Rape and sexual assault has become a topic of conversation as of late, but on NBC’s Law & Order: SVU, it’s been front and center every week for almost 18 years. In its 17 seasons, SVU has taken on child abuse, murder, incest, rape, assault, police corruption and many ripped-from-the-headlines stories every week; and the show was recently renewed for its 18th season. Cast members have come and gone and storylines have been recycled, and yet the show continues to get better and better. The reason: Olivia Benson’s unwavering support of victims of assault.
Olivia Benson, as played by Mariska Hargitay, has never doubted an alleged victim of sexual assault. Even when her (mostly male) co-workers doubted a victim, Olivia never wavered. Uncompromising and unwilling to be a pawn in a patriarchal justice system, Benson can always be counted on to champion survivors of sexual abuse that come her way. She never blames the victim, even when others might. In the episode “Pornstar’s Requiem,” Benson investigates the rape of a college student, who has also worked as a porn star. Her aggressors defend themselves by saying that they were simply re-creating a video the woman had starred in, the implication being that because she had performed sexual acts on tape, she had been asking for it. And through it all, Benson stands by the victim, refuting the notion that consent is transferable just because of a woman’s profession. This is just one instance in which Olivia Benson and SVU have refused to accept the “she was asking for it” narrative.
On SVU, Olivia Benson doesn’t just stand by victims, she also encourages them to file charges. Victims of sexual assault are constantly dissuaded from pressing charges, be it from counselors on college campuses or police. And when they do press charges, the road to justice can be long and arduous. Just this week, outrage sparked over the conviction of Brock Allen Turner, who was sentenced to a mere six months in jail after being found guilty on three counts of sexual assault. This sentencing perpetuates the belief that (white) men who commit sexual assault deserve leniency, while women who suffer sexual assault don’t deserve to be heard. But on SVU, Olivia Benson strives every week to ensure that any and all sexual assault victims get justice. That said, SVU takes place in the modern world, where rape and assault victims are often failed by the court system.
Law & Order: SVU might be a law procedural, but writers are careful to ensure that the law is not made to be synonymous with justice. In fact, in her fierce defense of survivors of sexual assault, Benson doesn’t always follow the letter of the law. Despite the fact that she operates as part of “the system,” she isn’t afraid to bend the rules when she finds them particularly unfair. In Season 14’s “Legitimate Rape,” for example, Benson helped a rape victim escape the country with her child after her rapist, the biological father, was awarded visitation rights while serving a prison sentence for his crimes. Through Benson’s occasional rule breaking, SVU is able to admit that the system isn’t always fair, and that laws regarding sexual assault and rape have a long way to go before justice can truly be done.
By continuing to focus on stories of sexual violence against women season after season, Law & Order: SVU combats the widespread belief that accusers of assault are to be doubted first, believed later.
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