NBC’s hit show Law and Order, Special Victims Unit has become a staple in many American households – now well into its 15th season. Sergeant Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) has become one of America’s darlings, as she manages to treat the victims with tenderness and care, while relentlessly pursuing the perpetrators. Upwards of seven million viewers tune in each week to hear these opening lines:
“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.”
These stories, though, hardly seem to belong to the detectives. Yes, we love watching Ice-T and company track down the bad guys. The stories, though, belong to the victims.
What strikes me as I watch shows like this (as well as the many, many other crime dramas) take over both prime time TV and syndication, is the reality that underlies the fiction that they portray. We sit, for maybe an hour or maybe several hours if we catch the USA marathon, and are entertained by these stories.
But what is entertainment for most of us is reality for many. Statistics show that one in three American women will be sexually abused during their lifetime. One in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18.* As someone who has not experienced sexual assault, I cannot begin to imagine what those brave women and men have gone through. I can speculate, though, that this kind of show would be insulting at least – if not downright traumatic to watch.
I doubt that crime shows are going anywhere soon, but I do wonder how we as a culture justify giving such high entertainment value to something that is so real and harmful to such a large part of our population. Perhaps the shows teach us to be more vigilant – to protect our children and ourselves. Perhaps they give us an insight into the extreme courage that victims must have in order to criminally pursue their attackers. Perhaps they show us the faults and loopholes that exist in our criminal justice system.
Or perhaps we just use them as an escape – a mindless and entertaining hour.
Next time you find yourself plopping down on the couch or in your favorite chair, surfing the channels until you hear the iconic “dun dun” of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, remember that for many, these “stories” are real. So maybe during the first commercial break, instead of going to the kitchen for more chips, you can grab your computer and visit RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network to find out how you can help: http://www.rainn.org/.
*From WOAR: Bringing communities together to end sexual violence. www.woar.org/resources/sexual-assault-statistics.php