As “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” reaches the close of its 12th season and its main stars’ contracts come to an end, Spectator reexamines whether the series has been helpful in spreading sexual assault awareness or has benefitted from the spectacle of sexually-based crimes. This is especially relevant considering that this season’s November 16 episode, “Gray,” opened with a Take Back the Night event at the fictional Hudson University.
“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” is the highest-rated of its counterparts, eclipsing even the latter seasons of the original “Law & Order” series—profiting, many would say, from exploitative depictions of scandalous sex crimes. For every episode that features a more prevalent type of sexual assault—such as “Consent,” in which a college girl is drugged and attacked at a frat party—there is a bevy of sensationalized plotlines, from pedophilic serial murderers to incestuous sexual slavery. Though it can be tempting to simply label the show itself problematic, it is more valuable to look at the context in which it’s presented—to recognize that, in the current media climate, even sober depictions of sexual violence can be interpreted, or marketed, as sexy. It seems that the show’s greatest crime is simply that it’s a TV show. It’s subject to ratings and pressure to come up with varied scenarios for its characters to investigate every week. Despite this impetus to scandalize, the show does manage to imbue even its most fantastical scenarios with critical discussion about relevant sexual issues.
An example of this is the episode “Smut,” which combines an outlandish plotline about a porn-fueled serial rapist who drugs his victims with an engaging discussion on the pervasiveness of erotic videos, all while showing the audience a petticoat-rustling amount of footage from these very videos in the process. Discourse is paired with shock value, but viewers still come out of the episode thinking seriously about the role of pornography.
Even in the show’s most far-fetched scenarios, the message to viewers remains clear: Sexual assault is a serious issue that deserves to be discussed and must be reported, and whose victims should be provided with access to counseling and support. Whether these truly valuable moments of awareness are worth the number of spectacle-heavy episodes is a question that requires more extensive debate regarding sex-saturated media and its penchant for catharsis through problematic images. Ultimately, if “SVU” is guilty of anything, it’s of trying to stay on the air, not of thoughtless scandal-mongering.
The popularity of “Law & Order: SVU” has without a doubt increased the visibility of sexual crimes in mainstream society, and, consequently, the social acceptability of discourse surrounding such crimes. There is a reason “SVU” has been on the air for 12 years, and Mariska Hargitay is currently the highest-paid actress on television: The characters are dedicated yet flawed, and the storylines are unexpected and full of twists. The occasional failure of “SVU” to give the viewer a happy or expected ending provides food for thought and plays into moral ambiguities surrounding the notion of justice. At times the show references a dark hopelessness behind punishment of the deviant behavior it condemns, forcing viewers to come to terms with the seedier side of humanity.
However, all of the complexity, moral ambiguity, and poignant portrayal of the confusion and inner turmoil of sexual assault victims can also be taken as somewhat of an illusion. There are very few episodes of “SVU” that portray the kind of sexual violence that is most common and most in need of visibility. “SVU” tends towards the more lurid and clearly destructive forms of sexual violence: stranger rape, pedophilia, torture, obscure and uncontrollable fetishes, sex trafficking, and situations of blatant exploitation. The characters themselves are frequently morally complex: a mentally disabled hermit abducts women in his quest to create a human sex doll and then struggles intensely with his conscience and verges on mental breakdown. The viewer is empathetic yet disgusted. The viewer questions right and wrong. The viewer challenges free will and justice. It seems ambiguous and honest, but there is a problem. A majority of sexual crimes are not lurid, perverted, and committed by strangers—sexual assault is most commonly committed by people the victim knows personally and sometimes trusts. Perceptions of what is acceptable can be clouded by alcohol, social expectations, pressure to conform, and emotionally coercive relationship dynamics that may seem harmless to the passive observer. Shades of gray fill the spectrum between consent and rejection, and they’re made even grayer by lack of communication and misread signals. Sexual assault is confusing and difficult to talk about for victims because they may not even understand the events as a violation or a crime. “SVU” will offer a harrowing account into the psyche of a rape slave who fell in love with her abductor, but it does nothing for victims of the shades of gray.