Season 19 of Law & Order: SVU premieres this September, and the series is timelier than ever.
I can’t remember a time when Law & Order: Special Victims Unit wasn’t on the air, but I was still a little taken aback when I saw the headline that SVU had been renewed for season 19, which will premiere on September 27. It wasn’t the renewal that surprised me — it was the fact that a show about sex crimes is one of the longest-running TV dramas of all time.
Most dramas jump the shark by season six or so, and I’ll admit that when Christopher Meloni announced he wouldn’t return for season 13, I assumed SVU’s days were numbered. I couldn’t have been more wrong — the show’s quality didn’t wane, and over the past few years SVU has become increasingly important. In 2017 it’s more relevant than ever.
But why do viewers love a show about sex crimes so much? For starters, according to RAINN (the Rape Abuse Incest National Network), one out of every six women will be raped during her lifetime. Countless sexual assault survivors take comfort in a show that places a strong focus on victims and provides powerful reminders that we’re not alone and we’re never to blame.
Survivors of sex crimes often feel disempowered and as though they don’t have a voice. Because the vast majority of assaults are committed by acquaintances, friends and even significant others, victims stay silent. Survivors of sexual assaults by strangers certainly have reasons for not reporting the crime as well. SVU helps survivors feel as though we’ve been given a voice, even if we’re not ready to speak up about our own experiences yet.
The series can also serve as an important conversation starter about consent, an increasingly hot-button issue. Especially in cases of acquaintance rape, people are often quick to write off the crime as “a misunderstanding” or “gray-area sex” rather than calling it what it is: rape. The word itself is taboo, and that needs to become a thing of the past. In SVU, rape is called rape.
As more girls and women, including teen prep school sexual assault survivor Chessy Prout, begin to open up about their experiences, conversations surrounding consent are evolving. Lawmakers have pushed for “Yes Means Yes” legislation that emphasizes silence doesn’t equal consent. But the taboo certainly hasn’t been erased, and SVU offers an opportunity for us to start general conversations about sexual violence and consent — especially because many episodes focus on acquaintance rape.
Of course, SVU isn’t exactly the most realistic show on TV. Only 310 out of every 1,000 rapes are reported to police and just 11 out of 1,000 cases are referred to prosecutors. In the most disheartening statistic of all, only six out of every 1,000 rapists will spend a day in prison. To put it bluntly, the vast majority of sexual violence victims don’t get justice. Most survivors don’t report the crime, and when we do we’re often faced with police and a legal system that re-victimize and re-traumatize us.
“Women love watching Law & Order: SVU because it lets us safely live out our fantasy of a rape being properly handled by the police,” comedian Ariel Elias tweeted last October. As much as we wish every detective were like Olivia Benson, who treats victims with the utmost compassion while tirelessly working to achieve justice, that’s not the norm. Still, I often feel encouraged after watching SVU because it gives me hope that, in the future, women and men will feel safer reporting assault — especially because so many important conversations are currently happening in the “real world.” SVU shows that it’s possible for sexual violence to be handled with sensitivity and compassion, even if the perpetrator doesn’t end up behind bars.
And as it turns out, a study led by Stacey Hust, an associate professor at Washington State University, found that SVU has a positive impact on viewers. Hust found that SVU fans responded differently to sexual consent questions than did people who favored crime dramas like CSI and NCIS.
“Given the Law & Order producers’ conscientious efforts to not glamorize rape and to portray punishment of the crime, they have essentially created a program that could be used to reduce sexual assault,” Hust and her coauthors wrote.
“Individuals who watched Law and Order were more likely to refuse unwanted sexual activity, and they were also more likely to adhere to their partner’s decision related to sexual consent,” Hust told Vice. “And so this was beyond just an attitudinal change. This was actually they felt more empowered to say no if they didn’t actually want to have sex or to participate in sexual activity. And if their partner said no, they reported that they were more likely to intend to stop.”
Childhood friends Aviv Rubinstien and Matthew Reuter recently concluded season two of their SVU podcast, Special Viewing Unit. After watching each episode twice, they discuss the content. Although they’re both longtime fans, the pair say the podcast has opened their eyes to just how topical the show is. “The subject matter of the show is horrible, but it’s also good to have someone holding a mirror up to society on a weekly basis,” Reuter told Marie Claire.
Furthermore, SVU has consistently brought attention to issues that have been ignored and overlooked for years. Reuter pointed out that the season two episode “Consent” closely mirrors the high-profile Brock Turner case, in which a Stanford swimmer spent just three months in prison for sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman.
“That was a big eye-opening moment for me,” Reuter said. “If that episode had aired this year, everyone would be convinced that it was in reference to the Brock Turner case, and yet it was from 17 years prior.”
It’s no surprise that SVU has remained popular enough to earn a 19th season. Survivors take comfort in seeing our stories taken seriously, even if perpetrators are more likely to face jail time on the show than in real life. SVU dispels the myth that rapists are strangers lurking in alleys and shows the unsettling reality that, more often than not, they’re totally “normal” individuals with successful careers and a wide circle of friends.
As colleges are forced to confront the campus sexual assault epidemic, the media begins to cover rape in a deeper manner, and survivors continue to speak out in larger numbers, SVU’s 19th season could prove to be its most important yet.