Law and Order: SVU, Rape Survivors, and the Justice System

After my sexual assault, I began binge-watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit to the point of obsession. The show was a staple of my childhood, my parents being huge fans of the whole Law and Order franchise. I’d always admired the show’s female protagonist– Olivia Benson, a detective (later lieutenant and sergeant) who kicks ass, but also spends time with survivors, letting each of them know that she believes them. Olivia seems guarded most of the time, but she also uses her vulnerability to connect with the survivors she helps. Her vulnerability is one of her strengths, rather than a weakness.


In the aftermath of my sexual assault, Olivia Benson wasn’t just a hero like Casey Novak, or Nancy Drew, or Veronica Mars, or any of the other crime-fighting, justice-seeking women I looked up to growing up – she was a source of comfort, an idealized image of not just a compassionate cop, but a compassionate person. Although my story didn’t look much like the ones on television (because I waited to report, because it was messy and didn’t fit into a nice little narrative), it often felt like the SVU detectives were speaking right to me when they told victims that it wasn’t their fault.


My experience with the real life officers in Edmonton could not have been more different than the ones on television.


First of all, you can’t walk into the sex crimes unit of a law enforcement service and talk to someone with extensive training in the area of rape and sexual assault – you’ve got to talk to a beat cop who probably believes all the same damaging and victim-blaming things that the worst anonymous internet commenters do. Secondly, there is no set protocol for handling reports of sexual assault, so it’s impossible to know what you’re getting into and how you have to prepare yourself when you walk into the station.


The police officer I first encountered didn’t seem to want to take my report. I had to speak with him in the lobby, so there was no privacy. He didn’t take notes, which made me feel that my answers weren’t important. As I told my story, he was almost smiling, slouching like I was telling the most ordinary hook-up story, like he wasn’t listening to an account of a violent crime. Worst of all, he asked me if what happened could have been a miscommunication. He kept asking if I said no.


In Canada, where I live, we have very progressive consent laws. Canadian consent laws stipulate that if you imply “no” through your actions or behaviours, that’s just as good as verbalizing “no”. The Edmonton Police Service website contains a “What is Consent?” section, which uses a progressive and clear definition, which reflect what Canadian law says. The officer hearing my story clearly hadn’t read it, or really understood it. During my rape, I froze. I couldn’t move. While this is a very common experience in a number of traumatic or stressful situations, the police officer I spoke to didn’t seem to understand that. By the way, a non-responsive, silent, still, potentially asleep person? Very clearly saying no according to our country’s laws, and basic common sense. My attacker (whose name that officer never asked for) was never treated like a criminal or even a person of interest to this officer during this whole conversation, even though he broke the law. I was the one being treated like a criminal, for having the audacity to report a crime that police would prefer I keep to myself.


The second time I went to the police, the first one never having taken my statement, the deep discomfort I felt was still very present, increasing as I approached the station. I spoke in the lobby to an officer behind the glass who asked me why I took a year to report my sexual assault. His voice remained cold and clinical throughout; he was professional and took my report seriously. But if I hadn’t been determined to report what happened after the first cop mistreated me, I may have never been able to submit a report, or encounter a police officer doing the bare minimum of his job, which is follow the law.


Before all this happened, I knew the police were not like the ones on TV. I knew they might be rude or misinformed. But I couldn’t have known that they couldn’t even be bothered to take down a report or talk to me in private.


My love for Law and Order: SVU has not always been healthy. It became part of my excuse to stay in bed during the day, and stay awake all night. Watching sexual violence (however PG the depictions are) over and over helped me numb some of my pain. I searched through episode lists for a story that might sound like mine, as if somehow I thought a TV show could validate my experience. It also helped me erase every other part of myself: over the past year, I have struggled with my identity beyond “victim” or “survivor” or “anti-rape activist” or any other label we put on each other. Watching this show slowly folded into my identity, enabled me to be someone who only thought about, talked about, and cared about sexual violence.


A TV show like SVU is appealing to myself and many fellow survivors because the police on TV are so different from the real ones. The show is escapist, in some sense. On the surface, it’s “real life”, with ripped-from-the-headlines stories, real locations, and scenarios which unfortunately happen every day in our world. But the commitment to justice by the police and the attorneys alike runs counter to most survivor’s real-world experiences.


SVU has done a great deal to dispel harmful rape myths throughout the years by tackling issues like male victims of female offenders, sexual assault of sex workers, and challenging the small, insidious stereotypes in our world, like believing that victims were “asking for it” by the way they walked, or talked, or dressed.


Every survivor wants to be heard and deserves to be believed. When a survivor chooses to tell the police, they are putting their trust in a system that is not built to handle sexual assault cases. You see this on SVU frequently. Barba says, “Give me a case I can win, Olivia, this is he-said-she-said!” Unfortunately, that’s the reality in many circumstances. Sexual assault is unlike any other crime for that reason – although some individuals will have physical evidence they were hurt, most won’t. Add that to suspicion and rape myths from police and the broader public, and you can begin to understand why so many survivors seek justice from telling their stories to the media or on their own. By speaking out this way, there may be justice, although that is often not the case.


I don’t watch SVU like I used to. My love for that TV show is a complicated relationship formed during my childhood, rekindled while I processed my trauma. It reassured me that I wasn’t alone, that what happened to me is real. It also gave me a false sense of what the police might really be like, and it allowed me to completely numb the pain of violence in my life. We keep a mutually safe distance from each other now. I only watch one or two episodes at a time. I try to keep myself from over-identifying with any of the characters. I have tried seeking justice in my own ways, with the police and on my own.


Instead of using SVU as a numbing agent, or validation, I watch it for what it is meant to be: a television show. I imbued SVU with a lot of personal meaning, and it was what I needed. Even without bringing along my emotional baggage, it’s a great show: the writers know how to make you care, hold you in suspense, and write compelling dialogue. I was finally able to watch it in a healthy way, when I let it be entertainment and not therapy. 

6 years ago by Caitlin Hart