“In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.”
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is a long-running NBC show that follows detectives within a unit in the New York City Police Department that investigate sex crimes, such as rape and sexual abuse. The familiar introduction that plays before each episode rings true: these crimes are heinous, they are vicious, and they deserve to be investigated to the fullest extent of the law. And the perpetrators deserve to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Of course, Law and Order: SVU is a TV show-the preface of the introduction is that all of these stories in these episodes are fictional-reminding us that this show is a dramatization. But L&O: SVU is worst kind of TV dramatization: it shows us what society would be like if police, prosecutors, and other institutions took rape and sexual abuse as seriously as the detectives and the prosecution do on SVU. It shows us what society would be like if rape culture didn’t exist within the our criminal justice system.
Recently, several high-profile rape cases have shone a light on the biases of our criminal justice system towards rape victims. Over a year ago, Owen Labrie was found not guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault against a 15 year old fellow student. His defense attorney used the following aspects of the victim as a reason for why it wasn’t rape: she had friendly contact with Labrie before the assault occurred, she agreed to meet with him when the assault occurred, she had told her friend she might give him oral sex, and she had shaved her pubic hair before they met. Even though the 15 year old girl said no to having her underwear taken off and some of the other acts Labrie did without her consent, the jury still found him not guilty of felony sexual assault because they either believed she consented or she “didn’t make it clear” that she didn’t want to have sex. She said no. She was 15. Age of consent in New Hampshire (where the incident occurred) is 16. Labrie was convicted of a misdemeanor-statutory rape, but was only sentenced to one year in prison. A judge ruled that he would be released early.
The infamous Brock Turner, WAS found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault. Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Brock and his parents blamed the culture of alcohol as the reason why he raped someone. Brock Turner was convicted of felony sexual assault. He was sentenced to a measly six months in prison, and was released after just three months on good behavior.
The worst response in a high profile rape case by a judge so far: David Becker raped not one, but two girls at a high school party this past year. David Becker was charged with two counts of rape and one count of indecent assault and battery. He was given two years probation because two years in prison would have, as the judge put it, “ruined his life.” And these are just the cases that were taken to trial. The women in these cases represent the thousands of victims that do not get the justice they deserve-or the justice that is portrayed on SVU.
The rape culture that we see is much more pervasive than just the trials and high-profile cases that we’ve seen. First, the majority of rapists won’t even stand trial, with only 13 cases out of every 1,000 being referred to prosecutors, and only six rapists out of every 1,000 cases even get incarcerated. But, as we have seen, even those who are incarcerated don’t even serve the sentence that they should.
The problem is evident elsewhere within our criminal justice system, beginning with police. A police sheriff in Idaho claimed that the area he supervises doesn’t really have a rape problem, and that most “victims” are lying about it anyway. Though his comments were met with intense criticism, he is still the sheriff of Bingham County in Idaho. Campus police, in a number of sexual assault cases, blame the victim, even after they have been so brave as to come forward (as about 63 percent of rapes go unreported).
A rape victim at the University of Connecticut went to campus police after she was raped by someone she knew-the police officer told her that if women should stop spreading their legs like peanut butter, or rape is going to keep happening until the cows come home. Another student at the University of North Carolina reported her rape to police and was treated like a suspect; she was asked questions like “Did you hook up with him before? Did you even say no?” These same campus police, when questioning her rapist, laughed with him, and told him not to worry about it. As of now, he has not been charged-he is a linebacker for UNC. These are only two examples of the many that are like it-there are over 90 Title IX investigations at universities across the country for mishandling sexual assault cases.
The horrendous discourse of not supporting sexual assault victims doesn’t stop here-biases against rape victims are evident in more than just campus police departments, and even at the prosecution levels. The City of Baltimore has more than just a racial bias issue (not that that isn’t equally as much of an issue as this): they have a bias and history of dismissiveness of sexual assault cases. The Justice Department’s report that noted their racial bias also noted their inadequate procedures in handling sexual assault cases-stating that police sometimes failed to even collect basic evidence. The police also had a strong bias against prostituted women and transgender individuals when they made sexual assault complaints. A common question asked by the Baltimore PD: “Why are you messing that guy’s life up?” In Baltimore, the problem seems to be top-down: a prosecutor, when discussing the woman who had reported her rape to Baltimore police with an officer involved in the case said “I’m not excited about charging it, the victim seems like a conniving little whore.” The officer responded, “Lmao! I feel the same.”
This problem isn’t just evident in the United States. A 2014 rape case in Canada involved a 19 year old being raped over a bathroom sink. During the trial, the judge asked the victim the following questions, “Why didn’t you just sink your bottom down…so he couldn’t penetrate you? Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?” He is currently under review; his defense is that he did not receive training on sexual assault cases prior to the case just mentioned. He is a Federal Court judge.
When I watch SVU, I know that many parts of it are sensationalized. They create these high-profile situations, or many unexpected twists and turns throughout the 45 minute episode. The individuals in the show are attractive, the detectives always fight for the victim, and the lawyers are so good they remember all of the questions that they are going to ask their witnesses without having a notepad to look off of. And I know that this is because it’s a TV show-they are supposed to dramatize the show, for entertainment value. They also sensationalize the belief and reporting of victims-most victims in the show choose to report, and they are always supported and believed by the detectives and the prosecution. Unfortunately for real-life victims, this is not what we see.
If you think what I just overviewed in this article is horrible-these are only a few of the high-profile examples of egregious police misconduct and serious cases of injustice to sexual assault victims. Rape culture is pervasive across every aspect of the criminal justice system. Normally, it’s not healthy to wish that fictional aspects of a show would become reality. However, in this case, living in a world where victims are believed and get justice is a world that we are working so hard to attain for.