The Rape Survivors “SVU” Doesn’t Show

Three men are savagely sodomized and an insulting name burned onto their chests. Their attacker? The woman they raped years before, now out for revenge. … A teenage girl is raped by a stranger. He returns years later and rapes her again. She moves across country and goes into hiding, but the same stranger finds and rapes her yet again. … A woman mysteriously drops dead in the park after having questionably consensual sex with a stranger. The cause of her odd behavior and death? Rare, toxic mushroom poisoning…

And so goes this current season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) a show feminists can laud for its commitment to talking about rape and for bringing awareness to such important issues as the nation’s shameful amassing backlog of untested rape kits. I hate to chide those giving voice to the oft-silenced topic of sexual assault, but I’m afraid I must question the show’s recent narratives. Season Twelve’s far-fetched scenarios are so far removed from reality that they jeopardize some of our best efforts to raise awareness about sexual assault and increase survivors’ access to victims services. Instead, SVU is perpetuating our national delusion that rape is not a serious epidemic nor something likely to occur in our own lives.

In the two years I spent working as a volunteer advocate providing trauma counseling to rape victims in an emergency room, none of my cases packed the shock value one finds now in the stories on SVU. In fact, they were quite mundane compared to the TV series’ favored tales of poisoning, revenge, dark dungeons and religious cult rituals. The emergency room testimonials I was privy to–those quotidian, common experiences of rape–have not found their voice on SVU this season.

I am thinking, for example, of one teenage girl I met in the ER who had been raped by her sister’s boyfriend. He used verbal intimidation and his dominant strength to carry out the attack, but very little violence (apart from the rape, which itself is an act of violence). But she had no bruises, no cuts, no broken bones. And it was over in 10 minutes. There would be no subsequent trail leading detectives to uncover some egregious corporate scandal of grandiose proportions, an underground black market for selling babies, or some rare, poisonous concoction. But does that make this girl’s trauma any less worthy, less urgent, less heart-wrenching?

Not only are SVU’s cases strange anomalies, but often the detectives’ handling of the cases are rather absurd. In New York City, hospitals are legally prohibited from reporting a sexual assault to the police against the victim’s wishes (unless a weapon was used in the attack). Yet time and again on SVU, the detectives are called in without the victim’s permission. What is worse, even after a victim has turned them away, Detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) will open an investigation, follow the victim to her home, park outside her front door and refuse to leave until she agrees to cooperate (such was their conduct in “Behave,” a Season Twelve episode featuring Jennifer Love Hewitt). This would be a gross breach of protocol real life, and this misrepresentation of reality is dangerous. How many victims will opt to stay home rather than seek medical treatment or counseling because television has them convinced that seeking help means having to report?

One might argue that in its twelfth season, SVU has had to throw more obstacles in the detectives’ paths or focus its narratives on the utterly bizarre and outrageous in order to keep its audience engaged. As SVU writer Daniel Truly recently told Jezebel readers,

I can imagine how viewers can get turned off by some of our twists–but I swear it’s only because we’re trying to keep the audience guessing!

Yes, a show needs new and compelling content to survive that long–but there are other ways. For example, SVU could add a new character (and, no, not just bring in a new actor for the ever-revolving role of assistant d.a.). May I suggest an emergency room advocate? Or better yet, instead of presenting a new scenario each week, SVU could offer a multiple-episode arc in which we watch the trauma unfold in a rape survivor’s life over time. These are but two ideas of what surely are many more.

SVU has been a pioneer on television for so long, admirably giving voice to an ignored epidemic–so thank you, longtime producer Neal Baer (who has just announced that he’s leaving the show). But it can do better than it has so far this season. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN),  in the United States one in six women and one in 33 men will be victims of sexual assault in their lifetimes. If SVU would tell the real and all-too-ordinary stories of some of these people, maybe the show could make even more of a difference.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit airs at 9 p.m. (8 central) on NBC.

Photos of Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni filming Law & Order: SVU from Flickr user ChrisGampat, under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. This essay makes some excellent points. I agree with the writer that if SVU is going to use rape to heighten its ratings, the show has an obligation to at least a hint of realism on the flip side. It should incorporate some teachable moments — such as including an emergeny room advocate, as suggested here.

  2. it is a tv show. maybe you shouldnt go to tv shows for ur real life examples of real life tragedies.

  3. As a regular SVU viewer, I think they're doing what they need to do to entertain viewers. Obviously, some of the things are going to be more outrageous, but it's not real life, it's a TV show. It's the same as how soap operas are an extreme version of real life and how hospital dramas feature crazy ailments people have never heard of before. It's not real, it's television. It's all glorified versions of what really goes on.

    SVU looks to the headlines to bring things to the forefront of peoples minds like ending the rape kit backlog. I wouldn't have any idea it even existed had I not seen the episode they had that covered it. The efforts being made by Mariska Hargitay and her Joyful Heart Foundation to make people aware should be applauded. They are raising awareness and making a difference.

    I realize your experience has exposed you to what you call ordinary cases that aren't as flashy, but that's the nature of the entertainment industry. TV and movies always take things to that next level because it makes an impact and holds the viewers attention. I don't think that the young victim you mentioned being sexually assaulted by her sister's boyfriend was any less of a victim than someone whose story was more dramatic. I do, however, think that people react to the extreme. It's just human nature.

    I think, perhaps, this hits close to home for you so you are seeing it more black and white. As a viewer, I can step back and I realize things are often exaggerated for the sake of the show. I realize there are a lot of ordinary cases out there but I think it's just difficult to stretch that into a whole hour show. SVU is all about telling the story and they throw in twists and turns so you can't always figure out the ending. Try and consider giving viewers more credit that we don't think these stories are all factual and the way it is in real life.

    Just my .02.

  4. Karin Anderson says:

    LISA: Thank you for your thoughtful response! Many other readers have shared your opinion, and I think you raise a very valid point — that this is a fictional show designed to entertain. It is not a documentary or news program intended to report on actual events/facts. So of course we must allow for some creativity, even hyperbole, and not demand perfect realism or accuracy throughout. That said, my concern, is that — fiction or not — SVU has a great responsibility given that there is very little talk of sexual assault in our mainstream media. SVU is one of the few programs giving voice to this issue, and by being one of the only voices it becomes an amplified one. Ergo it must use its voice with care. Furthermore, I would argue the show DOES often endeavor to raise awareness and educate the public (like with the rape kit backlog episode, as you pointed out). So I worry that when the behavior of the show's hospital staff and police consistently break accepted protocol, for example, that they are dangerously MIS-educating the public. Were I not a trained advocate, I would not have known that a rape victim could report to a hospital without reporting to the police. SVU perpetuates this misconception — which has very real consequences when victims are making choices about what to do — many will likely base their decisions on what they think they know (from shows like SVU). I firmly believe Law & Order SVU could be more accurate and responsible in its story-telling — and use its position to better educate the public — and still remain entertaining. HOWEVER: I would also argue that rape itself is not (and should not) be seen as entertainment. It is not the assault itself on the show that we viewers enjoy, of course not! What we enjoy is the compelling detective work, the dramatic courtroom trials, the various characters' relationships, etc. The show's writers could work on making THOSE story lines more exciting — instead of working to make the rape scenarios themselves "exciting."

  5. Very interesting!

    However, not all areas of the U.S. follow what you describe as hospitals in New York being e" legally prohibited from reporting a sexual assault to the police against the victim’s wishes (unless a weapon was used in the attack)." Very many times in our area, nurses call the police without a survivors permission (regardless of a weapon being involved) and medical practitioners are MANDATED to report if a survivor is under the age of 18.

    In my experience working with survivors and with an agency that provides medical and legal advocacy and support services for survivors of sexual violence, the most frustrating and misleading part of SVU's portrayal of sexual assault cases is the fact that the DA, Detectives and entire legal system is so entirely supportive and highly enthusiastic in not only charging and arresting suspected perpetrators, but in prosecuting.

    I know of several survivors (here in real life) that report to the police thinking they are going to see their attacker/abuser hauled off to be held accountable for their violence, and then locked away where they "can't hurt anyone anymore." because THAT'S WHAT THEY SEE ON TV.

    Unfortunately, that RARELY happens. DAs take cases based on what they think they can probably win (to make their office have a good record) and investigations are often extremely triggering, retraumatizing and victim blaming for survivors who do choose to report … not some reaffirming "we shall bring your perp to justice!" sort of experience that is so readily advertised in movies and TV.

  6. Karin, first of all, thank you for being willing to listen to other points of view and understand where others are coming from. Second, there are a few points I would like to make myself which I think may help you understand the situation better. As it has been said, SVU is required to provide some type of entertainment, whether that be by unique story lines and scripts, or just by the look into the characters' personal lives. SVU does provide entertainment by both though. I understand your concern about medical procedures, but what you do have to give SVU credit for is that it is certainly more accurate than most crime shows. For instance, CSI has detectives doing lab work and lab techs doing detective work…it's all backwards. But with SVU, the creators feel a need to provide more accurate information and portrayals than do many of the other crime shows, which I applaud them for. Neal Baer produced ER before SVU, and is a doctor in real life; therefore, he works hard to make sure the show is not based on just false information. Many of the odd cases that have been showcased on SVU are either actual cases in which changes were made to make it more interesting to watch, or actual medical mysteries/rare illnesses that do exist, but are not well-known. With the episode Savant, the case brings to light Williams Syndrome, which is a rare disorder that effects 1 in 10,000 people. It is syndromes like this and other rare diseases that SVU sheds light upon, raising awareness to the issue. I do understand that not every aspect of the show will be 100% factual, as it is television, but I do give SVU credit for taking that extra step to find the best compromise between facts and entertainment as possible.

    Regarding the entertainment aspect, I realize that it is easy to think that raising the entertainment bar can be implied as describing rape as entertainment; however, what has to be considered is that SVU is not saying rape is entertainment, but the show itself as a whole. For instance, the characters themselves provide a level of entertainment to where some will only watch the show if their favorite character is still part of the cast. There are the fans who want Elliot and Olivia to be together, and are purely entertained by their interaction alone. There are also the fans who are most entertained by the humor of Munch. Each group of fans are entertained at a different level, and by different aspects of the show; that's part of what makes it great television—everyone can relate in some form or another. The way SVU provides entertainment is by unexpected twists that keep the viewers' attention, the interaction between the characters, the both subtle and not so subtle humor, and the mystery. If the show did not incorporate the unexpected twists, for example, into their story lines, then they would lose the viewer's attention and the opportunity to spread a message/raise awareness. As odd as some of the twists or story lines can be, some are partly based on events that have happened, and some do happen in real life, even if it's not reported or known. The things that go on behind closed doors can be shocking and make SVU seem like only a fraction of the truth. Think of Elizabeth Smart, the mother who threw her baby in the dryer, or child slaves who are even in prominent communities in the U.S.

    (continued in next post)

  7. (continued from first post)

    It was mentioned that in real life, the legal system is not near as supportive as some of it is on SVU. That is true, but the reason SVU does that is because they are advocating for change. They are setting examples for the legal system and discipline systems to follow. I'll give you a few examples of episodes that particularly do this: Gray. Gray confronts the ridiculous actions of college disciplinary systems of how they discourage reporting to the police, hide behind privacy laws, only expel the perpetrator from school (no police reporting), and do not provide appropriate services to the victims. Unfortunately, this problem is very common in colleges and studies show that even the statistics for this issue are inaccurate, as much of this problem is hidden in the school system due to the school attempting to protect their reputation. Witness. Witness opened the eyes of countless viewers who had never been aware that their cell phones, computers, and other electronics may be contributing to rape as a weapon of war in the Congo. This episode ignited a discussion, and brought about new advocates for prevention. Behave. Behave is the episode that raised awareness to the rape kit backlog epidemic that a large number of people had never heard of before. I remember asking a friend to watch this episode, sharing with with her what the rape kit backlog is; she had no clue there are kits that have never been tested. She along with countless others were made aware of this epidemic because of this episode. I saw where you stated frustrations with this episode. I would like to take this opportunity to share a few points about the episode in hopes that you might see it in a different way. I completely understand how some were appalled by Olivia sitting outside Vickie's apartment and pushing her to get help, but as frustrating as it may be for the victim, it has to be considered that Olivia saved her life. Had Olivia not pushed Vickie to get help, Vickie would have been murdered without a doubt. Olivia also helped Vickie find inner courage and begin the first step to healing. By watching her rapist, the man who terrorized her and others for years, be put in jail, she gained her life back. She would of course have a long road of recovery ahead of her, but she got a good start to that by shutting him in a cell. I know that pushing victims to get help is not always the best idea, as it can essentially deter them from getting help, but in the cases like Vickie's where her life is currently in danger, saving a life is what's important. It may be difficult for the victim as first, dealing with the pushing etc., but in the long run they will see the strength they gained from someone saving their life…just like Vickie did. In my personal life, Behave inspired me to an incredible degree. The neat thing about episodes like Gray, Witness, and Behave is that organizations that advocate for prevention of these issues or deal with these issues partnered with SVU and promoted the episode because they knew that doing so would raise awareness. In the instance of Gray, a university had a special event for their students (info here:…. It really inspires me that a television show can ignite real change. Mariska herself, and her foundation, has played a huge part in the recent progress to end the rape kit backlog.

    SVU changed Mariska's life, and inspired her to create Joyful Heart. SVU/Mariska has changed my life too and helped me to find my purpose; I now realize that being an advocate for victims is what I am meant to do for the rest of my life. Sure, there are always gonna be frustrations people have with SVU, but when I think about all the people who I've read about that are now going to be SVU detectives or victims' advocates in real life, advocates who support efforts to end the rape kit backlog and rape in the Congo, and the victims who seek help because of SVU and Mariska, I am touched and inspired that one show can change so many lives for the better, and know the good has outweighed the bad when it comes to SVU.

  8. Karin Anderson says:

    First, I would like to share this message with you that I received from a rape survivor:
    "Just wanted to let you know that I read your piece on Ms., and I think one of my biggest struggles as a survivor was realizing that what happened to me was wrong despite the fact that it didn't look like the gruesome stories on TV. Your piece says exactly what I've been feeling for years."
    This gets at the heart of my concerns: With so little discussion or education about rape in the mainstream media (or at home or in school), so many survivors I've met feel so utterly alone in their experiences, confused about what happened to them, or uncertain about whether to report — because the stories they hear of rape (on TV shows or in the news) do not reflect their own.

    While I realize that Law & Order SVU frequently bases its stories on real events "ripped from the headlines" — I think it's important we take a step back and acknowledge that news outlets themselves gravitate toward certain stories over others. Yes, they are all true (and worthy of reporting), but they are also the rarer cases. The most common experiences of rape are not only absent from SVU but absent from the news.

    Second, I want to thank everyone who has posted a comment and challenged my argument. One thing we can all agree on is that SVU has always been a great conversation starter for a topic that is typically very difficult to discuss. For that, I applaud the show!

    Lastly, I stand with you on the following:
    1 – The writers and producers should be commended for tackling such an important issue as sexual assault, and for doing so always with compassion and noble intentions
    2 – Mariska Hargitay's work outside the show is admirable, and I personally know survivors who have been helped by her Foundation – thank you, Mariska!
    3 – The show does a great service by raising awareness for the rape kit backlog, human trafficking, the war in Congo, etc.
    4 – I speak of laws and protocol in NYC specifically (where the show takes place) knowing that other cities/states have different procedures. I'm very proud of how progressive NYC is and believe it could serve as a nationwide model — which is why I would like to see a more accurate portrayal on TV

    Lastly, I would like to conclude with this: I critique the show because I value the show – what it endeavors to accomplish and its untapped potential… I do not want to see it go off the air – I want to make it better!

  9. Thanks for speaking out about this. I too think that some of the scenarios are a little far fetched these days. It's almost as if every show that's done on sexual assault has to move farther from reality. SVU is still a good show but we all have to remember that it's "awareness raising entertainment" so to speak. At least most people get that message and it's only a few who don't.

  10. sorry but to those above who say “it’s only a tv show” i hate people who say that. it does way worse then you think for svu viewers who end up in the future as victims themselves. It puts faith in the viewers that the justice system is on their side and it ends up being a stab worse than getting raped when you find out in real life the justice system doesn’t give a shit about victims. Like it or not, people relly on shows to show them the way in certain situations and SVU is nothing but a big fat tease and a slap in the face for real victims. The real detectives do not care about the victims, we are all nothing but numbers and for that the day i hear SVU is series finale i will be throwing a grand party for it!

  11. Iliana Echo says:

    Late to the game (stumbled on this as a link) but I was really glad to see they brought on another female detective in season 13 in Amanda Rollins. There had only been one (Olivia) since the Season 2 opener.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ms. Magazine, Becky, Jeuhen, The Daily Femme, Fair and Feminist and others. Fair and Feminist said: RT @msmagazine: Is #SVU doing a good job representing #rape survivors? […]

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