LAW AND POPULAR CULTURE
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC, 1999–present)
This long-running television show tells the stories of an elite squad of police detectives who are assigned to a Special Victims Unit (“SVU”) in New York City which investigates sexually-related offenses like rape and child molestation. The show, while fictional, often bases its storylines on real cases. Sometimes, the show gets it right; most of the time, however, its depictions of defendants and victims are inaccurate. Brittoetal. (2007) conducted a content analysis of the fifth season of SVU. Here are the highlights of their findings. What they get right:
• As in reality, SVU depicts police officers and prosecutors struggling with the difficult subject matter of sexual victimization.
• As in real life, the majority of SVU cases do not involve strangers, but rather involve individuals who know each other.
• “The majority of the victims portrayed on SVU were shown as innocent or blameless and it appeared that the show actively tried to counter the common myth that victims cause sexual assault” (p. 51). What they get wrong:
• Clearance Rates—Sex crimes pose significant problems for the criminal justice system. In Manhattan, “just less than one half of all murder and rape reports are cleared by arrest, and of those cleared by arrest only 51% result in a conviction” (p. 49). In contrast, 100% of suspects on SVU were caught and 92% of them were convicted in court.
• Types of Rape—Most of the rapes that occur on SVU are not spousal or date-rapes; in reality, these two types of rape account for the overwhelming majority of rapes.
• Nature of Harm—While sexual assaults are clearly violent crimes that inflict a tremendous amount of psychological harm, “victims generally survive and in the majority of cases do not require hospitalization for their physical injuries” (p. 45). On SVU, however, the crimes are usually extremely violent, resulting in the physical brutalization of victims. Indeed, nearly 60 percent of the victims on the show are dead by the end of an episode.
• Victim Age—Nearly half of all SVU victims are under the age of 18. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, “the actual fi gure is closer to one-quarter of all victims” (p. 46).
• Victim Gender—Roughly 40 percent of the victims on SVU are male whereas “only 12 percent of all victims of sexual assault and murder are male” according to the NCVS victimization rates adjusted for the population of Manhattan (p. 46).
• Victim Race—Almost two-thirds of the victims on SVU are white, while the majority of sex crime victims in Manhattan are members of racial and ethnic minority groups.
• Offender and Gender Issues—Females commit approximately 5 percent of the sexual assaults and murders in Manhattan. On SVU, however, females commit more than one-third of these offenses. In contrast, males commit 95 percent of the rapes, murders, and manslaughters in Manhattan, but only 63 percent of the crimes on SVU. Moreover, female offenders on the show are often portrayed “as being particularly manipulative and cruel in their planning and execution of violent crimes” (p. 48). This is especially true for female juvenile offenders who are depicted as “brutal, vindictive,” and “petty”; in contrast, “juvenile male offenders were shown as victims of their circumstances” (p. 48). Finally, male offenders were significantly more likely to plea bargain a reduced sentence, whereas female offenders were more likely to go to trial, be convicted, and receive a harsh suggested sentence. After watching one or more episodes of Law and Order: SVU, be prepared to discuss the following questions:
1. Brittoetal. found that although most victims on SVU were portrayed sympathetically, female victims were more likely than men to appear to contribute to their victimization by associating with the wrong crowd, talking to strangers, or using drugs and alcohol” (p. 45). What are the societal implications of this?
2. Do you think that the over-representation of female offenders and male victims on SVU tends to de-gender sex crimes? Why or why not? Because the storylines often illicit sympathy for victims, do you think that these over-representations mask issues of gender inequality, patriarchy, and male socialization? Explain your position.
3. Brittoetal. argued that because SVU consistently depicts extremely violent rapes that cause severe injuries or death, the show perpetuates the “myth of the sadistic, psychologically disturbed rapist who preys on innocent victims for ‘sick’ enjoyment” (p. 51). What effect do you think this has on jurors who sit in judgment of real sexual assault cases that lack the extreme brutality that is often portrayed on the show? Why?