Content Warnings: Police Brutality, Sexual Violence, Rape, Prison, Criminal Justice, Racism
Since I was in middle school until mid-college, I actively watched Law & Order: SVU. It felt like a show that would transform rape culture, one that would teach people how horrible sexual violence is. It's continued for 21 seasons now. It's been praised for how much it matters to our society. But, I was misguided in my lauding of it, as this show is deeply racist, sexist, transphobic, ableist, and carceral.
Like, Sam Roberts argues, the show is not diverse (and, in my opinion, any "diversity" relies on tropes and stereotypes). SVU perpetuates rape culture, and it constantly depicts police brutality as a positive. Moreover, I'd add that the show also gives viewers a false sense that sexual violence occurs predominantly to women and by strangers in the night.
Additionally, it gives a lot of false hope that survivors will get justice in the criminal justice system, when that is not only very unlikely, but also true justice can never exist within the carceral prison industrial complex. Beyond the wonderful points Roberts raises in their blog post, I'd like to specifically on the police brutality and rape culture from the show's heroine, Olivia Benson, and her actions in "Perverted" in season 11, episode 9.
First, a reminder before we proceed: here's an overview of sexual violence statistics and myths. Second, this post will be detailing and analyzing sexual violence and harassment. This could be triggering, so please make sure to take care of yourself and exit at any time; the National Sexual Assault Helpline is only a call away [800.656.HOPE (4673)].
In this episode and this thorough breakdown/synopsis, there's a lot going on. Specifically, at the end of the episode, Olivia is attacked in her apartment by a man, Brady, that she put in prison years ago. As he is on the verge of attacking her, he asks her why she arranged for his rape in prison. Olivia does not know what Brady is talking about, but eventually comes to the understanding that she threatened him during his interrogation. In the interrogation, she had said, “A pretty boy like you is gonna be real popular in prison. Maybe when you’re raped, you’ll understand what you put those women through.” Benson, under the threat of Brady's violence, declares that she should have never said that nor did she arrange for that. Eventually, Olivia manages to apprehend him, he's arrested, and Olivia is exonerated from being framed.
This scene epitomizes some of the series' problematics with police brutality, the criminal justice system, and rape culture. Olivia, while apologetic in the moment, apologizes only under the threat of violence, so as a viewer, we don't know how sincere it is. Moreover, her violent and brutal words are never addressed further in the episode or in the series, and she continues to perpetuate police brutality at times as well. So, this threat of rape to a perpetrator is still continued throughout the series with many of her interrogations threatening perpetrators with murder and/or sexual violence once they go to prison.
This is unacceptable, violent, and carceral. Sexual violence in prison is perpetrated by other inmates as well as prison staff at alarming rates. Prisons have a vested interest in not letting this information out, as prison staff commits 42% of these assaults. The criminal justice system is also a system that allows for a form of modern-day slavery to prevail against Black people and people of color, such as DuVernay discuss in 13th. Thus, Olivia and other police officers' threats in the show perpetuate the very real scenario that these people will be brutalized and assaulted by law enforcement. This brutality exists both in prisons as well as in homes and society. Police kill and hurt Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color as well as disabled people at alarming rates. Police officers have some of the highest rates perpetuating domestic violence.
Furthermore, regardless of what anyone has done, no one deserves to be sexually assaulted, harmed, or killed, so when law enforcement officers threaten this, they continue to add to rape culture. Yet, viewers will continue to root for law enforcement and Olivia in these scenarios because as the show's intro says, "These are their stories *dun dun*..."
But, who's stories are we telling here? The stories of the oppressors in the system that brutalizes and assaults? The stories of "justice"? The stories of rape culture? This show is not one to be lauded for many reasons, but particularly because it distorts sexual violence and the very ways it flows into every part of our society, even the criminal justice system.