Much to my chagrin, my longest relationship has been with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show that tries to present a real-ish depiction of sexual violence and its systemic factors–at the cost of shaming, victim-blaming, and at times violently othering sex workers, LGBT people, and women who enjoy sex.
Despite its “best intentions” (and I’m being generous here), SVU promotes rape culture. It perpetuates the myth that a victim needs to be “perfect” in order to be worthy of acknowledgment, care and justice. It also validates the myth that rape is largely committed by strangers as opposed to close friends, family members, or acquaintances.
It plays heavily to stereotypes, particularly around trans women, sex workers, and STI transmission. Yes, the older episodes are worse, and yes, I have some empathy for this point, since the same can be said of almost every television show on a major network–it still sucks to see this from a show whose biggest star has become a prolific advocate for survivors.
More often than not, the show conflates consensual, adult sex work with nonconsensual, often underaged sex trafficking. Treating them as one and the same both ignores the realities of sex work and endangers those engaged in it. Sex workers want to end sex trafficking just as much as law enforcement does.
We've established I understand it has issues, yes? Okay, so, why it's awesome:
Olivia Benson is a badass bitch. The SVU department has been a matriarchy ever since she made Lieutenant, and is better for it.
The show now boasts two empowered, successful police officers (Benson & Rollins) who are totally satisfied single mothers. Neither one hesitates or minces words when shooting down misogynist comments from male peers about their ability to juggle motherhood with the job.
There are hardly ever any romantic subplots among characters to distract us from the meat of the show. As a woman who is sick of mainstream media condescending to female consumers by telling us that we need love stories to hold our interest, I appreciate this.
The worst episodes in recent memory include 2014’s “Porn Star’s Requiem” (Season 16, Episode 5), a factually incorrect and stigmatizing dramatization of the whole Belle Knox debate. Though I’ve been consistently impressed with Knox ever since the “Duke University Porn Star” scandal blew, I was heartbroken by her personal account of what it was like to watch “herself” on SVU.
“Warren Leight, the executive producer of the show was nice enough to let me see an advance copy of ‘Pornstar’s Requiem’ and he agreed to answer my questions about how this entire episode came to be,” she wrote.
Well, isn’t that nice. It's not “Warren Leight contacted me months in advance to ask for my permission in such an obtuse, exploitative dramatization,” or “Warren Leight was so committed to showcasing sex workers in a humanizing, well-rounded fashion that he invited me to hop on board as a correspondent for the episode dramatizing my own life experiences.”
But I guess that'll do, pig.
The episode has numerous flaws; the most infuriating one is the closing scene, which has SVU detectives tracking Knox’s character (named “Evie Barnes”) to a closed porn set in a dark, dilapidated, anonymous basement. For no other reason (it’s post-trial) than to tell her that her parents are “worried about her”. Barnes appears strung-out, popping an ambiguous pill and telling the detectives that she’s “doing what I do best” before being absorbed into a circle of shirtless men waiting to gang-bang her, all to the tune of sinister background music. The insinuation being, of course, that her emotional and mental decline is the consequence of sex work; not of, say, whore-shaming by the justice system or the aggressive media circus and trolling she was subjected to.
This scene is a complete fictionalization, by the way. The writers could have easily had the episode mirror the actual aftermath of the controversy, in which Knox met her haters head-on, penning numerous brilliant articles about sex work and never hesitating to make public appearances where she frequently shot-down those who sought to shame her.
Oh yeah, this is supposed to be a tribute post. End rant.
1. Nationwide Manhunt (Season 17, Episode 13)
Carisi walks in on Rollins kicking a soda dispensing machine. She’s frustrated because she’s recently back from maternity leave and has largely been confined to restricted “desk” duty, including throughout an important case that she was previously a lead on.
“My sister took some melatonin when she had postpartum,” Carisi comments. “I’m not depressed, Carisi, I’m pissed off,” Rollins retorts.
After she kicks the machine again and a can pops out, Carisi snarks, “I’m just glad to see how motherhood has mellowed you out.”
She rolls her eyes, “That’s another thing. I hate being coddled. What, I have a baby and suddenly I can’t talk to serial killers anymore?” Here, Rollins is calling out sexist, condescending jabs at her competency made upon her return to the department. Her kicking the soda machine is symbolic of her refusal to wait for patriarchy to dole out her ration of respectability. It also gives me confusing feelings. Have you ever been jealous of a soda machines? Asking for an especially heinous friend.
2. Sugar (Season 11, Episode 2)
Aside from this episode being responsible for one of Benson’s best zingers (“Girls, girls, you’re both pretty” to two witnesses fighting over the evidence), it features a butch Will Truman as the painfully hip CEO of a major corporation being investigated for the murder of a “sugar baby” escort. The murdered woman, Emily, was both a company employee as well as the CEO’s own personal sugar baby.
Midway through the investigation, the female DA goes on a moral tirade about sex work at the precinct, encouraging the detectives to arrest the CEO on prostitution charges, STAT. Benson, Stabler, and Finn all decline to hop on the ho-shaming train and give the DA some good-natured hell, treating the topic with positive nonchalance.
My favorite exchange is when the DA expresses disapproval of Benson’s sex-positive attitude, to which she responds, “Why, Sonya? Because all women have to have the same opinion on everything?”
I also appreciated that Emily was murdered for a reason related only peripherally to her profession, not in direct consequence to it. I'm not super thrilled that I can describe my reaction to the murder of a young woman with the word "appreciate"; this is what mainstream media has reduced us to.
3. Transgender Bridge (Season 17, Episode 3)
A transgender teen dies after she is harassed and accidentally pushed off a bridge by another teen who is trying to impress his friends. In direct contrast to the show’s trend of treating transgender characters almost exclusively without nuance, playing to stereotypes (predominantly showcasing them through a pity lense as “messy” street prostitutes, drug addicts, and/or coming from broken backgrounds–in one instance using the cold open of an episode to do a "Don't you mean he" gag), this trans teen came from a loving, supportive family. She was, intelligent, fierce, secure in her identity, well-liked and accepted socially.
Before she dies, she displays a heartfelt compassion for her attacker–a young black male–in the wake of his genuine remorse, all while the DA's office strives to railroad him for a much heavier hate crime sentence, trying him as an adult and ignoring the reality of the situation.
It’s heartbreaking to watch because of the painful societal truths it illustrates.
4. Twenty-Five Acts (Season 14, Episode 3)
This is another eye-rolling “ripped-from-the-headlines” episode that aired shortly after 50 Shades of Grey hit the shelves and sent housewives’ loins aflutter. A popular TV show host, Cain, sexually assaults an erotica novelist, Jocelyn, and claims that the rough encounter was consensual due to the fictional kinky content she writes in her books. Upon being presented with the case by Rollins and Benson, ADA Barba is reluctant to take it, doubting the novelist’s “credibility” (with the implication being that should she be into S&M, her ability to consent to any sexual encounter is somehow severely compromised).
The detectives push on, showing steadfast support for Jocelyn. Eventually Barba fights valiantly in court to show that it is Caine who has erred, not the victim, and the jury finds him guilty.
Do you see what we're working with here? That cops who investigate rape actually identifying rape when they see it, even when their co-workers are like "maybe it's something we can't comprehend!" made a list of rare moments of good judgment. This is like if your doctor said, at the end of your appointment, "I can safely say you are a mammal!" and you wrote him a 5-star review on Yelp.
5. Ridicule (Season 3, Episode 10)
An affluent woman, Sydney, appears to have committed suicide. Soon thereafter it begins to look like she was murdered, the suicide staged to cover the sexual assault of a male stripper. The stripper reluctantly disclosed a rape at the hands of Sydney and two of her friends when he was hired to entertain them at a bachelorette party, and the ordeal quickly becomes an uphill battle for the prosecution.
Stabler flexes his biceps and nay-says throughout the entire case, resulting in heated interdepartmental exchanges such as:
“An erection is a physical response, Elliott!”
“If he was aroused, he consented.”
“Well, the law disagrees with you.”
There are a few feel-good sex worker moments in there, too, including when DA Cabot needles a professional peer for declining to prosecute the stripper’s assault claim earlier, reprimanding him for judging “the victim’s profession”.
Even Law & Order: SVU, a show produced by a guy named DICK WOLF, understands that rape culture and patriarchy hurts men too.