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‘Law and Order: SVU’ Saved My Life, Then Broke My Trust

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.


This is a recap for “Law & Order: SVU” season 23 episode 21 “Confess Your Sins to be Free.” There will be spoilers beyond this point. Please proceed with caution.

When I first began watching “Law & Order: SVU,” I was 16 years old and a sophomore in high school. It was season 15 that was airing at the time, and I quickly became enamored with the fearless and badass Detective Olivia Benson. I even bought a necklace from the Joyful Heart Foundation, the organization founded by lead actress, Mariska Hargitay. I hoped that the charm which read “fearlessness” would inspire me to be brave, too, and to live a life free from anxiety and depression.

• What is PTSD?

I don’t remember if I was wearing my necklace when I went to a party my freshman year of college. I do know that I was already struggling at school—that although the university I attended was only two hours away from home, it felt like a foreign country. Despite my education from SVU and society, I never expected the events from that night to transpire. Regardless of the hours I’d spent in Manhattan’s 16th precinct, how do you prepare yourself to be poisoned by a stranger, to awaken in a bedroom, pinned to a mattress? Later, I would think about what Olivia had taught me. To report the crime. To go to a hospital. To test yourself for STD’s and seek out counseling. To this day, I remain ashamed that I did not do any of those things. I attempted to move on, to pretend as if nothing had happened, but this soon proved itself impossible. In the coming semester, I would drop out of school. My mental health would spiral until eventually, my family had no choice but to intervene. I started treatment—inpatient residential, and then outpatient group therapy. I spent hours with my individual psychologist.

My journey was not linear, but I made progress and eventually, a new member joined my treatment team—Olivia Benson, along with various other characters. Old favorites like Elliot Stabler and new friends, such as Rafael Barba. While I was initially too fragile to watch specific arcs, SVU came to be there for me in a way it never had in high school. Olivia taught me that my assault hadn’t been my fault, no matter how much I previously knew from SVU. I mean, my God—Olivia herself had become a survivor. If someone like her, who was versed in sexual predators and self-defense techniques could falter, then why not me?

When it was announced that Elliot Stabler was returning to the SVUniverse, I finally dared to share my excitement on social media—Twitter, to be exact. I met an amazing and empowering community of individuals, including many sexual assault survivors. They all found solace in the same things as me. We wrote fanfiction and “thirsted” over Chris Meloni, but among all the usual fangirl activities, there was always a looming understanding in the air—an understanding that this fandom was special. Different. The characters of Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler may be fictional, but the stories on SVU are not. Mariska Hargitay herself has spoken out about how this audience of survivors has changed her life; it’s why she created the Joyful Heart Foundation. Chris Meloni has talked about being hugged by rape victims on the street and plots on SVU are consistently “ripped from the headlines.”

“Calm down, it’s just a TV show,” people will tell me, along with the rest of my family on L&O Twitter. But it’s not. We may obsess over the slow-burn relationship of Benson and Stabler, but romance and our own character preferences are not among the real issues. It’s the fact that thousands of sexual assault survivors, myself included, have been granted a rare oasis where they are believed. Where the main character, Olivia Benson, advocates for us endlessly. We feel safe to let our guards down in the company of our heroes.

Or at least we did before May 12th.

May 12th, 2022 was the unequivocal breaking point. For me, for so many others, who had felt silenced for a while amidst repetitive, graphic storylines and a show runner who blocked us for voicing our opinions. May 12th marked the return of a character named Burton Lowe who had previously been featured in SVU’s 500th episode. Ask any SVU fan and they’ll probably have an opinion about 500.

Some people think that it was brilliant—the idea that our hero, Olivia Benson, realized that she had been groomed as a teenager. Others were horrified, because not only did Olivia come to that realization, but she slept with her groomer (and later a confirmed rapist) in the process. Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. While I do believe the plot itself was powerful, I think a monumental achievement, like a show’s 500th episode, could have done much better. It could have celebrated the icon that is Olivia Benson without giving her more trauma that is unlikely to ever be followed up on. Because let’s face it—for survivors in the real world, the struggle doesn’t end at the conclusion of a 40-minute episode. We’re forced to live with our trauma constantly, forever. The least they could do is show us that even a woman as “badass” as Olivia Benson still gets triggered and wakes up with nightmares. (Sometimes I think the writers have forgotten that Olivia has scars burned into her abdomen from the abduction she survived in season 15.)

But let’s be real. It’s not my opinion on episode 500 that legitimately matters. It’s the thousands of survivors who have cried out about the May 12th episode. We’ve raised hell, just like the Olivia Benson I know always taught us. And what have we gotten in response? Radio silence.

We’ve gotten nothing about the fact that Olivia Benson tipped off a rapist about a victim’s plan to press charges. We’ve been ignored as we speak out against the extent of our triggers, how the May 12th episode focused on a perpetrator, rather than a victim—or even our main cast. “Confess Your Sins to Be Free.” That was the episode’s title. It encouraged an already dangerous narrative, that when an abuser is ready to make amends, a victim could potentially owe them something.

I still don’t know the name of my assailant. The man that pinned me to the mattress at that college party. But let’s say, hypothetically, that he walks back into my life tomorrow. Let’s say that he remembers me—that petite brunette, who was avoiding drinking games, dressed in jeans and a sweater. Let’s say he wants to make amends because it turns out that he’s an addict and is now working the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

There’s no denying that there are men like that out there. And women. Honestly, Burton seeking forgiveness didn’t surprise me. It was Olivia’s reaction that was hurtful. Had Olivia been Burton’s only victim, that might have even been acceptable, because anyone who’s familiar with the character of Olivia Benson knows that she treats herself with less respect that she deserves. But there were other women. Earlier this season, Olivia swore to her Chief that she would never turn her back on a victim. Well, she did. She ended the episode wishing Burton Lowe well, instructing him to take things one step at a time. Those are words she should have been saying to Beverly, the brave woman who reported Burton for raping her.

But don’t forget—Burton was drunk, and therefore not responsible for his actions. It’s a tale as old as time, the same old song. It’s what we heard at the infamous Brock Turner trial, when Chanel Miller was raped at Stanford University. His legal team argued that alcohol was to blame for Turner’s conduct and 20 minutes of action should not ruin his life. Chanel Miller responded, “Alcohol is not an excuse. Regretting drinking is not the same as regretting sexual assault. We were both drunk; the difference is, I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away.”

Then came the tweet. Three days after the May 12th episode aired, “Law & Order” finally followed up on the hundreds of call-outs they’d received from survivors. They posted a picture of Olivia wishing Burton well, telling him to take things one step at a time. Their caption? “One small step for Burton. One large leap for their relationship.”

They hashtagged it #SVU. I think they’ve forgotten that those letters are supposed to stand for “Special Victims Unit.”

Image via Rotten Tomatoes TV’s YouTube

Originally published: July 13, 2022
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