Entertainment

'Law & Order: SVU' Is an Alternative Reality Where Assault Survivors Are Taken Seriously

In a world where Jian Ghomeshi is acquitted and the Stanford rapist gets let out of jail early, 'SVU' is a TV show where women who are assaulted are believed.
June 10, 2016, 4:35pm

What the face of TV justice. Photo via NBC

In the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit–verse the Stanford rapist is quietly weeping in his cell right now; trying to imagine what the next nine years in federal state prison have in store for him. Oh sure, things looked dire for a few minutes when the star witness slipped up during an intense grilling by a particularly evil defense attorney (sup Jeffery Tambor!). Great, another rapist about to get off... But wait, what's this? Could it be a deus ex machina in the form of an email landing in Det. Tutuola's inbox: video footage from the frat party showing Vance (or Todd? Bentley? Chad?) shoving a funnel down an already passed out woman's throat before proudly proclaiming to his frat bros "I'm gonna rape this chick so hard cos she is so drunk, and I don't care about women!!!!!!" followed by joyous cheering and many high fives. Piece of shit never stood a chance.

Welcome to the world of SVU—an extremely satisfying procedural crime show that dramatizes all of your most paranoid thoughts. You know, the ones you have when you're walking home alone at night and someone pops out from behind a car and you have a minor heart attack because for all you know he could be the Raincoat Rapist or the sex stabber. SVU follows the the crack team of sex crimes detectives who work diligently to put those monsters away.

SVU is currently in its 17th season, which translates to approximately 272.3 hours of sexual assault-based television. Last season drew in, on average, 6.895 million viewers making it the fourth most popular show on NBC. And I wouldn't be surprised if three-quarters of the SVU viewership are women because what I've come to learn, as a new fan of the show, is that women love SVU. Do a quick Google search, and you'll find Buzzfeed listicles like "24 signs you're totally obsessed with Olivia Benson" or "7 reason why women love binge watching SVU and why that's OK." It's our fucked up comfort food. It'd be like if men watched... oh right, there is no SVU equivalent for men. Unless there's a show about a superhero chasing a pair of sentient scissors that goes around cutting off innocent penises? But then again they probably wouldn't tune in.

So why the hell do we love watching SVU?

Here's one popular theory: SVU offers viewers an alternate reality where sexual assault survivors are taken seriously and justice is obtainable thanks to a crack team of well-trained detectives, each one fluent in the language of sexual assault. This is especially satisfying in their ripped-from-the-headline episodes. The Jian Ghomeshi SVU stand-in is currently locked up thanks to a particularly feisty courtroom sequence where Assistant District Attorney Rafael Barba had the bad man demonstrate his bondage technique on him.

It was completely unhinged and incredible. I'm pretty sure I yelled: "Fuck yes, motherfucker!!!!" at my TV. Pure, visceral joy, or the exact of opposite of how I felt when the real life Ghomeshi verdict came in and left me, and countless others, feeling depressed and angry.

When I spoke to Andrea Braithwaite, a professor of communication and digital media studies at University of Ontario, about this, she suggested that perhaps women are drawn to true crime shows like Law and Order because they offer lessons and survival techniques. "It gives you an idea of things to keep your eyes open for. Possible options you can take. Possible resources that you have in potentially threatening or dangerous situations," she said. SVU lets us prepare for the worst-case scenario. It's like a how-to guide for dealing with the bridge dwelling ogres of the world. Which is fine, except for the fact that most sexual assaults are rarely so clear cut. Instead, as we well know, they're complicated affairs often occurring between two people with preexisting relationships.

I interviewed Toronto-based writer Jade Blair whose recently-published story in Hazlitt discussed the serious problem with preconceived notions surrounding sexual assault: "It's really cool that the show takes the position that this thing happened and everyone in the police believes it," she told me. "But to make it believable to the viewer you have to see it happen and that's just not how it is in real life. These are things that happen in the dark alone."

The fact is that SVU doesn't bother with nuance because it can't. It's a TV show on a major American network that has a mandate to be popular. With that in mind, it's hard to imagine viewers tuning in for a six-episode arc about a date rape occurring in the privacy of a bedroom between two people who had just been out on a date, and the subsequent he-said-she-said, and maybe there was booze, and did I mention she texted him after, and it took her six months to disclose what happened to the police. That's just not "good TV." To wit, the six-episode arc about the sadomasochist rapist murderer William Lewis were some of the most watched episodes in the history of the show. Because, as Braithwaite put it so nicely: "America really likes to watch women get beaten."

So yeah, it's not hard to find problems with SVU__. Most episodes open with titillating depictions of brutal assaults that leave you wondering what the hell anyone in the writing room was thinking. In one particularly nightmarish opening sequence (Season 16, episode 11), over the course of two and a half minutes, we see a young woman in a cab on her way to a date. Cut to the same woman being stuffed into a suitcase and wheeled through the hotel and dumped onto the street. The entire scene unravels as "Let Her Go" by Jasmine Thompson plays (worst music video ever?). How's that for objectifying women! She's literally luggage. But as any SVU viewer can attest to, it's par for the course. I'll never forget the time I said to my clearly disturbed boyfriend: "What's the matter? It's like you've never seen an online child pornography ring before?" To be fair, I was five episodes deep into a binge when I said it.

The thing is, SVU actually does have a positive affect on viewers. Stacey Hust, an associate professor at Washington State University, lead a study on the effect SVU has on its viewers, specifically in regards to consent and rape myth acceptance, and what she found was pretty incredible.

"We decided to look at whether or not Law and Order was different. Whether people who watched Law and Order responded differently to sexual consent questions than those who watched other crime dramas mainly CSI and NCIS. And what we found is that they do," she told me.

But it went further than that: "Individuals who watched Law and Order were also more likely to refuse unwanted sexual activity, and they were also more likely to adhere to their partner's decision related to sexual consent. And so this was beyond just an attitudinal change. This was actually they felt more empowered to say no if they didn't actually want to have sex or to participate in sexual activity. And if their partner said no, they reported that they were more likely to intend to stop."

But people aren't crushing SVU episodes on Netflix because they want to brush up on rape myth acceptance and the rules of sexual consent. So maybe the simple reason women watch SVU is because of Detective/Sergeant/Lieutenant Olivia Benson played by Mariska Hargitay. And while TV has a lot of strong female protagonists (Jessica Jones, Kim Wexler, Selina Meyer, Claire Beauchamp Randall...) Olivia Benson is a cut above. She's the survivor who never gives up the fight, no matter how dire it might be. She's the person we all wish we had in our corner during our darkest moments. She's the expert witness who's able to drop knowledge on anyone who dares question the credibility of the victim. Hell, she's so incredible, a judge in the show let her adopt a baby just because she kept showing up to his custody hearings! I'm pretty sure that's Fairy Tale Law, but who cares? It's Olivia friggin' Benson. Unfortunately she's just a fictional character on a TV show. And it's hard not to wonder whether portraying an extremely idealized version of the criminal justice system will give women faith in the actual system that we already know has a tendency to fail those who need it most.

SVU exposes a large audience to a topic most people would rather pretend did not exist in their non-TV time. It's a show that does its best to demystify sexual assault, which is extremely important at a time when rape culture is so pervasive. Does it fail in other respects, of course, but we take what we can get.

It's clear that network television has yet to figure out how to accurately portray kinds of sexual assaults that happen every single day but lack that certain TV pizzazz. It may even require hiring more women showrunners. But for now at least we've got a show like Law and Order: SVU that offers its female viewers (many of whom we can safely assume are survivors themselves) the opportunity to briefly inhabit a world that takes women on their word and casts aside all the bullshit that makes us want to punch the entire world in the dick.

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