How ‘Law & Order: SVU’ Is (Imperfectly) Teaching A Generation About Consent
By Hanna Brooks Olsen
Last fall, I got a lesson in rape culture at the gym. No, it wasn’t unwanted touching from a fellow jogger and no, I wasn’t catching up on my feminist literature while on the treadmill — it was rapper and actor Ice-T in a public service announcement as a part of a Law & Order: SVU marathon, telling me that sexual assault in the military is a serious problem that should not be tolerated.
Any regular viewer knows that the USA network will find any excuse to run an SVU marathon (the station airs the show so frequently, in fact, that there’s a Twitter account about the phenomenon), but on this particular day, it wasn’t just because it was a long weekend. On October 23, the USA network aired hours of the beloved crime drama as part of an educational campaign about sexual assault, consent, and domestic violence.
Called the “No More Excuses” marathon, the programming was much like any other day-long SVU event with a range of episodes, from old-timey Benson and Stabler to Short-Haired Benson to the Danny Pino days. However, instead of being sponsored by a company, the No More Excuses marathon was brought to us by the No More campaign and about a dozen other advocacy groups aimed at ending sexual assault, partner violence, and abuse. In between episodes and commercial breaks, stark PSAs that directly addressed the subject matter of the show aired.
This was both a surprising leap for SVU — and precisely on-brand. On one hand, SVU has made clear over the course of its 17 seasons that it’s about entertainment first, with education playing a secondary, or even tertiary role.
That said, the show has often tackled issues of consent, bodily autonomy, and even sex positivity head-on — Feministing, for example, highlighted a notable anti-victim-blaming moment in 2011, and a 2013 episode about campus rape was described as “surreal” by survivors of the story that inspired it.
But are viewers gaining any real-world lessons from the long-running drama?
Research suggests yes — SVU is in fact somewhat instructional. Washington State University media expert Stacey J. Hust found in a recent study that viewers of Law & Order: SVU have a better understanding of consent, and are more likely to pursue it, than viewers of other crime dramas, like NCIS or CSI. And this without the added Ice-T PSAs.
“We found that Law & Order was associated with decreased rape myth acceptance, as well as increased intentions to seek consent,” Hust explained to me over the phone.
Viewers of the show are less likely to have internalized rape myths that are often perpetuated by other programming (myths like the one that suggests women who dress in any particular way “deserve” to be assaulted, or that spousal rape doesn’t exist), and are more likely to be supportive of a partner’s decision about whether or not to have sex.
So what is it about this simultaneously very-popular and highly-criticized show that somehow, surreptitiously, manages to teach the exact lessons on consent that students, usually male, bristle at being taught?
The answer is multi-pronged, but, Hust says, it seems to have less to do with the “law” part, and more to do with the “order.”
“The thing that differentiates Law & Order from other shows is that the judicial proceedings that are shown on the program,” she explained. Unlike other programs, which often focus on the thrilling pursuit of a perpetrator, SVU emphasizes both the crime and the punishment, as well as the harm done to the victim — all of which helps make the importance of consent more real.
“By showing that person get caught, then having the conversation of consent take place, and then showing them found guilty viewers see that . . . our research indicates that viewers don’t want to make that same mistake.”
SVU also portrays sexual violence and domestic abuse differently than other crime dramas. Focusing less on attacks by strangers and more black-and-white examples of assault, the plot lines frequently touch on more nuanced issues not as often portrayed, such as spousal rape, male sexual abuse, abusive relationships, and attacks on sex workers (porn star Belle Knox said she cheered at the episode based on her story).
“It really emphasizes that everybody has the right to consent,” says Hust of the show. “They cover some pretty hard topics — topics that the general public might not see covered in other media — for example, whether or not sex workers have the right to decline consent, which, of course, they do.”
That differentiation in what SVU shows seems to be both how people learn from it, and why people love it.
The show is, of course, not perfect — often, it’s not even good. It’s been criticized for “making rape a spectator sport,” it frequently and upsettingly engages in stereotypes of prison rape as a threat against suspects or worse, a punchline. And, because SVU rips its subjects from the headlines, the show often falls into a similar trap as writers who are quick to pen hot takes: it adds its own commentary to a cultural moment (or a huge shift in human rights) before there’s been enough time for all relevant parties, and especially those who are most impacted by the movement, to weigh in.
“Intimidation Game,” the episode about GamerGate, for example, was called “sickening” by Anita Sarkeesian, who was the inspiration for the lead character.
There are other troubling issues with the show as well; for years, SVU’s treatment of trans folks was downright appalling. Only in a very recent episode, “Transparent Bridge,” did it even begin to address some basic facts — that sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing, for starters — and show a trans student with loving, accepting parents. And the episode was still fairly flawed.
The program also tends to oversimplify the problem it’s focusing on in any given episode, sometimes choosing convenient and harmful stereotypes over more complex material. When the show, for example, addressed the Black Lives Matter movement — already a difficult and off-brand issue for a show that’s built up the police as heroes — dangerous mixed messages abounded. Though the police clearly shoot an unarmed Black man in the episode “Community Policing,” the viewer sees Benson doubling down on what she’s sure was “a good shoot,” while those who are pressing for police transparency are viewed as radical, too loud, and obstructionist — despite promotional material around the episode which emphasized that #BlackLivesMatterOnSVU.
This is not because the producers, writers, and runners don’t know how to treat subjects with sensitivity or nuance; if anything, it’s the opposite — a calculated choice. In an interview with Slate last October, showrunner Warren Leigh explained that, “episodes that I would call more politically correct, in the sense that we were more sensitive to not offending anyone” tend to perform the least well: “those don’t hold the audience’s interest quite as much.”
Which means, yes, trying not to hurt people literally makes the show less popular.
“If a show is purely educational, it ceases to be entertaining; it feels didactic or preachy. You may have an episode that everyone in a special-interest group approves of, but nobody watches,” explained Leigh.
Hust agrees, at least with the idea that the drive to capture audiences will always come first. “The most important thing for everyone to remember is that Law & Order is not an education program — it’s an entertainment program,” she explains. “It’s only going to be on the air if it’s making money. It’s not a prevention effort.”
So although research backs up that the show is demonstrably beneficial in the realm of consent and rape culture, that certainly doesn’t mean there’s no room to grow. “I think in that area, it’s having some positive effects,” says Hust, “but there’s a whole lot of things that it might have a negative effect on.”
Plenty of adults, including Leigh, have said that the show often forces them to have conversations with their teenage children that they might not otherwise have. But there’s a danger in waiting until viewers are old enough to watch something that is preempted with “Viewer discretion is advised” to have these discussions about consent and bodily autonomy.
Hust’s opinion is that they should start “at a very young age”:
“I’m a mother of young children, and we talk about consent. You don’t run up to a stranger for a hug without asking ‘Is it OK for me to give you a hug?’ I don’t think we can wait until kids are in high school or college — which is where many of these programs are focused — because, by the time someone is in college, there’s a lot more work to done.”
Some of the producers, actors, programmers, and writers of SVU, however, are making a concerted effort on the educational front. Lead actor Mariska Hargitay began the Joyful Heart Foundation as a direct result of her role as Detective Olivia Benson. The foundation, which seeks to empower survivors as well as educate the public about matters of consent and abuse, have not only consulted on the show, but taken the message elsewhere, including sporting events like the Super Bowl, where consent education is arguably needed the most.
Perhaps the work of organizations like the Joyful Heart Foundation and the No More campaign would be more effective independent of Law & Order: SVU, given its commitment to entertainment and attendant flaws. And maybe SVU’s educational messaging would be more potent were it targeted at a younger demographic or dealt with consent more as an ongoing conversation, rather than an on/off switch.
But for all the myriad criticisms — extremely valid, important criticisms, because of course, our problematic faves must be examined more closely than the things we outright reject — research makes clear that in the court of public opinion, SVU is doing some good in its own imperfect, subversive way.