When I was twelve years old I wrote a letter to Mariska Hargitay that I left unsent, hidden away in a box in my childhood bedroom until I packed up my life for college. In it, I told her that she saved my life. As a child survivor of sexual assault, I clung to Olivia Benson like a lifeline. I believed that if anyone cared about survivors it was Olivia Benson.
Olivia Benson, The Savior
Law and Order: SVU was a comfort of mine growing up, not only because of Benson, but because I find the monotonous nature of procedurals soothing. I cannot pinpoint a time in my youth where I believed a real life officer would protect me, but with the predictability of crime procedurals I absorbed the idea that police could be out there protecting somebody.
The plots usually go as follows: a person, usually a woman, is raped; the wrong bad guy is caught; red herring bad guy is let go without apology; new bad guy is caught, convicted, and incarcerated; the victim — never known as a survivor — is able to then presumably start a new path forward. I never had to think too hard while I was watching, which allowed me to consume the series in large sums over and over as I attempted to do my school work.
SVU frames justice as the conviction and incarceration of rapists. We presume that the person who receives justice is the survivor, yet SVU doesn’t address that the survivor has no autonomy in a trial of the person who harmed them. The show struggles fundamentally with its own fallacy that there is such a thing as a good cop. It consistently brushes against the reality of police brutality in America. Further, SVU struggles with its own primary message that incarcerating the person who has done harm is conducive to healing.
It is a TV show, yes, but SVU attaches to itself the responsibility of the shift in national conversation regarding sexual assault. Hargitay said in promotion for the record-breaking 21st season that the show is a “path to healing” for the viewers. SVU is syndicated on multiple channels, most notably USA Network’s themed all-day marathons, and is streaming on multiple platforms including Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Peacock. It is constantly available and easily accessible. Its cultural impact as a result is profound.
Perpetuating The Cycle of Violence
I stopped watching SVU in college because I felt nuSVU — as my friend Gabrielle calls the post-Elliot Stabler seasons — gratuitously displayed acts of sexual assault egregiously, even for a show about rape. During this time I had just moved states, and quickly learned that my trauma didn’t vanish because I left the state where my assault haunted me.
I suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and didn’t have coping mechanisms to decipher vivid recalls from reality. The images on the show for the first few episodes I watched of nuSVU followed me through my days and consumed my dissociative thoughts. Benson, as a savior figure, had less impact when her actions are paired with imagery of violence that was once simply described. The visceral violence added as shock value made evident that the violence was always more relevant than the healing.
I began my journey as a student of prison abolition soon after writing off SVU, through my support for my undergrad’s satellite institution at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. A significant number of women I interacted with were incarcerated, criminalized survivors. The realization struck me that my reality was one of chance, since survivorship is neither cherished nor protected in this country.
While I understood the fragility of my own position in the world as a survivor, I did not fully grasp how the legal system punishes survivors for doing what they need to to stay grounded and alive. Per Survived and Punished, criminalized survivors are incarcerated for many survival actions including, “self-defense, “failure to protect,” migration, removing children from abusive people, being coerced into acting as an “accomplice,” and securing resources needed to live.”
I tried to reimagine a system that had the empathy for survivors SVU sold to me as a child, but I could not reconcile some “new” policy reform within the carceral state, and the violent disregard of human life that I know to exist inside prisons. So I challenged, and continue to challenge, my own beliefs that police and prisons protect the harmed and vulnerable.
I recently rewatched the series to revisit and re-evaluate why I attached so much to it as a child. I have now, once again, seen every episode of SVU. I could lay out multiple issues with portrayals in the show: the way the Administration of Children’s Services, a punitive system for parents — particularly black mothers — is used to threaten families; propaganda narratives that prison is meant to be rehabilitative; the conflation of harmful ripped from the headline narratives; or the choice of using known abusers as guest stars.
For me, however, what is most striking is the show’s premise that violence can only be counteracted with further violence. During the Stabler years, it was easy to critique his chaotic, aggressive, hot-headed personality. Instead of grappling with what I knew all along, I spent my time re-learning Benson, specifically separating the character I time-capsuled as my childhood hero and the actual reality of the character. Benson “listening,” “hearing” and “protecting” survivors is in reality her pushing for incarceration, insisting that it is the only way the survivors are able to heal.
Incarceration Isn’t Justice
At times I have to believe that SVU doesn’t even believe what it’s selling. In an episode where Benson goes undercover in Rikers to catch a corrections officer, who is sexually assaulting women incarcerated in the facility, she herself is sexually assaulted. The episode shows, as Benson “gets to know” the people she’s incarcerated with, the harm that the women who are incarcerated face every day from COs. The series can’t grapple with the violence consistently perpetuated by COs toward people who the show has previously deemed as “criminals” and the way the main series cops have perpetuated or threatened that same violence.
Of course, the CO is arrested, charged, and incarcerated, though that does not feel like a victory. As K. Agbebiyi has said, “Getting police in jails wastes momentum towards closing jails. It perpetuates the narrative that jail is where bad people belong.”
It doesn’t feel like a victory for Benson, either, as the arc continues to show her struggling with the reality she has always approached from a spectator’s perspective. Again, SVU doesn’t know how to address the fact that there is no justice in incarceration without writing itself out of existence — so the series lets it hang.
In the nuSVU era, Benson has her own wrongful conviction episode. She gives an impassioned speech about how she prides herself on not being “one of the good ole boys.” Presumably this episode is meant to show she is a good and considerate cop, and even those police officers “make mistakes.” What it shows instead is that police have too much power — not only over those wrongfully convicted, but also over the people who did what they are accused of.
I want to emphasize the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore here: “When people are looking for the relative innocence line in order to show how sad it is that the relatively innocent are being subjected to the forces of state-organized violence as though they were criminals, they are missing something that they could see. It isn’t that hard. They could be asking whether people who have been criminalized should be subjected to the forces of organized violence. They could ask if we need organized violence.”
For SVU to show the amount of abuse faced by criminalized survivors in Rikers, yet not reflect on the impact the police have in making that happen, creates the unspoken that said treatment is deserved. In framing wrongful convictions as the only harm done by police, the show validates the consistent violence and abuse that happens behind precinct doors.
I considered writing Hargitary another letter, making clear my process of undoing the carceral propaganda I absorbed in watching SVU as a child. About being a survivor who can finally watch it from a critical lens without fear of unleashing some harm of my own trauma onto myself. I wanted to tell her that the show is not for survivors. I wanted to explain how carceral feminism only harms survivors, leads to their own incarceration and de-centers their stories. But what would that change? Am I to believe that Hargitay has never heard of abolition? That she does not see the benefit to portraying Benson and syndicating SVU on her own multi-million dollar empire?
Centering Survivors, Working Toward Abolition
I once again re-routed my focus.
What SVU promotes is a cycle of violence toward the survivor, toward their families and toward the abusers. SVU follows a philosophy that abuse is innate in our society. It tells us that harm is inevitable, unless abusers are placed in prison. As a show about cops, it cannot imagine a world without them. It promotes an idea that we know is false: that cops care about survivors, that they are listening and are here to protect.
Cops cannot, will not, and do not want to save us. And we must move beyond this belief that they are saviors and toward acknowledging that they are actually harmful and unnecessary.
I have witnessed people invoke survivors’ names to ground their belief that cops are not only necessary, but help people who have been sexually assaulted. The connection to SVU is profound, not because people want to see the individuals that harmed them behind bars, but because they feel heard by Olivia Benson. Anyone who has experienced attempting to report their own sexual assault will let you know that Olivia Benson does not exist. Police are violent and consistently commit acts of domestic violence and sexual violence. There is no truth in the idea that there are police protecting survivors; often they are invalidating survivor’s stories or assaulting survivors themselves.
To echo Derecka Purnell, “When people dismiss abolitionists for not caring about victims or safety, they tend to forget that we are those victims, those survivors of violence.” It is not possible for me to speak on behalf of all survivors of sexual violence or assault, nor do I want to. But I know that I was drawn to SVU because I wanted to be heard when I was terrified to speak into existence what happened to me. I spent years repressing my trauma and pain until I became completely consumed by it when I had no one but myself. And I clawed out of that consumption by grappling with my grief for my childhood and grounding myself in a community of people who listen to me through my continuous process.
Through my own healing, I’ve come to understand that the stories I want to center are those of survivors. I cannot focus my energy on catching a “bad guy” when harm is still pertinent. The centering of abusers and incarceration resolves nothing. To focus on carceral punishment creates more harm and validates a system where survivors are also incarcerated, struggling for freedom.
SVU isn’t a show about survivors because it doesn’t show survivorship. It centers the story on catching the “perp” and uses violence to resolve violence as if seeing harm perpetuated is healing. If SVU is a path to healing for survivors, it is because the series shows what healing is not rooted in. At the time I stopped watching, it struck me that a show that presented such visceral displays of sexual assault wasn’t a show for survivors. I am here to tell you now that it was never a show that valued survival.
I went from using SVU as my lifeline as a child to speaking out on its gratuitous violence in the name of feminism during the rape culture activist era of my late teens. As an adult, I’ve come to think of the series as a form of cringe absurdist art. But to pretend that SVU doesn’t have a lasting stain on how this nation views police, justice, survivorship and incarceration feels dangerous and irresponsible in this moment in time.
The series does not live in a vacuum. We have not only grown in our understanding that police aren’t necessary, we have grown in our communities to see that stories placing police on pedestals are obsolete. Instead of focusing stories of sexual violence as crimes and puzzles to be solved, we should invest in work made to center survivors and reflect community building where the world exists without police.