Law & Order SVU: Female vs. Male Offenders
Photo Credit: VIRGINIA SHERWOOD/NBC/NBCU PHOTO BANK VIA GETTY IMAGES
One of the most popular shows centering the criminal legal system is undoubtedly Law & Order SVU (Special Victims Unit). The show is known for its wild cases that are always solved by Detectives Benson and Stabler, along with their team. Law & Order SVU also illustrates the different ways that perpetrators are dealt with in the criminal legal system.
Seemingly every episode, the perpetrator is immediately assumed to be a man. So much so, that women are hardly ever the suspects in cases, or are written off early on. In season 7 episode 15, titled “Manipulated,” the case begins with Det. Benson and Stabler finding a woman, Vicky, who has been raped and murdered in her bed. The detectives’ initial thought is that a man had committed these crimes. They retrieved pictures of Vicky outside her apartment with another man, whom they discover to be the husband of Vicky’s boss, Tessa. Later, we find out Vicky and Linus, Tessa’s husband, were having an affair.
From this point, the detectives were set on the fact that Linus had been the one to murder and rape Vicky. Tessa had not been a suspect at this point because she is in a wheelchair and is considered unable to commit these crimes. Yet, later in the episode the detectives discover that Tessa has a condition known as Munchausen’s syndrome, which is a psychological condition where “someone deliberately produces symptoms of illness in themselves.” Tessa had been making herself physically ill so that Linus could not leave her. Her thought was that if Linus was in prison, that he could not leave her for another woman.
Tessa’s lawyer was convinced that this case would never go to trial because Tessa is mentally ill and isn’t fit to stand trial, which the judge agreed. In the court room, Tessa continues to induce illnesses upon herself, as she starts seizing, thus it is decided she should be sent to a private mental hospital for treatment.
Women are less likely to commit violent crimes than men which could be why the SVU detectives assumed that the assailant had to be a man. In another episode of Law & Order SVU, specifically season 6 episode 4, “Scavenger,” there was a serial killer named RDK, who would kidnap and murder women. After further investigation of the evidence, the detectives uncover RDK’s true identity, better known as Humphrey. Near the end of the episode, Humphrey reveals his identity to Det. Benson who then brings him into the station for questioning. Then, in the interrogation room, the detectives discover that Humphrey has problems with his mother that stem from childhood which have caused psychological issues in his adult life.
The immediate difference between these two cases can be seen in their interrogation tactics. With Tessa, they were gentler and seemingly more understanding, whereas with Humphrey, they were physically abusive. Det. Stabler went so far as grabbing Humphrey by the throat till he was gasping for air. Both cases exemplify the offenders need for power, yet the woman was treated as mentally ill and the man’s psychological state was never considered.