Beyond Tabloid CrimeThe Slow, Methodical Evolution of Sexual Assault on “Law & Order: SVU”

Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU (Photo credit: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

For two decades and counting, the title sequence of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has been an iconic peek into the era of tabloid crime. Each episode opens with a male voice solemnly declaring, “In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous.” From there on, images do the talking, with newspaper headlines like “East Side Rapist Captured” and “MOLESTATION” alongside photos of toppled strollers, empty swing sets, arms in handcuffs, hands behind bars, victims being comforted by police, and broken dolls. The gore, lurid intensity, and emphasis on terror running amok in urban communities reflect the tenor of the era in which the show debuted—one of “tabloid crime,” “superpredators,” and the railroading of the Central Park Five.

It’s imagery that identifies sexual assault as a major part of the urban crime that’s eroding New York City’s morality, but as the show has evolved, its opening has become increasingly disconnected from its content. SVU’s first season features the usual suspects of and preoccupations with late-’90s fears of urban and cosmopolitan social decline: murdered bisexual millionaires, BDSM enthusiasts, chat-room meetups gone wrong, competing gangs, and subway attackers. It also delved into darker and more brutal—if less overtly sensational—territory: The episode “Payback” is about the legacy of Serbian genocide, while “Nocturne” grapples with the devastating effects of a cycle of abuse.

“Nocturne” remains one of the show’s darkest, most complicated episodes: It begins with an employee at a photography store finding disturbing videos in some of the film he is processing. When SVU detectives arrive on the scene, they discover reams of footage that show a piano teacher abusing his young students. One young boy identified from the videos becomes a key witness for investigators. As a grown man and aspiring professional musician, he’s thoughtful, helpful, and constantly reminded of the horror he has lived through. And then suddenly, the hammer drops. New video footage reveals that after years of being carefully groomed, he’s now helping his piano teacher enact abuse on others. The victim has become the victimizer; violence has bred more violence; trauma has begat more trauma. There’s no victory or even righteous indignation to be felt at the episode’s close, only a sadness at the unfixable injustice of it all.

The thematic inconsistency of SVU’s first season, teetering between schlock and seriousness, matched the chaos of a country that at the time was reckoning, often grudgingly, with a new understanding of gendered inequality and sexualized power dynamics. A new generation of women, soon to be known as feminism’s “Third Wave,” took up the radical feminism that had been a casualty of Reagan-era backlash. In 1991, the topic of workplace harassment entered into public discourse for the first time when Anita Hill testified that pending Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had harassed her. College students revived Take Back the Night rallies to raise awareness about sexual violence on campuses and spoke extensively about the imbalance of power inherent in romantic relationships between students and teachers.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest Network formed in 1994 and tapped singer-songwriter Tori Amos—whose 1991 debut album Little Earthquakes included a song about her own rape—as its inaugural spokesperson. This publication, Bitch, was formed during this era. But alongside a growing desire to discuss such realities was a culture that treated female pain as a grotesque spectacle. As David Kamp described it for Vanity Fair in 1999, this was “the tabloid decade,” and its spotlight was most brightly focused on women— Lorena Bobbit, Tonya Harding, Amy Jo Fisher, and Monica Lewinsky, among others—who were offered up for public mockery. We now know that their stories were darker and far more nuanced than the media circus allowed, intertwined with domestic abuse and questions of consent. But at the time, the uncertain narrative combination of seriousness, salacious ripped-from-the-headline storytelling, and terror around urban crime became a mainstay of popular culture.

In 2000, a year after SVU’s launch, CBS premiered CSI, a blockbuster hit that immediately changed TV’s approach to depicting detective work, moving it from the mean streets to high-tech forensic labs. In response, SVU shifted its focus to dead bodies and forensic mysteries, introducing medical examiner Dr. Melinda Warner (Tamara Tunie) in 2000. Warner quickly became an essential part of each episode, offering sober analyses of the damage done to—and clues held in—the bodies of victims. The forensic analysis that made CSI a television juggernaut—the show became the most-watched in the United States by 2002, and had two hit spinoffs by 2004—became part of a larger trend in 2000s pop culture: female disembodiment.

Women’s bodies were being broken apart, partitioned out, and disassembled in paparazzi upskirt shots, breasts flashed to Girls Gone Wild cameras, and Abu Ghraib–inspired body-horror movies like Saw. It was a decade defined by the violence and trauma perpetrated against Americans in 2001 and then inflicted by the U.S. government on people in other countries. Disassembled female bodies were a way for Americans to conceptualize the violence around them while also turning it into seemingly apolitical, solemn entertainment. (“We are really, truly restrained in what we show,” SVU editor Karen Stern told Marie Claire in 2018. “We don’t want to titillate.”)

But though SVU has largely steered clear of the gore and intense luridness of CSI, Criminal Minds, and other prime-time procedurals, it has still played into the idea that violence against women isn’t about the woman’s experience but rather about the remains of her body. The victims Warner examines never get to tell their story or engage in the search of justice that follows their assault. Instead, these victims become a voiceless vessel in which the audience can observe and police can build narratives upon. And still, examining SVU’s treatment of its protagonist Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) might be the best way to analyze how the show’s understanding of sexual assault and violence against women has evolved over the years.

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Benson began as the show’s voice of empathy, a foil to her more impulsive partner, Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni), but quickly became SVU’s unquestionable narrative center. Along the way, the audience has watched as her intimate relationships, trauma, and unconventional path to motherhood have unfolded. Benson’s had an unemotional sexual affair with a heartbroken coworker, left restaurants mid-date to pick up work calls, and arrived at crime scenes in cocktail dresses and high heels. In early seasons, she wonders if her desire to become a SVU detective comes less from her desire to help others and more from a desire to wield her power—a trait she assumes she inherited from her rapist father.

By the 2010s, however, the qualities that made Benson and complicated and interesting were sanded down for an easier narrative: She’s a cop because she wants justice for women, and she will do everything in power to make sure that justice is served. In a 2011 article for Jezebel, writer Zack Rosen analyzes Benson’s shift from a complicated and flawed detective to a superwoman,” noting, 

“Season 1 Benson could almost have been in an episode of Friends. She has strong a ‘single girl trying to make it in New York City’ vibe that is glaringly incongruous with her characterization today. She was unsure of herself, and prone to mistakes, and most importantly she dated. And now I know what bothers me so much about Olivia-Benson-as-superwoman: She seems to further that ol’ ideological chestnut that a woman can be sexual or smart but not both.”

The depiction of Benson as a tough woman too busy to be bothered with pleasure and desire reached its peak in the Season 16 episode “Surrendering Noah,” wherein she decides to adopt a child. (She officially adopts her foster son, Noah, in the Season 16 finale.)  Her new maternal dimension earned her the moniker “Mama Bear Benson,” a name that showed up on Tumblr fan pages but also in the New York Times and on E! News. She’s a woman devoted to her son and her victims. Benson began evolving from a complicated working woman to a feminist superhero in Season 9, when she’s nearly raped by a corrupt guard at a women’s prison where she’s posing as an inmate.

Though she’s saved in the nick of time by her colleague Finn Tutuola (Ice-T), this plotline was a vehicle by which Benson developed more meaningful relationships with the victims she encounters. Still, this storyline situates Benson among female victims without acknowledging that her assault was the product of a corrupt system to which she actively contributes. She may share a gender with the victims for whom she seeks justice, but Benson’s profession will always align her with the power of a guard. The fact that Benson is ultimately saved from the worst of the assault by her coworker only serves to underscore the stark reality that only certain people will be saved. Traumatic violence again becomes central to Benson’s narrative in Season 15, when she’s kidnapped by convicted rapist and murderer William Lewis (Pablo Schreiber).

The storyline, which plays out over two episodes, is full of stylized violence that feels off-key for a show that has long prioritized realism: Within a single season, Lewis binds and gags Benson in a trunk, forces her to watch him rape other women, and tells her to participate in a game of Russian Roulette. Benson’s personal experiences with assault mostly served to increase her—and the show’s—commitment to prosecuting sex crimes. In the Season 18 episode “Imposter,” Benson becomes obsessed with prosecuting a rape-by-fraud case wherein a college janitor pretends to be a college dean so that he can sleep with rich mothers who think they’re exchanging sex for their child’s spot at an elite college. Benson insists that the janitor should be prosecuted, but rape-by-fraud is a tricky legal precedent to set, and one that has often been used to imprison trans people.

Though SVU has largely steered clear of the gore and intense luridness of CSI, Criminal Minds, and other prime-time procedurals, it has still played into the idea that violence against women isn’t about the woman’s experience but rather about the remains of her body.

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The episode’s central victim is uncertain about bringing her case to court, but Benson coerces her into going to trial—a recurring theme in Season 16. Benson’s obsession with criminal prosecution started feeling a bit off, particularly in 2016—a time when the activists involved in the movement to end police brutality were having increasingly public discussions about the failures of the police system. SVU’s decision to lean hard into prosecution illustrated one of the conflicts of an era where both sexual assault and the prison-industrial complex are being given serious attention. How can we reconcile our desire to see equality and justice with the reality that our criminal-justice system is often anathema to both of these outcomes?

But maybe SVU is starting to take the idea that the prison system is an imperfect vessel for justice more seriously. Season 20 began with “Man Up” and “Man Down,” a two-part episode  centered on a teen boy who is sexually abused by his dad, forced by the district attorney to bring his case to court, and who responds to these humiliations by committing a mass shooting at his school. The question looms large: Did forcing him to bring his story to trial just increase the victim’s trauma? This is a question Assistant District Attorney Peter Stone (Philip Winchester) asks Benson after the mass shooting. “He was raped!” Benson exclaimed. “Yeah, and I raped him again,” Stone replies.

The brutality of this statement surprised me but also suggested a more nuanced direction for SVU. When Americans have finally begun to recognize that sexual assault is serious, real, and can manifest in ways that can make it difficult for even the victim to acknowledge, where do we go next? Perhaps the next step is recognizing that sexual assault is just one way that violation occurs, and that the criminal-justice system is a part of this apparatus. It has never been just about bad actors; it’s about a web of power that ensnares us all. We are all victims, but sometimes we are victimizers too.

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by Katherine Tallman
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Katherine Tallman is a social worker and current grad student. She lives in Manhattan with her two pets: a large rabbit and a tiny dog.