Okay, confession time:
A year ago I would have told you that I hated watching Law and Order: Special Victims’ Unit but that I couldn’t help myself. I would have told you that SVU WAS my drug, my guilty pleasure. The more I watched it, the more I saw to find fault with, yet the adrenaline-rushing, nonstop drama kept me hooked. I’d sit, watching episode after episode on Netflix, eating organic string cheese and getting high on having my emotions tweaked every 30 seconds or so.
An episode in which Detective Benson goes racing after an assault survivor, urging her to stay at the ER, get examined, and report her assault because “what if he does it to other women” was what finally broke this compulsive watching cycle. That particular episode morphed into a quite fascinating mystery that had nothing to do with sexual assault, yet that scene stayed with me. I felt the horrifying, traumatic unfairness of it.
Theoretically, I understand the concept of gathering evidence from survivors that may lead to getting a predator off the streets (or out of the boardroom, or away from schools), but… We all should always get to decide what happens to our bodies, including being able to decide how we talk about what has happened, what is happening now, or what we think, fear, or hope will happen in future. Our bodies are ours,and at no time is this more important than after a violation.
There was a time when I thought SVU was revolutionary, enlightening people on various gender, sexual, and social issues. It couldn’t be a bad thing, I thought, that the realities of sexual assault, domestic violence, and trauma were being emphasized.
Forty-four minutes (that’s without commercials, some episodes are as short as 40 minutes) is not enough time to deal with any complex issue adequately, especially when such dealings are interrupted by the necessary plot twists, emotional outbursts, inter-character conflicts, and the like that make up popular nighttime drama. So ideas become skewed, fact becomes conflated with fiction (E.G. DNA results are rarely available as quickly as the show implies), and people wind up knowing little more about the social issue being tackled than they knew before they started. Sometimes, they know even less, or gain an unhealthy perspective.
In my life as a crisis hotline volunteer, and in my personal life, I’ve spent hours just doing the emotional support part of sexual assault response for one person at a time. It’s not easy; it’s not quick; it rarely involves sudden revelations which make everything clear and help details fall into place.
Having someone disclose also doesn’t mean that you can then, as a support person, prevent any further assault from happening. I couldn’t, and it took a lot of healing before that stopped haunting me every day. Even as I write this, the heaviness of that burden returns for a brief visit. I couldn’t stop assault, and neither can the police always do, as assault often happens within complex family or social systems which victims are afraid to break. Many victims are reliant on those who abuse them for financial or other resources, and social services are almost never as quickly mobilized as SVU IMPLIES.
The dramatization of pain, of violence, of terror numbs people to the reality of victimization, the gut-level, tear-wrenching, fist-clenching, body-cringing reality. I feel a little nauseated when I think about the emotional titillation, the morbid fascination, people have with violent dramatic portrayals on TV or in movies.
The portrayal of the investigative process is not only misleading, but is set up, I think, in such a way as to minimize the toll of that investigative process on the person who has experienced the assault. Have you ever seen, up close and personal, the evidence discovery kit they use after someone has been sexually assaulted? I have. During my training as a sexual assault hotline volunteer, I got to see a bag full of collection items—and that’s what they are. Syringes of various sizes with various tips, tweezers, swabs and little baggies. I don’t mind telling you I’ve never been assaulted, but I can tell you with almost complete certainty that I wouldn’t want to experience the invasion of a rape kit afterwards. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t do so, only that I wouldn’t want to.
So, to see detectives on SVU calmly asking questions while the survivor is being examined messes with my head. I don’t know whether this is common practice in real-life, but I just feel, on that gut-level, like it’s more violation. That examination needs to be a time when a survivor is supported by a trusted friend or family member, or a sexual assault advocate, or to be alone with the medical personnel if they choose.
It’s not just SVU’s treatment of sexual assault that bothers me.
I’ve never seen an episode in which alternative sexualities weren’t attached to criminal or disturbed activity in some way. Oh yes, they’ve got the gay and lesbian thing down just fine (for the most part), but anyone who enjoys kinky sex, or swinging, or group sex is fair game.
There was the episode in which a murder victim was found to have frequented a sex club. This “promiscuity” was explained by the way her abusive father had oversexualized her as a child. This wasn’t an isolated incident either. Whenever someone is found to have an association with alt sexualities, including in private spaces such as home or club, the detectives’ suspicion levels elevate.
In reality, many people who enjoy group sex, or swinging, or any other sexual practice outside of the rather limiting norm set by our society are doing so in healthy ways. They’re not working out childhood traumas. This isn’t to say that some haven’t experienced those traumas, only that they’ve worked them out in other ways, are aware of possible triggers, and are playing sexually for healthy reasons (like wanting to have fun). People with sexualities seen as alternative run the same gamut of personalities, professions, quirks, and personal life histories as anyone else. Many people assumed to be following sexual norms—aren’t, and are none the worse for not doing so.
Another episode I recall took this even further. A suspect or a witness (I don’t remember which) was goaded into telling the truth by detective Benson, who, after learning that he enjoyed submission and humiliation inn his sexual play, and had payed for these services, gave him orders and called him names during the interrogation. (And, of course, he fell for it hook, line and sinker. That’s TV drama for you!) It’s almost (but not quite) laughable that this man’s fetish was assumed to be his overall trigger; in other words, most people who enjoy submission, humiliation, or both in sexual contexts won’t just automatically respond to those triggers in everyday situations (if interrogation by the police can be considered an everyday situation). Again, too, a person’s sexual needs or preferences don’t automatically indicate criminality unless they’re acting them out on children or on anyone who hasn’t consented.
Over the years, many people have talked about the good SVU has done. I think that, at the beginning, there was more attention paid to gentleness and respect for the painful complexities of sexualized violence. As more characters were added, and the drama quotient was elevated (c’mon! Did we really have to have the Olivia-Eliot attraction subtext thing?) that attention to detail faded, or morphed into focus on the salacious parts. A good story has taken the place of attention to realism and humanity.
I don’t doubt that mariska harjitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation, and the other work she has done, has done some good. There’s very little in life that is truly good or truly bad. I don’t doubt that many women have written to harjitay to share their own experiences of assault. Any representation that isn’t wholly victim-blaming (in early episodes Harjitay’s character calls out victim-blaming quite frequently) is going to help someone feel safe enough to reach out. The injunctions from attackers, and often from society, to keep silent about assault, to keep secret, eat away at victims and survivors, and anything that helps at least one person isn’t all bad.
Much of harjitay’s work has been to clear the backlog of rape kits that has built up in state laboratories, so that more evidence can be processed and more people, theoretically, can be brought to justice. Again, theoretically, (since I don’t know of any recent case in which this has happened) processing all this evidence could also identify serial attackers, which would lead not only to mdealing out justice (whatever justice really is) but to crime prevention.
For justice to really be served, though, the criminal justice system needs a major overhaul. We need to see more work done on prevention, less vilifying of the victims, more vilifying of the crimes. We’ve not yet moved past the time and space in which people who’ve been assaulted aren’t blamed or bullied, in which their sexual histories, or choice of clothing, isn’t used as evidence in a courtroom, in which prison sentences for sex crimes are longer than those for burglary, and aren’t suspended based on time served before trial. (Yes, usually I’d find you references to cases where any of these things have happened, but it’s honestly just too depressing so I’m going to ask you to do your own research this time.)
There’s likely more I could write, but since I haven’t been watching SVU lately, except for the occasional viewing when visiting family, I don’t have any more episodes to deconstruct.
Ultimately, I just want to leave you with this thought (which could be applied to many other forms of entertainment besides SVU): We cannot trivialize strong emotions in TV drama. WE can never forget that sex crimes (or other violent crimes) can happen to all of us, at any time—that most of us know people who have been victimized.
This is real life, people.