Yes All Cops, Even SVU’s Olivia Benson

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.

Law graduate and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. I can generally be found discussing prison & child welfare abolition, astrology, reality tv, and my cat Romance.

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21 Comments

  1. This is so good! I too have watched all of SVU, relied on it for comfort for so long, and then been rethinking and examining my attachment to it. Thanks for pushing my thinking even further on the issues with cop narratives and this show in particular. In hindsight it seems like I should have been turned off by how frequently the cops on the show use prison rape as a threat against people they’re interrogating.

  2. I am so happy to see this written out in a way that is manageable for both survivors and professionals. I work in mental heath and have a background in human trafficking, and once I starting working there I couldn’t stomach SVU anymore, and a lot of the reasons are laid out right here. I will be sharing this with the therapists I work with and encouraging them to think about how this impacts the work we do.

    • Ice T might see the character that he is playing differently than the actual criminal cops he grew up knowing in Cali. It would be interesting to know his stance on it before judging him. He has been very vocal about how he views certain cops, even to this day. He might see playing a SVU cop a little differently.

  3. First let me say that no ill will is intended. With that being said, I can relate to your experiences with SVU and the character of Olivia Benson. I gave up watching violent programming based on a suggestion by my therapist. I do not miss it. I am all for artistic expression but much of what people find exciting about shows like Game of Thrones or SVU has no artistic value. It desensitizes people and makes them apathetic towards real life survivors. SVU congratulates itself on being a beacon of hope for survivors but I find nothing realistic or encouraging about the way cases are wrapped up. So, yes, I do agree that even Olivia Benson is a part of the problem.

    While I do agree with the idea that police departments should be defunded, I am having a hard time understanding exactly how you and others expect abolition to be a viable solution. If we get rid of all prisons tomorrow then what are we to do with those newly freed? What would be the cost of reforming current prisoners and establishing preventive measures to eliminate or reduce the number of future crimes? And what, specifically, would we do with people who are beyond rehabilitation? If we are to change the way deviant behavior is punished are we also changing our definition of what that behavior entails? Are we rewriting laws? Would laws even be necessary? In reading your article, the article you link to, and the article that article links to, I haven’t found any definitive answers. Right now it seems rather reactionary, although I do acknowledge the decades long work that has been done on police and prison reform, to suggest we eliminate police full stop.

    If prisons are meant to punish people for violating social mores and we accept that police and prisons do not deter negative behavior then where is the data that supports the notion that community based response groups would or have had the kind of transformative impact necessary for making our communities safer?

    I am all for reducing the number of arrests and convictions for non violent drug offenders. I do not believe that people actively being victimized should be incarcerated for the act of surviving. I am not opposed to reform or rehabilitation. I am not a champion of the militarized police forces that currently inhabit our communities. I, also, do not trust anyone (beyond myself) to look after my interests. I am willing and fully capable of responding with lethal force to threats against my person or my family. I just worry for the people who aren’t similarly equipped.

    I do not know what justice looks like for survivors of violent crimes. Every survivor is different. I do know that, for me, it does not involve anything less than the life sentence that was inflicted upon me.

    • Peace, friend. I googled “I don’t understand abolition” and found a bunch of meaningful articles on the first page of results that you might consider exploring. I’m not sure which linked article you read from the above piece, but the Derecka Purnell article the author mentioned also includes a slew of links. Mariame Kaba is a movement elder who has talked about the idea of abolition for decades, and I’m sure if you look her up you’d be able to find podcast interviews, youtube interviews, articles, books, etc.

      It’s ok to have questions. It’s challenging to see someone who aims to not pass on ill will using phrases like “If we get rid of all prisons tomorrow” and “where is the data” because these frames are often used to derail conversations when Black and brown people ask for necessary change, and they come with a side of gaslighting.

      When abolition was a conversation about chattel slavery in the 1800s, not prisons today, I’m sure you could see how phrasing questions like “if we got rid of slavery tomorrow what would happen?” and “where is the data that releasing people from slavery would lead to better outcomes for Black people?” wouldn’t make you feel like a safe person to have a conversation with.

      This is all to say that, while you mentioned good intentions, directing these questions at the author of this piece is a choice to call on the author’s labor and likely disrupt the author’s peace (and the labor / peace of a Black woman like me who made the mistake of reading the comments), rather than doing the research for yourself. The process of “unlearning” sounds woo-woo, but it describes actual time & effort that is needed to put into seeking understanding for yourself. The answers to your questions are indeed out there. All of this said with love and respect.

    • Hi Ayo, I am new to this topic too, and have been wondering about a lot of the same questions you are bringing up. One resource I’ve found helpful is this FAQ from mpd150.com :
      https://www.mpd150.com/wp-content/themes/mpd150/assets/faq_zine.pdf
      Also, Autostraddle recently published a piece with a lot of links that I am just beginning to go through and am already finding helpful as well:
      https://www.mpd150.com/wp-content/themes/mpd150/assets/faq_zine.pdf
      So far, I haven’t come across any definitive answers of where we go from here, and I honestly don’t expect to. From what I am learning so far, there are a lot of people imagining many different ways to go about gradually changing how our societies approach justice, and the changes people are dreaming up are so profound that we can’t definitively know the details of how to bring them about; it seems we’ll be discovering more along the way as we support these changes in unfolding. One of the things that does seem clear to me is that there’s a lot of evidence that reforming the current systems doesn’t make our communities safer, and that’s why people are looking to abolish the current systems and create something new.

    • Hi there! I’d love to echo what herekitty and Lee said, and especially encourage you to think carefully about what herekitty said about the places that you bring up these questions, how you frame the questions, and whose labor you’re asking for. I just wanted to jump in to encourage you to look at the profile about Ruth Wilson Gilmore from the New York Times linked to by Quiniva, because Gilmore walks through a lot of your questions in detail. Here’s the link again: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html. What’s especially crucial to remember is that prisons and police do not keep people safe: they actually make the world more violent, and more dangerous. There are actually a lot of alternatives out there, and they have been tested: abolitionists encourage us to imagine and hope more broadly for support for education, social services, and anti-poverty measures, all of which are which are correlated with reductions in crime. It’s part of imagining a better world holistically, beyond just making cops and prisons vanish.

    • 1) Reform and abolition are two separate but related movements. Reformists are not abolitionists and vice versa, they fundamentally disagree
      2) Abolition is not reactionary, it has been around for ages, it has been around since prisons were first created
      3) The problem is the word punish. Punishing does not prevent harm. Abolitionist want to focus on preventing harm
      4) Abolition is a transformative idea. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition requires that we change one thing: everything”. It means investing in schools, healthcare. It means changing the neoliberal capitalist structure that we in the West slave under. It means learning from indigenous practices such as healing circles and restorative justice. It means building transformative justice, where we all enter into accountability with one another and survivors are centred. It means a new world.
      5) We are both survivors of violent crimes then. I ask you, how does your abuser being in prison help you materially? How does it help you emotionally? If you say it satisfies your need for vengeance then I argue that that does not actually help you emotionally, it only holds you back.

  4. Whew, this article is so good. Thank you for sharing it. I was never into SVU, but I have come to realize (belatedly, of course) that I can no longer watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and I should have listened to abolitionists before and not supported the propaganda, even if it is propaganda that also includes representation and jokes I like.

  5. Thank you! You gave me words to explain why I dropped SVU after years and years of watching first run episodes and binging marathons on USA. At some point it was no longer enough for me that Mariska Hargitay is a great actress (and hot); SVU is a show about sexual violence victims – not survivors – where the perpetrators are often afforded buckets of empathy. Thank you for framing your point in prison and police abolition, which has given me a lot to think about.

    I might keep reading that fanfic, though…

  6. I saw all the episodes of SVU. I agree that the series is not perfect but its contribution, in some way, to understand the traumas of the survivors is undeniable. Olivia Benson is fantastic because she is deeply human, sensitive and just. She is a great police officer and the series never intended to show how a survivor is effectively recovered, the series is to show crime and how it is solved. The survivor who desires pasticological help should seek out Mariska Hargitay and her institution, Joyful Heart. Mariska is a fantastic person, as a human being, as an actress, as a philanthropic. I don’t understand your criticism.

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