“Law & Order: SVU” serves the patriarchy

People don’t like admitting it, but they read sex crime stories and watch sex crime TV shows mostly for the titillation. I’ll admit that it was a mixture of nostalgia and a search for titillation that led me to stream the first season of Law & Order: SVU (and because I could not find the actual Law & Order online). In addition to its glorification of unethical interrogation techniques to induce confessions (“we know you did it”), the show shocked me for its anti-feminism. Slut shaming for one. The police was convinced a girl who was raped and murdered was a prostitute based on her clothing in S1E4, called Hysteria (a word that just means “uterus” and has historically targetted women for being women). They also make ample use of kink shaming, with an implicit idea that anyone engaging in BDSM, especially a woman, is getting into “risky business”. In S1E9, this fascinating conversation elucidates the dangerous path to BDSM:

Det. Brian Cassidy: I don’t get S&M. I mean, hurt me, it turns me on. Come on, what’s up with that?

Det. John Munch: It starts with the tattoos. Once you get the ink, it’s just a matter of time before you’re begging to be tied up and spanked.

Whenever the police interrogate a woman who consensually went to bed with a rapist, they press her: “was it really consensual?”. In S1E20, Benson makes a face at the woman, and the other officers comment between each other: “Really? Really?” In these cases, the woman is never shown as confident; all the women who have casual sex in this TV show seem to feel terrible shame over the incident, look down at their feet, bury their head in their hands. Not a single woman appears comfortable with an open sexuality. Any woman who expresses joy at the idea soon is either an imminent victim (and thus complicit in her own victimhood) or an evil femme fatale, as the Russian escort in S1E12.

A male detective expresses desire to murder rapists. A female detective admits to having slept with a suspect. Both come up for review after a psych evaluation. Which one is fired from their job? No surprise that it was Monique Jeffries (S2E1)–who did have to be cut from the show since the actress was leaving for another programme. Yet couldn’t the writers have come up with a way to cut her character without actively slut shaming on a TV show about sex crimes? The message is: the officer of the law who fantasises about committing murder does so out of his primal male drive to defend women, for he is a good, noble man. A woman who consensually has sex with a suspected rapist endangers the virgin/slut divide that these men need in order to feel anger at rapists. A potential murderer is more acceptable for the police force than a potential slut.

Jeffries’ character was substituted by Ice-T, making the sex crimes show even more male dominated (three male detectives and one male captain for one female detective). This show created by a guy called Dick, written by men, produced by men, with mostly male characters, is a completely male perspective on women and their sexuality, through the lenses of rape and sex crimes. With Olivia Benson serving as a token female heroine, the series is mostly about active men saving passive female victims with no agency from other active men. In this, quite perversely, a television series about rape legitimises the very patriarchal mindset which produces so much rape. SVU is cultural rape.

(Even though I have this opinion, I will continue watching early SVU just for the titillation and because of my crush on detective Munch. The kind of activity that would get Ice-T saying: “Yeah, she was getting off on a rape show. Next thing you know, she was being tied up and tortured by a Guatemalan gang”.)

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