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Can Women Be Criminals? Olivia Benson Says No

In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories. Dun Dun. These words are a part of the iconic opening of the hit television series Law and Order: SVU. This show, which has been airing since 1999, follows the detectives of Manhattan’s Special Victims Unit as they try to help victims of sexual violence. Many of the characters have changed over the show’s almost twenty-year span, however, the one constant is the protagonist Olivia Benson. Benson serves as the all-knowing, always-right heroine who is a crusader for justice. There are several consistencies present throughout the seasons. First, the majority of the victims depicted are either women or children. Secondly, an overwhelming majority of perpetrators are male. When the typical plotline is subverted, how do the characters react? More specifically, how does Benson react when her assumptions about crime are reinforced or proven wrong?

In season twelve, episode six, the SVU squad responds to a call in which the victim is a large man who was found drugged and bound on the floor of his house. After the initial interview, it is revealed that the victim has been branded on his chest and that he was sexually assaulted with dice from a game board. While the detectives are searching for the assailant, constantly referring to the attacker as him or he, another man is attacked in the same manner. It is quickly revealed that the assault was carried out by a young woman who had been raped by both men while in her teens.

As soon as the detectives discover the perpetrator’s history of abuse, they become immediately sympathetic to her and advocate for the District Attorney’s office to lessen their charges against her. What is most distinctive about the episode is Benson’s sudden attitude shift after discovering the gender of her original victims’ attacker. When the theory was that the perpetrator was a man, Benson’s persona was cold and hostile. However, once she learned that the perpetrator was a woman, Benson suddenly became gentle and understanding, believing that the only way a woman could have committed such an awful crime was if she had been a victim herself at one point. Benson’s belief in the cycle of violence does not necessarily translate when the perpetrator is male.

In season eighteen, episode nine of the series, Benson investigates the rape of a young woman who had been drugged at a birthday party of an elderly male billionaire. When it is revealed that the victim had been raped by the billionaire, Benson takes it upon herself to persuade the attacker’s family to testify against him. There is no compassion, no searching of past traumas, no empathy for this 75-year-old man who used quaaludes to sexually assault a young woman. The difference between the two episodes is astounding. While by the end of the first episode, viewers are meant to feel sorry for the perpetrator, the end of the second leaves viewers feeling only disgust toward the attacker. While these two episodes are not indicative of the entire show, they do promote the idea that even when women are assailants, at the end of the day they are still victims.

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