Law professor reprimanded for setting exam problem question about bikini waxing

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By Polly Botsford on

Attack on academic freedom?

Civil liberties campaigners haven spoken out over a US law professor reprimanded for setting an exam question based on someone having a bikini wax. The scenario used words including “genitals”, “buttocks” and “pubic hair”, as well as a detailed description of the differences between a modified and full Brazilian.

A spokesperson for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a US civil liberties organisation which wrote a letter of support for the professor, told Legal Cheek:

A lot of law deals with bodies and body parts — exam questions have to reflect that fact. Professors are trying to expose students to the real world and real life situations.

Despite this support, law professor Reginald Robinson, who is at Howard University in Washington DC, has been lambasted by the university for the exam question he wrote in 2015 (embedded in full below).

Robinson used the test question in a teaching session on agency law. Two students then submitted complaints including: against the use of the word “genitals”, that the question was asked simply to prompt the students to reveal personal details about themselves, and that the scenario was not necessary in teaching agency law.

The university recently determined that the question constituted sexual harassment under its internal policies. The professor has received a letter of reprimand on his file, and has been told he must attend “sensitivity training”. Any future exam questions he writes will have to be submitted for review first.

The case is being seen as yet another example in a trend of accusations of sexual harassment against academics (and fellow students) which, argues FIRE, can be traced back to guidance from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which enforces the US’s laws on sexual discrimination and harassment in academic institutions.

A spokesperson for FIRE explains:

In 2013, the OCR in a letter directed that a very broad definition of sexual harassment should be taken when investigating complaints and that colleges should take steps to prevent and address sexual misconduct. This has inspired schools across the US to take action against professors and students and in doing so are infringing their first amendment [free speech] rights.

But the OCR’s actions have also been seen as one of the triumphs of the Obama administration in attempting to combat college sexual assaults.

The administration also launched an awareness-raising campaign “It’s On Us” as part of that policy, to try and reduce cases of sexual misconduct. The campaign highlighted the role that bystanders can play in preventing sexual assault, and encouraged individuals to intervene before sexual assault actually happens.

Read the bikini waxing question in full below:

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