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America’s evolving views on crime, explained by Law & Order: SVU

The show, which turns 20 this year, started off extremely tough on crime — but has recently learned the value of forgiveness.

Special Victims Unit
The SVU team in season 17's “Intersecting Lives.”
Michael Parmelee/NBC
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

On Wednesday, March 30, 2016, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit did something extraordinary: It asked viewers to empathize with an admitted rapist.

SVU, which marks its 20th anniversary this Friday, is not a subtle show. For those who haven’t watched, it’s a pulpy cop procedural with a penchant for over-the-top, almost self-parodically implausible plot twists. Its focus on sex crimes can be both empowering (it puts a huge emphasis on believing women) and frustrating in its sensationalistic focus on the grisliest details of sexual violence (as in an arc involving a serial killer who menaces the unit’s lead detective).

That formula has also earned it an avid following; last season it averaged 8.3 million viewers per episode, more than the likes of Quantico or The Bachelorette, and reruns on the USA Network used to frequently beat new episodes of Mad Men.

Historically, SVU has not depicted the sex offenders targeted by its detectives with much nuance, let alone sympathy. The team's longtime in-house psychiatrist, Dr. George Huang (B.D. Wong), went from treating sex offenders to helping law enforcement because he concluded they could not be cured. At times the show has flirted with sympathy for vigilante justice; at times, its own detectives have taken part.

But by season 17, that approach was abandoned. That March 30 episode, "Sheltered Outcasts" (season 17, episode 19), takes a more nuanced approach to sex offenders. Detective Dominick Carisi (Peter Scanavino) embeds undercover for weeks at a homeless shelter with a special section for convicted sex offenders, suspecting a resident is responsible for a string of rapes nearby. While on the case, he befriends Richie Caskey (Michael Rapaport), who moved into the sex offender section after serving 10 years in prison for raping a cocktail waitress at a bachelor party.

The crime that landed Caskey in the shelter was despicable, but he appears sincerely horrified by and repentant for his actions. Which makes it all the more painful when initial evidence suggests Caskey might be responsible for the serial rapes Carisi is investigating. But Caskey is ultimately proven innocent; his lawyer was committing the rapes, assuming someone at the shelter would get blamed, given their past crimes.

Carisi's sympathy for Caskey isn't debunked; it's confirmed. "I went into that place, I hated those guys. I couldn't even stand to be around them," he tells Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish). "But after a few days, they just turned into people."

The episode is the culmination of years of evolution on the show toward a more nuanced and compassionate depiction of sex offenders — one that matches an emerging, more nuanced public conversation on the topic. The public and the press are starting to acknowledge the horrible effects of sex offender registration laws, the difficult reality that some pedophiles do not want to act on their impulses and need support and therapy rather than punishment, and the ways in which our horror at sex crimes helps drive mass incarceration. And SVU is starting to adjust in turn.

For its entire history, SVU has served as a mirror of attitudes about criminal justice and feminism — not the attitudes of Americans generally, but of the fairly liberal audience it targets. In its first decade, the detectives would make light of prison rape and vilify defendants. Today, the show often takes pains to acknowledge the humanity of even suspects who turn out to be guilty.

If you want to see how the conversation on criminal justice and sex crimes has evolved over the past two decades, you could do a lot worse than binge-watching SVU.

The unique appeal of SVU

Law & Order Special Victims Unit
Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) listening to a victim in season 17's "A Misunderstanding."
Michael Parmelee / NBC

SVU started as a spinoff of the main Law & Order series but soon developed an identity of its own. It shares the "ripped from the headlines" hustle of the original, but both because its breakout lead character is a woman — Detective Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay — and because of its subject matter, it has cultivated a different, less conservative image.

Most cop procedurals have a fairly utopian view of law enforcement: Police usually play by the rules, defendants are frequently assigned excellent representation, and the main challenge is dotting the prosecution's i's and crossing its t's so key evidence doesn't get tossed out on a technicality. SVU, by contrast, is focused on crimes traditionally minimized by the police, a fact that it rarely forgets. Its victims are overwhelmingly women and children. Its perps are almost always men — usually white, frequently rich and powerful.

To some extent, this twist to the formula was a canny response by producer Dick Wolf to the fact that the Law & Order franchise’s most devoted fans have always been professional women.

"My closest chum in Washington is a political columnist and TV pundit," columnist Michael Kinsley once observed. "I thought I knew her pretty well. Turns out that for years, on all those evenings when I assumed she was at parties to which I wasn't invited, she was at home watching reruns of Law & Order. The dean of a major business school poured out a similar confession, as did a senior editor at a newsmagazine. The girlfriend of one of my Slate colleagues. … Always women. Always high-powered. Always Law & Order." The musician Amanda Palmer put it more bluntly: "Who needs love when there’s Law & Order"?

But the traditional Law & Order was always male-dominated. The original cast contained no women. The executive assistant district attorney was always a man, either Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty), or Michael Cutter (Linus Roache). The two lead homicide detectives were always men. In a typical season, the only female main cast members would be S. Epatha Merkerson (as Lt. Anita Van Buren) and whichever 20-something ADA is working under McCoy at that moment.

SVU, by contrast, always had a female lead detective in Benson. The ADA was, until season 14, always a woman. Medical examiner Melinda Warner (Tamara Tunie) has been a crucial part of the show since season two.

From its premiere, the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum notes, "SVU felt like a woman’s show, at once prurient and cathartic, exploitative and liberating — with an appeal much like that of the old Lifetime channel, that pastel-tinted chamber of horrors. The audience was two-thirds female, young women, for the most part — the same demographic that drives fan fiction, romance novels, and vampire stories."

This is baked into the show’s very structure. The typical original Law & Order episode is split 50-50 between the investigation and the trial. The latter typically involves few plot twists, focusing instead on legal strategy, which limits how convoluted the story can get. SVU is typically 100 percent investigation, with only the occasional episode featuring time at trial. That means writers can pack in even more twists and turns, taking plots into genuinely bizarre, implausible, and wacky places.

This creates a distinctive pulpy tinge that ultimately sets the show apart from its parent series. Law & Order is a fundamentally serious show about serious topics. It barely has a sense of humor. SVU, largely because of its greater penchant for twists, is a deeply, deeply silly (and mercifully self-aware) show.

This is a series where Marcia Gay Harden screams, "WHITE POWER," while doing a Hitler salute in an open courtroom as gunshots ring out, where Outkast’s Big Boi plays a rapper named "Gots Money" who is eaten by hyenas, where the unit’s lieutenant rescues a gibbon monkey from inside a basketball (the latter two happen in the same episode). It is soapy nonsense of the finest quality — despite, or perhaps as a respite from, its focus on the immensely serious and sensitive topic of sexual violence.

The tough-on-crime years

Jared Harris on Law & Order SVU
Robert Morten (Jared Harris) is led away after Casey Novak told him he'd be transferred to ADX Florence, the famously harsh and brutal supermax prison.

Women’s show or not, SVU had the misfortune of premiering in 1999. Urban violent crime, whose historically high levels in the '70s and '80s set the stage for the original Law & Order, had peaked and was falling precipitously, but public opinion and culture always respond to changing social circumstances with a lag. The result was a public that was still terrified of crime and had high confidence in police.

A Gallup poll in 2001 found that 62 percent of Americans worried "a great deal" about crime. By 2016, that was down to 53 percent. In 2014, before the Ferguson protests raised the profile of criminal justice as an issue, only 39 percent said they worried a great deal — a 23-point drop from 2001. Similarly, Gallup has found that Americans’ faith in police grew over the early 2000s, during the early seasons of SVU, before falling in recent years, particularly among Democrats — disproportionately SVU’s audience.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that for the first decade or so of the show’s existence, it espoused a rather reactionary politics around crime. Prisoners' suffering was disregarded or played for laughs. "You know how to play 'Getting the Dice'?" Detective Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) asked Big Boi during an interrogation, taking out two dice. "Your cellie rolls the dice. [He rolls them.] Nine. That's how many days you get to play his girlfriend." It’s disconcerting to see a show about sexual assault flagrantly trivialize prison rape, but there you have it.

On another occasion, ADA Casey Novak (Diane Neal) gloats to a serial killer played by Jared Harris about the new prison assignment she got him: "You're gonna love Florence supermax — 23-hour lockdown, no visitors, no mail, no phone calls. No human contact for the rest of your life." What Novak is describing is unambiguously torture. The audience is supposed to view this treatment as a victory.

Any notion that sex offenders could benefit from treatment or rehabilitation was strictly absent. One of the most upsetting episodes of SVU to watch now is season 10’s "Confession," which begins with a 17-year-old boy walking into the precinct and confessing that he’s been having sexual thoughts about his 5-year-old stepbrother. He hasn’t hurt his brother at all, because he knows to do so would be wrong, but he doesn’t know how to handle his feelings, and so he asks the SVU detectives for help.

Benson responds not by trying to pair the boy with a therapist but by trying to build a case against him, telling his mother, "We believe that he's been abusing Cory." Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) harangues the kid in an interrogation room, yelling, "You're the one who sexually abused your 5-year-old stepbrother."

Lest you think the detectives learn a valuable lesson about the perils of prosecuting thought crime, or about targeting people who come to them trying to do the right thing, it ultimately turns out the kid has abused someone. Any chance the episode had of painting a nuanced, empathetic portrait of "gold star pedophiles" — people with pedophilic urges who do not act upon them — went out the window. Suspects are, once again, liars to be treated with suspicion and hostility.

But even as the show exhibited a callous disregard for the rights and humanity of suspects and perps, it never wavered in its core commitment to believing the victims. From the very start, the show went to great lengths to emphasize that victims' past sexual history has no bearing on the merit of their allegations. Sex workers are frequently featured as victims, but their career is never treated as a reason not to believe them.

There’s a healthy academic literature analyzing SVU that confirms this. Sociologists Nicole Rader and Gayle Rhineberger-Dunn conducted a content analysis comparing the 2003-'04 season of SVU with regular Law & Order, CSI, and Without a Trace and found that SVU was "the most likely to characterize victims as unlikeable but not culpable and least likely to characterize victims as manipulative" — in keeping with the show’s attempt to show that even victims who are not "perfect" should be believed.

Boston College's Lisa Cuklanz and Middlebury's Sujata Moorti conducted a content analysis of all 116 episodes of the show's first five seasons and are even more rapturous in their conclusions. "Unequivocally asserting that consent — rather than the conduct of the victim — is central to definitions of rape, SVU narratives repeatedly showcase assaults on prostitutes," they note. "SVU narratives repeatedly declare that a person’s sexual practices must not be used to undermine the person’s credibility. The series rejects the assumption that only virtuous and sexually chaste women can be violated … SVU offers an unequivocally feminist understanding of sexual assault in its depiction of power imbalances as causing rape."

The authors do note that SVU showcases disproportionate number of female perpetrators — but when it comes to debunking rape myths, the show rarely if ever wavers. Even when individual characters express belief in rape myths, they are immediately rebuked. In a season 11 episode, Stabler’s teenage son tells him about a fellow high schooler he knows who said she was assaulted by a football player. "Everyone says she’s a lying slut," he tells his father. Stabler reacts immediately: "Don’t ever talk about a victim like that."

Believing the victim

Law & Order Special Victims Unit, Rolling Stone UVA episode
ADA Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) with Heather Manning (Ally Ioannides), the show's analogue to "Jackie" from the Rolling Stone story.
Michael Parmelee / NBC

SVU’s set of precepts on sexual assault were a perfect match for the nascent feminist blogosphere of the late '00s, which broke into the mainstream press in a major way in the '10s. And, not unrelatedly, campus, military, and celebrity sexual assault started to be reported on and treated as serious issues in a way they never had been before, with the kind of feminist analysis of rape SVU had adopted and propounded — victims should not have to be perfect, their past sexual behavior is irrelevant, rape is about power, not sex, victims should be believed — gaining new prominence in turn.

Olivia Benson, specifically, became a kind of cult heroine for activists and writers working on sexual assault issues. "Olivia Benson is much more than a TV character — she’s a support system and role model," an anonymous contributor to the essay collection We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out wrote. "I can count on her."

"SVU offers viewers an alternate reality where sexual assault survivors are taken seriously and justice is obtainable thanks to a crack team of well-trained detectives, each one fluent in the language of sexual assault," Vice’s Alex Hughes elaborates.

And the show and its crew returned the love, adopting the vernacular of sexual assault advocates; the term "slut shaming" has appeared in SVU scripts repeatedly. Hargitay pivoted heavily into actual activism, founding the Joyful Heart Foundation, which focuses on preventing sexual assault and domestic violence and supporting survivors. She’s collaborated with Joe Biden on the issue, culminating in Biden filming a cameo on the show for the 18th season.

The "ripped from the headlines" aspect of the show — while still a recipe for lurid, uncomfortable content on occasion — also became a way for it to retell stories in the news with a pro-victim, anti-slut-shaming slant.

One, based on the story of Duke student and adult film star Belle Knox, sees a college student who also works in porn assaulted by two classmates who insist that because she’s in porn, she must consent to whatever they want. The show is clear that it’s the student’s right to express her sexuality how she wants, that her career is absolutely no excuse for rape, and that the ultimate problem is a culture that enables assaults.

Knox herself walked away from the experience impressed, writing, "I am happy that ‘my’ character was not portrayed as a caricature of the porn industry, but as an imperfect young woman who made some controversial choices that did not define her."

Another, based on the since-debunked Rolling Stone account of a gang rape at the University of Virginia, faced a challenge, given the show’s commitment to showing viewers that most allegations of rape are legitimate and false reports are rare. SVU handled the situation by pointedly refusing to place the blame on the student whose claims fell apart. In the SVU version, the student really was assaulted, by one classmate — and, because of pressure from the press and an irresponsible professor, embellished the events into a gang rape.

"I don't blame Heather," Olivia Benson says at the episode's conclusion. "[Reporter] Skip Peterson and Professor Dillon, they pressured her into coming forward. They thought this would be the case that would change rape culture, and it did. It set the clock back 30 years." The show’s takeaway is clear: This one event does not change the fact that false reports are rare and our society has a problem believing women.

Treating suspects like people

But if SVU was ahead of its time on its treatment of rape and consent, it lagged behind public opinion in its treatment of crime in its first decade, with DAs threatening tortuous solitary confinement and detectives joking about the assaults suspects would endure in prison. By the 2010s — when the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases and the crime decline increased support for criminal justice reform and raised the profile of racial bias by police — that approach appeared increasingly untenable.

However, the public’s declining appetite for tough-on-crime policies and increasing awareness and sensitivity toward sexual assault occurred simultaneously. This, necessarily, caused some tension. Many sexual assault advocates viewed the answer as tougher enforcement of the law. As Scott Berkowitz, founder of RAINN, America’s leading anti-sexual assault nonprofit, declared in 2012, "The single most important thing we can do to prevent rape is to put more rapists in prison."

Most criminal justice reform advocates, by contrast, view this approach as fundamentally flawed. Some have accused prison-focused sexual assault groups like RAINN of embracing a "carceral feminism," which serves to bolster a system of overcriminalization and mass incarceration that ultimately hurts women.

This dispute has spilled over into legislatures. The Brock Turner rape case at Stanford prompted California’s assembly to pass a new mandatory minimum law increasing sentences for sex offenders. That’s something certain sexual assault activists would embrace, but it furthers the cycle of ever-increasing sentences imposed in reaction to widely publicized crimes. That cycle, in the '80s and '90s, left us with mass incarceration.

It would have been simple for SVU to react to this trend by embracing carceral feminism. It’s a cop show; it’s about catching and putting away bad guys. It doesn’t face the same pressures for nuance that analysts writing think pieces or conducting advocacy campaigns do. Why not exploit greater awareness and interest in sexual assault issues by locking up more rapists?

But the show, pointedly, refused to go that route. Instead, the '10s featured a remarkable pivot in which SVU suddenly took police racial bias and mass incarceration seriously.

Of course, this being SVU, it went about this transition in an over-the-top, occasionally ham-handed way. The season 14 episode "Monster's Legacy" was, on paper, an excellent step forward. Featuring Andre Braugher's character Bayard Ellis, a civil rights attorney whose presence gives the show an opportunity to look critically at law enforcement, it centers on a death row inmate whom Benson and Ellis attempt to save from execution. They learn that the inmate had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child, and that his murder victim wasn't a stranger, as the prosecution had alleged, but a much older man who'd paid him for sex and had gang-raped him the night before the murder with three other men.

At no point in the episode is the inmate’s guilt in question. No one even questions that he should be in prison. The contention is merely that the jury should’ve heard about these mitigating circumstances, which might have spared him a death sentence. This is an unusually nuanced position for a cop procedural to take, and it’s especially striking to see a heroic detective figure like Benson take on the cause of an admitted murderer, because even violent criminals deserve fair treatment.

The problem was that, in a bit of unfortunate stunt casting, the inmate was played by Mike Tyson, who served three years in prison for rape. The show’s writers attempted to defend SVU casting a convicted rapist by insisting that Tyson had served his time, but given that Tyson has never admitted to or expressed any remorse for his crime, his presence on a show that rape survivors champion as an ally was jarring.

Kevin Carroll and Sonja Sohn on Law & Order SVU
Kevin Carroll and Sonja Sohn portraying the parents of Mehcad Carter, the 16-year-old killed by Jolene Castille in "American Tragedy."
Michael Parmelee / NBC

Soapier, but more defensible, was season 15’s "American Tragedy." The plot can be summarized as "Paula Deen kills Trayvon Martin," which is not exactly a promising premise. But where much of the media coverage surrounding Martin’s killing dwelled on the ambiguities — did his killer feel threatened? Was Martin really blameless? — SVU comes down unequivocally on the side of the 16-year-old black boy whom Southern celebrity chef Jolene Castille (Cybill Shepherd) guns down.

Initially, the police are sympathetic to Castille. The boy she shot was a suspect in a string of rapes; she claims he was trying to rape her as well. The boy’s parents painfully and movingly insist to the detectives that their son couldn’t have done such a thing, that the detectives need to investigate his killing seriously, but the detectives remain skeptical.

Then another suspect is found to have committed the serial rapes. Castille’s victim was totally innocent. What’s more, Castille lies about how close he was when she shot him, embellishes her story with details about the real rapist’s MO that she heard on the news, and turns out to have a long record of making racist comments to staff and acquaintances. "If it was a white boy, I wouldn't have been afraid," she tells the jury.

In SVU’s version of the Trayvon Martin story, the key problem is racial bias, white fear of young black men, and the police’s excessive willingness to accept young black men’s guilt without evidence.

Even sex offenders are people — and have families

A scene from a season 17 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Benson shields Pippa Cox (Jessica Phillips) from the press in "Collateral Damages."
Michael Parmelee / NBC

But the most striking shift in SVU can be seen in episodes where it refuses to demonize even characters suspected of heinous sex crimes. That’s a risky thing to do without sacrificing the show’s reputation as a bulwark for victims. But the show pulled it off.

The shift began tepidly with season 16's "Perverted Justice." Again featuring Andre Braugher's Bayard Ellis, it centers on Michelle Thompson (Samira Wiley of Orange Is the New Black and You're the Worst), a young woman whose testimony as a 6-year-old put her father in prison for rape and incest. As an adult, Thompson claims she lied to the police under pressure from her mother. The detectives and Ellis spend the entire episode attempting to have her father's case reopened, to get a new trial where Michelle can testify that her accusation was false.

The episode is based on a real case from New York state, but it deviates from the real facts in a way that undercuts the message somewhat. In the real incident, the daughter has been adamant and consistent in saying her father was innocent. In the episode, Michelle backtracks toward the end of the trial, telling Benson she honestly doesn’t remember what happened. This leads Benson to worry they freed the wrong man, and it feels like a bit of a cop-out.

The episode makes clear that there was reasonable doubt in the case. A man who was put away on flimsy evidence was set free. To have it end on an ambiguous note reeks of the show not wanting to side with a convicted sex offender.

But by season 17, the show had grown more confident and assured. The season’s most impressive episode, even more impressive than "Sheltered Outcasts" (the one that sympathetically portrays convicted sex offenders who are attempting to atone), was "Collateral Damages," which features a recurring character (Deputy Police Commissioner Hank Abraham, played by Josh Pais) being arrested for possession of child pornography.

Prior to the episode, Abraham was hardly an audience favorite. A political hack rather than a career cop, he mostly played damage control for the department, advising detectives on PR strategy and how best to keep the NYPD's image clean. He's a smarmy, unlikable figure. But rather than portray his pedophilia as the cardinal sin underlying his general loathsomeness, the episode displays an astonishing amount of empathy.

The episode reveals that Abraham is married to a far more popular recurring character: Pippa Cox (Jessica Phillips), a lawyer for social services who works with SVU on cases involving children. She and Abraham have two kids of their own.

So the SVU detectives handle the case as sensitively as possible. They give Pippa and her kids a chance to quietly leave the house before press arrives; Benson gets them a hotel. At no point does the episode minimize Abraham’s crime; his protestations that he never hurt a child and merely looked at pictures come across as pathetic rationalizations. But it doesn’t turn Abraham into the worst villain possible, either. The investigation concludes that he really never did hurt a child, and treated his own children well.

The main focus, though, is on Pippa, her processing of the crime, and what a revelation like this does to a family. This is a tricky focus to choose, given the risk of painting the perp’s family as the real victims, to the exclusion of the children Abraham victimized. But the family’s pain is real, too, and SVU’s attention to it served only to amplify the gravity of the crimes in question and show how they rip apart everyone touched by them.

"My mother, she's blaming me," Pippa laments to Benson, sobbing. "'How could you not suspect him? You do this for a living.’ … I married him. I slept with him for 12 years. … How blind am I? How stupid?" In the end, when Pippa decides to stay with her husband, her choice is not portrayed as weak or cowardly. It’s painted as an understandable decision of a woman in a completely impossible position. "He's still my husband. We have two children," she tells Benson, who replies, "I get it. I get it."

"It is our problem"

Olivia Benson and Rafael Barba in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Benson and ADA Rafael Barba in "Collateral Damages."
Michael Parmelee / NBC

"How many people have we put away for this?" Benson ponders at one point in "Collateral Damages," after having caught Abraham with child pornography. "Not once have I ever had sympathy for any of them." ADA Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) replies glibly, "It's not our problem." Benson stares at him accusingly. "It is our problem," he admits.

This is the exact reversal that SVU has made as a show over the past five or so years. In its original incarnation, sympathy for the perpetrator was not its problem. It did not concern itself with what happened to its villains. They could be raped in prison or driven mad in supermax for all the detectives and prosecutors cared.

But the show eventually realized this was its problem. Partly this was a matter of self-interest. SVU appeals to Democrats more than just about any other cop show, and with that party showing the strongest movement on criminal justice, it made sense for the show to liberalize in turn.

However, the change also took real courage. The level of sympathy that public opinion has started to extend to drug offenders and even low-level property and violent criminals often does not apply to sex offenders. Light sentencing, as in the case of Brock Turner, prompts public outrage even when the defendant is actually convicted. It would’ve been very possible for SVU to exhibit more sympathy to non-sex offenders and maintain a harsh line on its traditional villains.

SVU tracked America’s movement on crime issues, but in the process it became a better, more nuanced, and more powerful show. It’s still a tabloid procedural at heart. It will always be titillating and sensationalistic. But at its best, it displays a profound empathy that’s lacking in most other shows of its ilk. At first, that empathy was extended only to victims. Now it extends to just about everyone the criminal justice system touches.

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