“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…” 1
Admit it – you read that opening in a booming voice, and may even have heard the beats to it. Often times, when thinking about sexual assault and violence in television, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is one of the television shows that comes to mind. The star leads in this series, once Elliot Stabler and now Olivia Benson, are iconic stars, coming to the rescue of those who need them. These lead characters walk the viewers through what happens when a crime of a sexual or special nature is committed – or at least what this show has lead viewers to believe is what happens. Most of the time, we, as viewers, do not question how these stories unfold, and if what we are watching is in fact the way that sexual and special crimes are investigated. We, as the viewers, tend to take the episodes and series at face value. More specifically, sexual assault forensic exams (S.A.F.E.) are often portrayed differently in television shows and movies than in what happens in reality.
While this article is to point out the differences, it is not meant to bash any specific television show or movie. The purpose of this article is to enlighten and remind the reader to not take television shows or movies at face value and to encourage readers to check out their local laws and regulations regarding sexual assault crimes and exams in their own state. It is easy to forget that each state has its own rules are regulations governing S.A.F.E.2 Television shows and movies are for entertainment purposes solely; however, this may still cloud viewers judgement of what is really happening in the world.
The CSI or Tech Effect
The term “CSI Effect”, or more recently called the “Tech Effect”, argues that individuals, and more specifically, jurors, have altered judgments of the criminal justice system due to their consumption of crime scene investigation shows. For example, in movies and television shows, a crime occurs, evidence is collected, and an individual is arrested, tried, and sometimes sentenced all within a matter of hours. In reality, this process can take years. Even more specifically, evidence collected seems to be analyzed and results provided within minutes. Mariska Hargitaty herself, also known as Detective Olivia Benson from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has recognized the need to better educate and reform how the world views sexual assault and other special crimes and created The Joyful Heart Foundation3. This organization aims to inform the community about sexual assault and violence, along with other special crimes, and assists with reforming legislation to help victims of these crimes. Even more impressively, the Joyful Heart Foundation has created an initiative called End the Backlog4.
This initiative was created to address the ongoing problem of a backlog for rape kits for sexual assault incidents. It is not often that television shows or movies acknowledge the current backlog of rape exams in our country. As stated earlier, a crime is committed, evidence is processed, and someone is sentenced all within a few hours in television shows and movies. While shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit portray evidence coming back quickly, in reality, these analysis of evidence and rape kits are taking a long time to be processed, and there is a large backlog in the United States of rape kits. Mariksa Hargitay has taken initiative herself to shine light on what is really happening in the United States with sexual assault and S.A.F.E.
The Criminal Justice System is not as swift and seamless as these television shows and movies seem, and people often have misguided beliefs, confirming the existence of a CSI or tech effect. A study conducted by the National Institute of Justice5 found that individuals who watched a crime scene investigation show frequently were more often to believe these shows and investigations were accurate. This article suggests tech, in itself, may lead to a more accurate term than the CSI effect, as it highlights the impact it has on all individuals and not just jurors. People are seeing crimes and the Criminal Justice System take place on media platforms where only pieces of information are shown, rather than the whole picture. Sometimes sexual assault forensic exams are shown in these medias, and sometimes they are not. When these events are shown, they are shown differently, leading to confusion among viewers about what to expect during an exam. Our screens are not the proper way to learn about important topics such as sexual assault forensic exams.
It’s Not Just Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
As mentioned earlier, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is largely the first television show that comes to mind, most likely due to the length of this show airing; it has been around since 1999. In that time, Dick Wolff, executive producer, has shown hundreds of different sexual assault crimes, each being portrayed differently. Sometimes a detective would accompany the victim during a S.A.F.E. exam, other times they would not. In other instances victim’s rights would be explained, while in separate instances they were ignored. Given that this is a television show, it is hard to say what would have happened off camera in a real event, but it still gives rise to the fact that sexual assault forensic exams are not always being shown in a full, accurate light.
In addition to Law & Order:Special Victims Unit, there are many other television shows, such as Grey’s Anatomy6, or movies, such as Room7, that portray sexual assault and special crimes. A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy, season 15 episode 19, aimed to more accurately portray the process of S.A.F.E., gaining praise, and trending on social medias post-airing. The creators spoke out, sharing the process and steps they took to accurately portray what happens in Seattle, Washington, when a sexual assault is reported at a hospital. In this episode, Dr. Teddy Altman asked the victim every step of the way if she wanted to continue with the exam. The victim, at the time of the exam, did not want police involved, so no police were called. Female doctors stood with her every step of the way. The episode, through actor cues, lighting, and movements, showed the length and intrusive nature of S.A.F.E.. This episode took a large step in the right direction in Hollywood to accurately portray S.A.F.E. in an accurate light, especially since in the past, over 15 seasons and countless medical cases, Grey’s Anatomy had yet to touch portraying S.A.F.E. in a clear and accurate way.
On the flip side, however, the movie Room showed no exam occur at all. A movie based on being abducted and sexually assaulted for years ignored any form of an exam once rescued. This entire movies main premise was on sexual abuse, with the main character bearing a child from her abuser and yet, no exam was not shown at all in the movie. These are just a few examples of how widely medias can range in portraying sexual assaults.
It’s Just Television or a Movie – What Does It Matter?
Shows such as Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Grey’s Anatomy, and Room are just that – television shows and movies, made for our entertainment. Most people do not even catch on that sexual assault forensic exams, or how these crimes are processed, are not being shown in a true and accurate light. We watch these shows to pass the time, because we like the characters or actors/actresses, or it is an activity to do with people we enjoy spending time with. It is, however, important to be portraying these events accurately. In order for positive change, just like the Joyful Heart Foundation is pushing for, we need to be having these conversations. We need to be understanding of what is happening in the world around us, and what to expect for friends, family, neighbors, or classmates who may experience this at some point.
Next time you are watching a show that portrays crimes of a special nature, take a moment to reflect on what is true and what is glorified in the name of Hollywood. Knowledge is power; the more we talk about what really happens, the more we can do to help those who go through these situations. Debunking the myths and providing accurate information on what to expect can help ease anxieties about the unknown. Take a minute to find out what truly happens, so that if you ever need to help someone through it, you can know what to expect and not rely on Hollywood.
1. Wolf, Dick (Executive Producer). (1999-2019). Law & Order: Special Victims Unit [Television series].Universal City, CA: NBC.
2. A Voice for the Innocent is currently working on an article outlining each state’s rules and regulations around sexual assault forensic exams. Please check back at a later date for this article.
5. Shelton, Donald E. (March 2008). The CSI Effect: Does It Really exist? National Institute of Justice, Journal 259. https://www.nij.gov/journals/259/pages/csi-effect.aspx
6. Thimes, Shonda (Executive Producer). (2005-2019). Grey’s Anatomy [Television series].Los Angeles, CA: ABC.
7. Abrahamson, Lenny. (2015). Room [Film]. Canada: Filmnation Entertainment.