SVU and the Problem of Justice

Consider this fantasy of justice: a man defends his choice to marry and impregnate his thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’s Captain Olivia Benson has had enough. “Get this DOUCHE out of here,” she proclaims. Immediately, her command is followed:  NYPD officers lead the douche away.

Or maybe this fantasy, one that’s over five hundred years older: a man warns a woman that she’ll be raped—if not by him, then by someone else—and she changes her “no” to a “yes,” only for him to ejaculate suddenly all over himself. “Sweetheart, you arrive too fast,” she tells him, handing him her kerchief to mop up his semen as he stands speechless.

I’m an avid watcher of SVU and a scholar of medieval literature. In both the period in which I live and the period I study, it’s unusual for people who’ve experienced sexual violence to be taken seriously and believed, let alone given the chance for repair. And given that absence, it’s probably not surprising that both periods create popular media where the fantasy of justice can hold sway.

In the current moment, should those of us outraged about police violence also reject fantasies of police justice? Maybe — the answer is complicated for sure. But paying attention to what this long history of fantasy can tell us also seems especially resonant now, when the question of how our society should deliver justice is so strikingly on the table.

LAW & ORDER: Special Victims Unit — Season 1 — Pictured: (l-r) Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler, Mariska Hargitay as Detective Olivia Benson — Photo by: Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank

I started watching SVU because Ronald Reagan died in the summer of 2004. Normally I watched the news during the sweltering afternoons between my morning and evening jobs, but I had no patience for the days-long live coverage of Reagan’s funeral festivities as his casket traveled around the country. Fortunately for me, Law and Order: SVU was always playing on the USA Network. I fell in love with Olivia Benson and her authoritative blazers, her commitment to believing victim-survivors and her ferocious drive for justice, with the show’s diverse range of storylines about abuse and sexual violence that appealed to me as a gender studies major with a commitment to fighting gender-based violence.

Sixteen years later, I research sexual violence in the Middle Ages for a living, and SVU is the longest-running primetime drama on American television. I am aware of the show’s deeply problematic elements—its propensity for ever-more-outrageous narratives ripped from the headlines, the fact that it fictionalizes real-life trauma without victims’ consent, its troubling abortion politics, its portrayal of incarceration as the ideal form of rape justice, and its valorization of the police, which is its most glaring fiction, particularly given our country’s long, ugly history of police sexual violence against women of color.

I feel conflicted about deriving this much enjoyment from a police procedural, especially right now, although I tell myself that I am in good company. Roxane Gay repeatedly thanks the show in her book acknowledgments: “Thank you to Law & Order: SVU for always being on television so I can have something familiar in the background as I write,” she writes at the end of Hunger.

What is it that makes so many women, even women who want to abolish the police, take comfort in SVU? SVU’s brand of pop culture sexual violence fictionalizes rape enough to enable viewers to enjoy fantasies — and they are indeed fantasies —of righteous allyship, of narrative closure after rape, of a world where victim-survivors are believed and supported, of compassionate and justice-driven police officers who are also survivors. These fantasies can be especially meaningful if you know that the portrait of disbelieving, dismissive police response in shows such as Netflix’s Unbelievable (2019) is the more realistic one.

These consoling fictions give us a glimpse of what a culture that takes sexual violence seriously might look like. As SVU’s show-runner recently said, “I think that the audience is sophisticated enough to know that this is not the day-to-day reality [in policing sexual assault]. I think people wish it were more like [it is on SVU]. I think I wish it were more like this.”

SVU’s use of sexual violence as thought-provoking entertainment, however, isn’t new at all. Medieval people had their own brand of SVU-esque pop culture sexual violence, in the form of popular short poems called pastourelles that feature fictionalized narratives about rape and consent. Some pastourelles survive with musical notation, showing that they were transmitted orally and sung by people regardless of whether they could read, giving them the potential for mass consumption comparable to SVU’s status as a network show accessible to anyone with a television.

Pastourelles have a familiar structure: A powerful man encounters a peasant woman alone in a secluded outdoor location. He propositions her. She declines. He refuses to take no for an answer. But from there, the stories they tell vary widely, from tragedy to accommodation to revenge. In one, a knight coerces sex from a peasant girl by inventing a law that requires unaccompanied young women to pay a fee—which he knows she cannot afford—and forcing her to pay this fee with her body. In another, a man rapes a woman but then apologizes, pledging to “heal” her “hurt” and offering to marry her as reparation.

But as I hinted above, other pastourelles feature satisfying endings or unexpected twists. One features a man and a woman about to have consensual sex when the man abruptly withdraws his consent and the woman tries to pressure him until he runs away, challenging popular ideas about gender, consent, and coercion. Another depicts a woman who laughs at her would-be assailant, orders him to find someone more willing, and sends him on his way.

So what did medieval audiences get out of pastourelles? They could enjoy satisfying fantasies of seeing predators dissuaded or humiliated, which was particularly important in a society where bringing successful rape charges was incredibly difficult and where many women who did press charges were later fined or imprisoned when they failed to appear in court, or when their assailants were exonerated by all-male juries.

It hardly needs saying that in this way, at least, the medieval world was not so different from our own. And so, like today’s SVU viewers, medieval people — particularly those who had experienced assault, or been afraid of it — sought out ways they could witness a variety of narratives about sexual violence which underscore that it does not follow a single paradigm and challenge society’s pervasive silence around sexual assault, both then and now.

Both pastourelles and SVU address a topic that is intimately, devastatingly familiar to far too many people, and they mix this real-life trauma with comforting fictions by featuring empathetic police officers who challenge rape culture or powerful predators who are dismissed and thwarted.

They acknowledge the complexity of real-life narratives of sexual violence—trans sex workers attacked by wealthy lawyers; peasant girls raped by powerful men; victim-survivors who don’t follow the “good victim” script by ingesting drugs and alcohol, attempting to reconcile with their assailants, or failing to report the assault immediately—while shying away from depicting the most graphic violence, allowing it to occur mercifully in the gaps between scenes or stanzas.

Most importantly, they show survivors that they are not alone, that survival and resilience are possible. In an episode from SVU’s recent season, Benson tells a woman who was gang raped while intoxicated, “You’re going to survive this.”

“You’ve said that before, too, haven’t you?” says the woman.
“I have,” says Benson, “because it’s true.”
“How do you know?” the woman asks.
“Because I did,” Benson replies.

A rape survivor in a medieval pastourelle offers similar words of consolation to her fellow survivors. “I trust to recover my heart again, / And Christ’s curse go with you,” she declares after she is assaulted, cursing her attacker and looking ahead to a future of recovery.

That’s not to say these genres are uncomplicated. An insidious quality of the pastourelle genre, for instance, is how its habit of portraying peasant women as victims works to portray aristocratic women as safe from sexual violence, even though legal records show that this was definitely not the case.

And it goes without saying that SVU’s fantasy of protective police is especially dubious right now. So how do we balance these consolatory moments, offering comfort and solidarity to real-life survivors, against pop culture sexual violence’s potential harms, its powerful fictions about allies and victims?

One question of SVU is whether it is possible to represent the police ethically. But another is simpler. If we see these fantasies less as offering solutions and more as excavations of ongoing problems — excavations that illuminate sexual violence’s myriad forms — we can see in these beloved fictions a glimpse of where rape justice might start, which is most basically in a radical and necessary acknowledgment.

Carissa Harris: Medieval Obscenity