that impact all of us.
I have the privilege of teaching courses across the criminal justice curriculum. In fact, many of the students who enrolled in my summer course had already taken Research Methods with me. Teaching other topics can be eye opening and enlightening. We can still create safe spaces in those types of courses, but teaching about sex crimes and culture offers a unique opportunity to reach students at an emotional level.
I’ve been teaching courses like this for ten years, but these students made this summer class the most rewarding course of my entire career. I will never forget the impact they had on me or how much I learned from them.