For Some Assault Survivors, Law & Order SVU Is Surprisingly Healing

Law & Order SVU Olivia Benson
Photo: Photo Illustration: Photo: NBC

On Sept. 27, 2018, just hours after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while she was in high school, Sergeant Olivia Benson took on a case of her own during the season premiere of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Though fictional, the plot felt familiar: Men in positions of power must present strength in any way they can, and victims need people to advocate for them.

These ideas — toxic masculinity, privilege, power — are often at the heart of SVU, Dick Wolf’s long-running police procedural about the special division of the NYPD that investigates sex crimes. Lieutenant Olivia Benson is played by Mariska Hargitay, and her character is a steadfast supporter of survivors of sexual assault. Over the last two decades, Benson and the other SVU detectives have been allies, confidantes, and unflinching mentors to the hundreds of victims who walked through the police station doors. Benson is a voice for the the kind of victim that is often discredited in real life; imperfect, impaired, mentally ill, and without hard evidence. In the midst of the #MeToo movement, where allegations of sexual abuse filter into the news almost daily, SVU is a hopeful juxtaposition to reality, a fantasy of what could happen, both when the justice system works, and when someone actually believes you. That narrative can be instrumental to real survivors watching the show.

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When SVU premiered in 1999, societal discourse around sexual misconduct, domestic violence, and power imbalances lacked nuance and care; public disclosures and allegations were not as rampant. SVU was a show that illuminated the complexities of these cases — and within the last year, the country began to see them play out in a tangible, woefully non-fictional way. Between the Harvey Weinstein allegations, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction, and the recent allegations against Kavanaugh, each day’s headlines feel more in line with SVU subplots instead of the other way around; the show is known for its “ripped from the headlines” storylines.

Olivia Benson

Despite the overwhelming number of sexual abuse stories recently come to light — and the increasingly blurred lines between dramatized television and reality — for some viewers, Law & Order: SVU is just as vital in 2018 as the day it first aired 20 seasons earlier, showing an optimistic view of investigators who tirelessly work to see justice done. Especially poignant now, nearly a year following start of #MeToo, the show provides solace in escapism, a place where the bad guys go down.

Before on-campus fraternity assaults and the term “gang rape” were a part of the popular vernacular, SVU served as a cultural entry point into the minutiae of sex crimes, their investigations, and court trials. Kate, a 36-year-old SVU fan who declined to share her last name, says this created the “Olivia Benson generation” — viewers who came of age watching the show, and are now adults with an understanding of and compassion for the ways trauma can manifest in survivors.

As one of the moderators of the popular Twitter account @SVU_Diehards, a curated mix of fan retweets, updates about the show and its actors, and commentary, Kate has become one of the most authoritative voices in the SVU fan community. Over time, survivors who watched the show felt comfortable disclosing to her their assaults. She’s frustrated, she says, to know there aren’t many avenues for survivors to speak to a trustworthy source and to feel advocated for, but Benson’s role as a champion, albeit fictional, brings hope.

“I know SVU is still an escape for survivors,” Kate says. “Benson is the voice of survivors who they never had, a cop they could trust. [SVU is] a show where victims are believed and crimes are investigated. It’s a fantasy of what should happen, not what is happening in the world right now.”

If Benson can’t advocate on behalf of victims, her real-life counterpart can. Hargitay herself has proven a champion for survivors through her Joyful Heart Foundation, which provides resources to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. The tenacity of show’s characters have bled into the actors’ missions, a fact fans of the show see as proof of the show’s impact.

Megan Geertson, a Dick Wolf universe fan, finds SVU more resonant than ever. As the news became focused on cases of sexual assault — from the accusations against the president, to comedian Louis C.K. — the show is a “reminder that not all law enforcement is bad and that there are people in positions of power who still want to help,” the 30-year-old New Yorker says.

Power imbalances lay at the core of SVU’s storylines, whether between a boss and an employee, a husband and a wife, or a trafficker and victim, and the detectives on the show aim to level the playing field. As powerful men accused of harassment are staging comebacks in real life, Benson and company create safe environments for the disenfranchised where the perpetrator can’t bounce back. Instead, the show just ends; the victim forever frozen as a victor.

A central focus of this fantasy is the notion that survivors are believed — believed regardless of what they were wearing or how much they’d had to drink. Though the show does portray false accusations, the detectives carefully investigate each complaint. But in the real world, when allegations are easily dismissed by powerful figures, and such dismissals are publicized, how can viewers remain hopeful the same care would be carried out in actual assault cases?

When Sam Roberts, a survivor of sexual assault, watches the show, she feels like Olivia Benson is speaking directly to her. Roberts says she felt internalized shame and never reported the incident. SVU became a silent ally.

“As somebody who had never really spoken about it, I never had anyone tell me it’s not your fault,” she, says. “Having that avatar through Benson was incredibly transformative.” Roberts says the show acts as a form of “wish fulfillment,” contrary to the news. Kate of @SVU_Diehards mentions SVU’s effectiveness at being a justice surrogate for some victims “because they didn’t [have justice] in their own lives.”

Still, Kate has friends who have experienced sexual assault and had to create distance from the fictional Special Victims Unit for their own wellbeing.

“Every morning, I wake up and see what's happening in America, and every day it seems like there’s a new man … outed as being despicable,” she says. “So you go to SVU to escape and see these people get justice. I’ve spoken to some friends, how they have to pull away from the show because of the news because it’s constant.”

Though SVU has provided an outlet for Roberts as recently as last season, the tenor of the news during the Kavanaugh hearing left a bitter taste in her mouth: she has no plans to watch new episodes.

“I’m not ready to go back to that escape yet because it feels so far away,” Roberts says. “The fantasy that SVU sells feels further away than it has in a really long time.”

Jordan Cooper, another SVU fan, sees the turbulent news cycle as providing continued opportunities for the show to educate the masses on the complicated issues dominating headlines. Cooper believes that storylines inspired by powerful men in entertainment like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein would serve audiences well, even though it draws from real people’s pain. Despite the lack of closure survivors are afforded in real life, he takes solace in morality emerging victorious somewhere, even if it is an alternate universe.

“It makes you feel like someone’s listening, somebody cares, somebody's listening to what’s happening,” he says. “Even if it’s a fictional show, watching it makes me feel better.”

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