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Mariska Hargitay in Law & Order: SVU. (Image: © Michael Parmelee/NBC)

Editor’s note: This piece contains discussion of sexual assault and gendered violence.

When I was sixteen, I was bed-bound for three months. It was a series of things – swine flu to whooping cough to shingles, linking from one to another. A week before I’d become sick, a friend had loaned me ten seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on DVD. I would load them, one shining disc after the other, into my laptop while I lay in bed. I ate irregularly and lost weight, something my teenage self revelled in. Not that I was able to show off my new, bonier body; I spent day after day lying, sleeping, watching.

I remember looking at the sky blues of my walls, chipped at the edges from childhood, for hours. There were kiss marks dotting the walls from when a friend and I, a year before, had sipped tequila and danced as we painted our lips, pressing them to the cool plaster. Like a fingerprint, I could tell whose lips were whose by the thickness of their stamp.

That room, for three months, was my world – and when it came time to leave, it was too much. Watching women and girls like me on SVU having to survive not only hurt, it reminded me of the place girls are seen to occupy in the world. It reminded me of each time I had been grabbed, lifted, and pressed without consent.

And so, after hundreds of hours of SVU, I feared what was outside.

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Now in its 20th season, with 446 episodes to date, Law & Order: SVU is tied with the original Law & Order (1990–2010) and western Gunsmoke (1955–1975) for the longest running scripted drama in American television history. It is clear Dick Wolf’s ‘ripped from the headlines’ depictions of small-screen crime has left a lasting legacy – with twenty years and millions of viewers, how could it not? But the nature of that legacy changes depending on who you’re listening to.

SVU – perhaps like all engines that leave a lasting cultural imprint – is not one thing. Its lasting social and legal influence has damaged but also healed. Virginia Pelley, in an essay for Quartz, writes how viewing SVU helped her understand her own sexual abuse and confront her dissociative view of what happened to her as a child. And while Pelley acknowledges the show’s history of criticism around depicting abuse inaccurately, she writes that it can be cathartic ‘just to see cases of abuse taken seriously. That the events mattered and merited acknowledgment was comforting in itself, especially for someone who never received resolution in real life.’

SVU – perhaps like all engines that leave a lasting cultural imprint – is not one thing. Its lasting social and legal influence has damaged but also healed.

Psychotherapist Holly Parker agrees that the acknowledgement of abuse alone can be comforting: ‘For a show to openly portray a character who has had this experience, that reflects a social acknowledgement that abuse happens to others, and that the person watching it is not alone.’ However misconstrued SVU’s plotlines may be, however wilfully ignorant of the reality of sexual offences, the show has been talking about rape and abuse for almost twenty years. It has spoken, in however clumsy a way, long before cultural movements like #MeToo found their voice.

At the centre of SVU’s legacy is Detective Olivia Benson, portrayed by Mariska Hargitay. Perhaps part of SVU’s endurance comes down to Benson, and the way she has given survivors hope of sensitivity and understanding from law enforcement. Pelley writes that Benson ‘always knew what to do, sometimes squeezing victims’ shoulders in a soft, supportive gesture, while of course remaining respectful of their boundaries.’ The audience may recognise myth-making better than anyone. But myths can be comforting; they have satisfying endings. They create hope.

Lead actor Mariska Hargitay has come to embody justice in her own way through her real-world activism, propped up by her role as Benson. Hargitay uses her voice to lobby for legal reform, notably for legislating to eliminate rape kit backlog in America. She writes of supporting survivors and promises that ‘when misogyny strikes, #SVU strikes back’.

But despite Hargitay’s activist efforts, her character exists in a fictional world that’s scripted; it’s much more cut-and-dry than the real one. In service of a plot, crime dramas like SVU and True Detective portray police as inherently hard-working, perhaps flawed, people who fight to stop sexual assault and violent crimes. Noah Berlatsky, however, argues that it is this perception that warps reality, and that shows like SVU encourage (or at least excuse) police brutality:

Pop culture doesn’t always glorify the police. But the job of policing, for good or ill, is always represented as exciting and important. Which means that even when police decide to cross ethical and even legal lines… the screw­ups are contextualised as a tragic necessity. Police for the most part aren’t catching serial killers or rapists. Pretending that they are validates police violence and obscures the tedious, day­-to-­day of petty injustice.

Viewing policing as solely catching bad guys ‘fundamentally misrepresents the nature of policing,’ Berlatsky argues. Serving public good does not include bending rules around probable cause, or in Australia, reasonable grounds to suspect. Yet there are too many examples of where policing has slipped from unethical to criminal, and not for the greater good.

People – overwhelmingly people of colour – are dying at the hands of police brutality. In Australia, over 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since 1991 – rarely do these kinds of instances appear on prime time slots.

However wilfully ignorant SVU may be of the reality of sexual offences, the show has been talking about rape and abuse for almost twenty years.

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SVU, of course, is just one of the many crime procedurals to influence cultural norms. Legal academic Tung Yin has argued that 24, a show that depicts counterterrorism, problematically justifies torture as a means to an end and portrays Arab–American characters in a way that encourages stereotypes and supports racial profiling.

One study with over 2,000 first-year Northwestern University students found that exposure to crime drama directly influenced students’ ideas around consent. Yet no crime drama is the same; the nuances of each influenced viewers in different ways. The study showed that Law & Order: SVU viewers had a decreased rape myth acceptance and increased intention to navigate consent respectfully. Viewers of CSI had decreased intentions to seek and adhere to consent whereas NCIS viewers were less likely to refuse unwanted sexual advances. The study’s authors argue that the shows’ differences in content reflect the opinions garnered after exposure to the crime dramas (they praise SVU for challenging sexual assault stereotypes while CSI reinforced rape myths).

With almost 20 per cent of women students in the US reporting they have experienced sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, adjusting students’ understanding of respect and consent is vital. Television – with its broad reach – may be just the way to do this.

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An old friend once told me her ex-partner was in prison. He and his friends had heard that there was a sex offender in their neighbourhood. They’d thought he’d abused kids and so they broke into his house, beat him and beat him.

‘He shouldn’t have,’ she told me. ‘But he was a sex offender… so I understand why they did it.’

As she’s speaking, I think about the man in his home who was beaten. How did they know he was an offender? How did they know his victims were children? As he was being beaten, did the supposed offender understand why this was happening to him? Does it even matter if he could think, if he could regret, in those moments? My thoughts gloss from the offender to the person – people – children – he may have hurt. That’s the instinct, isn’t it? To think: who did they hurt? To stew in imagined crimes.

Law is shaped by public perception. It’s not what they teach in law school: that the law is this unflinching, inflexible standard to which we must uphold ourselves. I think of the web of media and law, the people stuck pulling the strings in between. Newspapers seize on the worst details of the worst crimes, campaigning for law reform. Courts and lawmakers, torn between applying the law fairly and satisfying a concerned public, find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Crime rates are down, but you wouldn’t know it.

Law is shaped by public perception. It’s not this unflinching, inflexible standard to which we must uphold ourselves.

Psychologist Karla Guevara Corriere writes that ‘highly publicised and rare cases involving sexual offences that result in the death of a child have influenced the development’ of legal sanctions. It has been proven that the media greatly influences the public; sexual crimes are no different. Corriere held a study where she viewed fifty episodes of Law & Order: SVU. She found that sex offenders were depicted in stereotyped ways, and that sexual offences depicted within SVU were not only the most violent, but the least common to occur. Offenders were overwhelmingly portrayed as older single, white men with attributes of ‘being angry, glib, clever, and cautious.’ Over eighty per cent of survivors across the fifty episodes of SVU were women or girls; predominantly, young women and children. Seventy-four per cent of survivors were white. In the majority of SVU episodes Corriere observed, the survivor did not know their abuser.

I shouldn’t need to say it – this does not resemble the reality of sexual assault. Unmarried/single offenders are one type of offender but not the majority. Offenders are overwhelmingly known to their victim, and while sexual assaults do occur by unknown offenders, stranger danger should not be seen as the norm. In Australia alone, the ABS’ 2016 Personal Safety Survey found that 87 per cent of women who have experienced sexual assault had done so by a man they knew. The majority of whom experienced assault in their own home (40 per cent) or the perpetrator’s home (17 per cent). SVU also, by only showing a certain type of survivor, ignore that there is an increased risk ‘of family, domestic and sexual violence, particularly Indigenous women, young women, pregnant women, women separating from their partners, women with disability and women experiencing financial hardship.’

Myth-making does not protect us, Corriere argues: ‘intense negative emotions elicited by sexual offences seem to adversely affect decisions about how to protect communities from sexual victimisation and legal consequences for persons convicted of committing a sexual offence.’ Some legal ramifications for offenders, like the sex offender register, can lead to harassment of offenders which some believe increase recidivism rates.

Knowing the danger protects us. But where do we go when our understanding of sexual assault – what sexual assault even is – is wrong?

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I haven’t returned to SVU since those months of sickness at sixteen. Criminal Minds overtook Olivia Benson’s role in my life for a year or two, but since then crime dramas haven’t touched my life. I tell myself that I should watch it again for research, but I never do. The show – its score, the deep greys and browns of the set – stays with me. I cannot forget.

Even with a tidy ending, why would I want to watch the horror of everyday twisted and stylised into forty minutes?

Emily Nussbaum writes in The New Yorker that Law & Order: SVU is ‘pure red meat’. Crime dramas have been likened by some to ‘comfort food’ because they can deliver on a just ending when the real world is not so tidy. Yes, SVU is meat. It’s coarse, perhaps. Unafraid of its deep dive into violence. I can’t quite slip the thought that the show’s appeal is confusing; even with a tidy ending, why would I want to watch the horror of everyday twisted and stylised into forty minutes? Nussbaum tries to answer my unease, writing:

Law & Order: SVU felt like a woman’s show, at once prurient and cathartic, exploitative and liberating – with an appeal much ​like that of the old Lifetime channel, that pastel-tinted chamber of horrors. The audience was two-thirds female, young women, for the most part – the same demographic that drives fan fiction, romance novels, and vampire stories [and arguably, true-crime podcasts]. ‘Oh, you enjoy this, do you?’ an angry john says, in the SVU pilot. ‘Is this how you get your rocks off?’ He’s talking to some detectives, but he might as well have been addressing viewers, for whom the show’s pulp appeal was simultaneously addictive and faintly shameful.

This idea of shame catches me. Nussbaum watches episode after episode (even the bad ones) of SVU, likening her ‘[unsavoury] addiction’ to pica, the disorder that causes people to eat dirt and fingernails.

Perhaps this is why I cannot watch; I’m scared to deep dive into witnessing violence again. Even if it’s stylised, I’m nervous to fall back into looping episodes that tell me both truths and untruths. The world is violent; I’m well aware. I don’t need SVU to tell me that every problem – ripped from the headlines or not – will be solved. Maybe it’s that I can no longer believe the lie.

Law & Order: SVU airs weekly on Network 10 and WIN.