The line between reality and fiction has always been somewhat porous when it comes to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, between its ripped-from-the-headlines plots and its star Mariska Hargitay’s advocacy efforts on behalf of victims of sexual assault. The show has been accused of exploiting real-life tragedies for ratings, of making “rape a spectator sport,” and of descending into paranoid alarmism from time to time. But as a recent study conducted by Washington State University reveals, the Law & Order franchise might also be educating viewers about rape.
The study, published in the Journal of Health Communication, took 313 college freshmen and surveyed them on whether they watched the three main procedural franchises on network television: Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS. Students were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with statements that explored rape-myth acceptance (“If a woman is raped she is at least somewhat responsible for letting things get out of control”), intentions to seek consent for sexual activity (“I would stop and ask if everything is okay if my partner doesn’t respond to my sexual advances”), and intentions to refuse unwanted sexual activity (“I would refuse unwanted sexual activity from my date even if it may destroy the romantic atmosphere”).
The surveys found that exposure to Law & Order was associated with “lower rape-myth acceptance,” greater intentions to seek consent for sexual activity, greater intentions to refuse unwanted sexual activity, and greater intentions to adhere to decisions related to sexual consent. By contrast, exposure to CSI was associated with lowered intentions to seek consent and a greater acceptance of rape myths. There were fewer significant findings related to NCIS, although exposure to the show was associated with lower intentions to refuse sexual activity. “Our results indicate that specific crime-drama franchises are associated with decreased rape-myth acceptance,” the study states.
The authors acknowledge that causality is hard to infer: People who are more informed about rape myths and issues of consent might choose to watch Law & Order over other shows because it affirms their pre-existing beliefs. Nevertheless, they conclude that watching Law & Order might indeed have a positive effect on viewers:
Given the Law & Order producers’ conscientious efforts to not glamorize rape and to portray punishment of the crime, they have essentially created a program that could be used to reduce sexual assault. In contrast, the CSI franchise frequently depicts sexual assault in ways that objectify the victim and reinforce common rape myths. This study’s findings indicate that depicting sexual assault in this manner may promote behaviors that are not conducive to healthy sexual relationships. This has significant implications, given that the CSI franchise has enjoyed much greater popularity than the Law & Order franchise.
The research is by no means the first academic attempt to draw conclusions about how television influences popular understanding of sexual assault. A 2006 study conducted at the University of California, Santa Barbara found that watching a television movie featuring a character who was raped by an acquaintance “increased awareness of date rape as a social problem across all demographic groups” who were surveyed. And in 2007, research found that the acceptance of rape myths among female college students was associated with watching television generally.
In her 1999 book Rape on Prime-Time: Television, Masculinity, and Sexual Violence, the women’s studies professor Lisa M. Cuklanz writes that prime-time episodic portrayals of rape on television between 1976 and 1990 offer insight into how advocacy affects television and how television affects public opinion. “By 1990,” Cuklanz writes, “prime-time episodes were offering complex depictions of date/acquaintance rape and other issues more often than the highly formulaic depictions of violent stranger rape commonly found in the earlier years. Thus, this 15-year period encompasses a remarkable adaptation in television’s treatment of rape.”
Law & Order: SVU, the only show in the franchise still in production, certainly isn’t perfect, and the way in which it shows police officers doggedly investigating sex crimes and handling victims with the utmost care and attention certainly defies the real-life experiences of many survivors. But that it offers such explicit and incontrovertible definitions of what constitutes sexual assault, the study suggests, might nevertheless make it a valuable and productive show for cultural consumers.