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Justice Porn: Why You're So Obsessed with 'Law & Order: SVU'

Shows like "Law & Order: SVU" offer viewers a brand of escapism that, instead of avoiding social issues, imagines a world where heinous crimes like rape are dealt with fairly.

by Ilana Masad
Sep 7 2016, 3:14pm

Screengrab via YouTube

Earlier this summer, I went on vacation to a remote village in upstate New York. While there, I had access to cable for the first time in years, and my peaceful getaway ended up involving more binge-watching than I'd imagined. The only two things my partner and I ended up watching were Star Trek (which I'd never seen before) and Law & Order: SVU. Perhaps hypocritically, my partner made fun of how campy the latter was, but I defended it fiercely, trying to explain why I love it so much.

I'm not alone in my slight obsession with the show. In 2012, Lindy West famously put together a bunch of theories—some jokey, some serious—for why women love watching Law & Order: SVU. In 2014, the Huffington Post's Erin Whitney wrote about some issues with Season 15, in which the show's most beloved character, Olivia Benson, is made into a victim over and over again. This month, on September 21, Season 18 will premiere on NBC, and Hulu is pushing the commercials for it pretty hard (or it's targeting me for them because it knows I'm a fan).

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Some feminists have chastised the show for the same reasons that the latest season of Orange is the New Black is being criticized: They argue that the shows are basically serving as "rape porn" and "torture porn"—promoting the TV-safe usage of rape, pain, and injustice for shock and entertainment value without the necessary nuance or consequences in-show for the perpetrators. While I don't disagree with this in the case of the new season of OITNB, I do disagree when it comes to SVU, and that's mostly because I see the "porn" in the show differently. It's not rape porn. It's not torture porn. It's justice porn.

When I first searched Google for "justice porn" to see if I'd invented the concept, I stumbled upon r/Justice_Porn, a sub-reddit that runs the gamut from "Sweet parking spot justice!!" to "A clown takes a pratfall" to "Chinese pervert 'who livestreamed himself raping dogs' dragged naked from his home and beaten" (none of which I recommend watching). None of these examples was what I'm talking about.

In the culture and world we currently inhabit, it is rare to see justice meted out to our satisfaction. Think of the recent case of Brock Turner, who, after being convicted of sexually assaulting a drunk woman behind a dumpster, was given a bullshittingly short sentence of six months in jail, and was recently released three months early for "good behavior." Or think of George Zimmerman. I remember entering the United States after being in Israel—a fucked-up place all its own—and watching the news on all the televisions in the passport control line that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, and feeling furious that I had left one screwed-up country only to enter another.

Photo via Flickr user danielpfleming

In a world sorely lacking in justice, Law and Order: SVU is often cathartic. It's escapism, yes, but it's not the escapism that takes place while watching something that doesn't touch on social issues at all. It's also not the strangely sadomasochistic, pat-yourself-on-the-back escapism that is white liberals like me watching OITNB—which tempts the viewer to congratulate herself for pursuing media that depicts a world outside her socioeconomic group and comfort zone—or the upsettingly realistic The Night Of. Rather, SVU's brand of escapism brings the viewer to an alternate universe where NYPD cops are really good at their jobs. Where raping someone—anyone, regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic status, age, or ability—is considered a heinous crime. And where, unlike our current universe, in which less than 1 percent of rapists serve jail time, a large majority of them end up behind bars.

Justice porn is seeing Olivia Benson and whatever partner she's with nailing criminals—a rapist, a killer, an extortionist, a blackmailer, a sex-trafficker—and putting them in prison. Justice porn is the money shot of judges doling out sentences that amount to years, not months or days. Justice porn is watching the good guy, four out of five times, manage to not only totally dominate the bad guy (usually a guy, though not always) but also then put the bad guy away for a time that'll hurt, if not maim (and not in the fun way). Justice porn is seeing this meme turn up recently, just when you need it.

Law and Order: SVU is not the only purveyor of justice porn. In the first season of the podcast Serial (also addictive), Sarah Koenig and associates search for the truth about the long-ago murder of Hae Min Lee for which Lee's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted and given a sentence of more than 30 years. Syed has been trying to overturn his case for years; recently, he was granted a new trial (though we'll see whether it'll actually happen), and his attorney is attempting to seek bail. HBO also recently released The Night Of, a gripping, too-short crime drama in which a young Muslim American college student is accused of murdering a white drug-addicted woman he has a one night stand with. Because the show is recent, I'm not going to spoil it, but despite a very questionable plot twist involving one of its brown characters, the show's writers and producers clearly recognized their audience, teasing the desire for justice many of us crave, and while not exactly delivering, punching us with a kind of almost-there justice (and occasionally leaving us with justice blue balls).

SVU's brand of escapism brings the viewer to an alternate universe where NYPD cops are really good at their jobs.

Even further back, The Accused, the 1988 film starring Jodie Foster, was one of the earliest films to portray rape graphically on the big screen; it also considers the role of bystanders in a rape, something that is still barely discussed in the media today. The accused, in this film, get everything they've got coming for them (both the rapists and the bystanders), and while the film is incredibly hard to watch, it's ultimately satisfying to see Sarah Tobias, who in the early scenes of the movie is gang-raped in a room full of people, get justice. It doesn't fix what happened to her, nor does it erase the experience, but we at least get to see people being punished for their violent crimes.

The 2012 documentary The Central Park Five is another bit of true crime justice porn. The film deals with the five men who were accused of the widely publicized rape of a Central Park jogger that occurred in 1989. Long after the statute of limitations on rape cases passed, the real rapist came forward and confessed, and the four black men and one Latino man who were accused and convicted were acquitted. All five men confessed to the crime originally, under duress, and all recanted almost at once; the real rapist's DNA was linked to the semen on the victim's body, and the five accused men had their charges vacated in 2002, years after their original conviction and years into their jail time. The innocent men—who weren't men at the time of the rape, but juveniles, teenagers—sued the state for the emotional abuse and distress they were caused, as well as for the years they lost in prison due to wrongful conviction. (They were eventually awarded $40 million from New York City.) The trial was one of the most racially tense of its time, and it still stands as a prime example of the kind of nefarious stuff that law enforcement, personal and systemic racism, and a fucked-up justice system can do to people.

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Unlike many of the storylines in SVU, though, this version of justice porn is only half satisfying: Because the statute of limitations passed, the real Central Park rapist never went to jail. But viewers are nevertheless relieved by the opportunity to watch and participate in the active shaming of a terrible system that caused innocent men to go to prison—and let's not even get started on what prison is like.

Like the porn people masturbate to, though, justice porn is, in the end, still a fantasy. It's a fantasy we retreat to for different reasons, but it is still a portrayal of something unrealistic. If we lean too much on justice porn, we'll come to have unrealistic expectations of the criminal justice system, of the way rape cases get handled, of the way cops listen to survivors. That's why I find personally and among people I know, the appreciation for shows like Law & Order: SVU seems to increase the more life experience we have, as we become more and unfortunately familiar with the heinous things that can happen to us and to those we love. We watch justice porn not to learn how it's done, just as anyone who's watching porn to learn how sex is done will likely be grossly misinformed on many counts. We watch it to feel like the world could be a place where justice is served, and as a balm for the real things that have happened to us.