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Don't Believe Him, Don't Listen to Her: Law and Order: SVU and Victims of Rape

Trigger Warning for discussions of rape

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) is a long running, popular police drama that follows Detective Olivia Benson and her partners as they solve sexual assault cases. Known for taking inspiration from real world scenarios, SVU captivates audiences by showcasing a glimpse into the gritty reality of sex-based crimes. Benson’s investigations provides opportunities to explore not only current events but gender, sexuality, and the very nature of the law. Two episodes of SVU, Ridicule and The Darkest Journey Home, offers key insights into how the public views victims of rape.

Season 3 episode 10 Ridicule begins like many other episodes of SVU: with a dead woman. However the victim,

Pam Adler and Amelia Chase on trial for rape.

Sydney Green, is not our rape victim. She is one of three rapist who sexually assualted a male stripper named Peter Smith. The episode follows the detectives trying to piece together the cause of Sydney’s death in addition to getting justice for Peter. Benson and partner Elliot Stabler are divided on Peter; while Benson sees him as another victim of sexual violence, Stabler does not believe men can be raped. Peter’s other two rapists, Pam Adler and Amelia Chase, were convinced that no one would believe him because he was a man. And they were unfortunately correct. Peter was faced with skepticism and dismissal from both the cops and his friend. Pam and Amelia were only charged with third degree assault and were acquitted of all sexual charges.

While we have progressed socially since Ridicule was written in 2001, it nevertheless highlights an important conversation around male victims. Female on male victimization is the norm for the majority of male rape victims. Almost 80% of men who have been forced into non-consensual sex say their perpetrator was a woman. Male survivors also face similar barriers to reporting as women. Fear, shame, and guilt are common feelings for victims of both genders.The myth that men cannot be rape perpetuates other falsehoods about rape.

In season 21’s The Darkest Journey Home, Detective Benson investigates an assault of a woman who woke up in bed fully clothed. Raegan James, the woman in question, is a young avid partier who struggles to remember her story after a traumatic night. Because of her loose persona and carefree attitude, her friends and police are skeptical of her story. Only Benson reminds a consistent form of support for Reagan. The investigation ultimately reveals that Raegan was indeed gang raped after falling asleep in her ride share. While Raegan is framed as a victim that “brought it upon herself”, her trauma around the situation is real. Even after attackers plead guilty, Raegan is deeply changed by what happened that night. The story centers the struggle of believing in a “unreliable” victim and calls into question which survivors we think are worthy of support.

Olivia Benson and Raegan talking about the trauma of the event.

Despite the disparate outcomes of their cases, Peter and Raegan’s treatment in SVU reveals needed parallels between men and women victims. Both male and female survivors have can be treated poorly by the same people who are meant to protect and support them. Even though women are sexually assualted at greater rates than men, this does not necessarily make all female victims sympathetic or believed. Raegan and Peter were both subjected to a dehumanizing investigation process that was only made better by the thoughtfulness of Olivia Benson. SVU presents a cold reality: both male and female victims, for differing reasons, are scrutinized by our communities and institutions. But there is still hope. Through Benson, SVU invites us to imagine a world where all survivors of rape are protected.

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