I’m really tired today, because I stayed up late last night waiting for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit to air on American TV. It turns out they aren’t airing another new episode until the 30th (I don’t understand US scheduling) so it was a waste of time – but the point remains. I love SVU.
I spend a lot of time thinking about why I am so besotted with a programme that centres on the abuse of women (or children, or the disabled, or whoever comes into the category of a ‘special’ victim). I think it extends beyond morbid curiosity, because the world in which SVU detectives operate is so alien – it is a world where people actually give a fuck about women getting sexually assaulted.
A joint overview of offending in England and Wales that was published recently by the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Office of National Statistics reminded us what we all seem to already know here at XO – that assaults routinely go unpunished. There are 473,000 adult victims of sex crimes each year across England and Wales. There is an average of 1,070 convictions of sexual assault each year.
The standard 6% conviction figure which is bandied about so regularly is essentially something that statisticians made up – ‘ballpark estimates’ – and discussions around establishing a more authoritative figure seem almost deliberately complicated, intentionally confusing an issue which is always going to amount to the same result: it just isn’t good enough.
In the Guardian article, we are enthusiastically told that 62.5% of rape cases that go to court result in a conviction, but the reality is the vast majority of cases do not get anywhere near that far. Only 15% of women report sexual assault to the police, and a significant proportion of cases are dropped due to lack of evidence fear of repercussions or straight up exhaustion at the prospect of embarking on a case that takes an average of 675 days to complete.
I love SVU because these factors still come into play, but are dealt with carefully and lovingly by a team of (hot) young detectives who genuinely seem to care. Olivia Benson is routinely breaking regulatory practices in order to secure a conviction, going beyond her call of duty to comfort victims. Stabler is beating up ‘perps’ when he just can’t handle the realities of the complexity and vastness of sex crimes.
They often debunk common myths around rape – it doesn’t matter how short your skirt was, or what your line of work was, Ice T is fighting your corner because you didn’t deserve it, ever. When storylines involve queer sexuality or gender, it isn’t focusing on queerness as the butt of a joke but as another facet of myriad prejudices that they need to oppose.
They talk about backlogs of rape kits, about marital abuse, sexual assault of women in the military, how the justice system fails transgendered people. In real life, Mariska Hargitay is a trained rape counsellor who has founded a charity for survivors of sexual assault.
It feels like a bizarre pocket of society where sex crime goes punished, where detectives have the time and resources as well as the inclinations to pursue leads that I have never seen followed in real life. Time after time, I or my friends have been told that there is just no point chasing something up, we’ll never find whoever did X, Y or Z to our bodies, have been offered no support for the repercussions on our mental wellbeing.
The statistics remind us that we are not anomalous – 1 in 5 women experiences sexual offences in their lifetime (a conservative estimation by my understanding) – we are the 20%, and we deserve support and justice.
I remember once crying with gratitude when a police officer gave me his personal mobile phone to use because I had lost mine whilst running away from a man who assaulted me – it felt like the only moment of humanity amidst hours upon hours of bureaucracy and disinterest.
It also feels like amidst discussion of statistics and quotas and sentencing, we can lose the reality of sexual assaults which is that every single one has a victim, and effects can be long-lasting, and that’s why I head to SVU. It might be sensationalist, because it is a TV show – the credits alone are a little bit cringey.
It might occasionally do a hacky representation of a big media case (hello, Michael Jackson episode) which makes me want to be a bit sick. But I am usually prepared to forgive the things I ordinarily wouldn’t because it’s nice to see people talk with compassion about marginalised victims in a society fraught with inadequacy when it comes to sexually based offences.
It’s a fantastical relief to imagine that there’s a world where Captain Donald Cragen would maybe prioritise cases of mine that have been dismissed by police who have labelled me as wasting their time or too much of an addict or too much of a slut to care. And it makes me really sad to think that a world which looks after victims of sexual assault and appropriately prosecutes and convicts cases remains an escapist fantasy.
Am I justifying a terrible obsession with fairly trashy American crime shows? Do you love SVU too? Do the new rape statistics make you as fucking depressed as they make me? Let me know in the comments.
Olivia is sometimes Tweeting, when she isn’t fantasising about being besties with the cast of SVU @Oliviasinger.