I am a twenty-something who has devotedly watched Law & Order: SVU for over ten years but have never paused to examine what it is exactly about this melodramatic crime drama that has hooked me so effectively and resonated with me so profoundly throughout my adolescence—until now. DUN DUN.
I’m a young woman who follows the news—probably to the detriment of my mental health. I know the abysmal statistics and murky outcomes of sexual assault cases.
I cried rage tears over the Brock Turner verdict and pored over the letter his victim read aloud at his sentencing. I was disgusted and disturbed by Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma City police officer who exploited his position of power to target and sexually abuse 13 black women. I followed the investigation of Baylor’s Title IX scandal religiously and made my younger sister (a senior in high school) vow that she wouldn’t apply to a university that mishandled and covered up cases of sexual violence.
I listened with horror as then-candidate Trump boasted about how he “can do anything” to women and how he doesn’t “even wait” for consent. I watched with incredulity at the moral gymnastics his (evangelical) supporters performed to dismiss this as “locker room talk.” I wished I could protect every teenage girl from the predatory leering and repugnant discussions that are apparently encouraged in locker rooms across the U.S.
I’ve listened to friends recount their own stories of sexual assault—sometimes perpetrated by people they considered friends, sometimes by strangers and almost always without penalty.
This handful of anecdotes is a reflection of a national embarrassment—one that’s especially pervasive on college campuses. Among undergraduate students, 23.1 percent of females and 5.4 percent of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation according to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network).
If this laundry list felt long-winded it’s because this nonsense happens far too often. It weighs on me.
There’s something so intense and gratifying about the dedicated Detective Olivia Benson investigating these vicious felonies with her longtime partner Stabler—and other members of the elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. Played by Mariska Hartigay, Detective (now Lieutenant) Benson listens to survivors empathetically, fights for justice ferociously and wraps a neat bow on complicated sex crimes. Each episode is 45 minutes long and ripped straight from current headlines, sometimes not very subtly.
In some episodes there’s no physical evidence and the defendant’s testimony is the only hope for a conviction. Even in these episodes, when the prosecution loses and the “bad guy” gets away, Benson believes victims’ stories and empowers them to use their voice.
Hartigay has been with the series the longest of the actors and is featured prominently in leadership positions—in the most recent season she’s the squad’s lieutenant.
Another element of SVU that’s encouraging is the male detectives. They each do their part to challenge the systems that perpetuate sexual and domestic violence. Detective Elliot Stabler’s hatred of rapists and pedophiles is palpable. Watching him challenge the patriarchy and support his partner (Benson) is so reassuring.
Perhaps SVU is unrealistic, but it’s cathartic. Maybe what makes it unreal—police who believe survivors, prosecutors who pursue these cases and consider them especially heinous, predators who receive fair sentences for their crimes—is what makes it refreshing. It’s comforting to watch justice unfold on television because it doesn’t always in real life.
If you wish there was a real-life Benson, look to Senator Kristen Gillibrand. The Democratic senator from New York has introduced legislation such as the Campus Accountability and Safety Act and the Military Justice Improvement Act to hold abusers accountable and provide resources to victims. Last May, she slammed President Obama for his inaction regarding assault in the military. When she loses, she keeps fighting. She speaks truth to power.
I’m going to keep working to eliminate rape culture, but until then, I’ll keep watching my beloved Law & Order: SVU. There are 18 seasons after all.