Law & Order & Prison Rape, femonomics.blogspot.com, November 11, 2010

For reasons that defy explanation, I have spent a significant amount of time in the past couple of weeks watching episode of Law & Order: SVU. For those of you who have not watched television in the past decade, the show follows a fictional team of detectives, medical, and legal staff responsible for investigating sexual crimes in New York City. It is highly formulaic but well acted, with a strong sense of morality coursing through each episode. Because this show is so sensitive to issues surrounding sexual assault and victims' rights, I was very surprised that in many of the episodes the detectives crack rape jokes!

No way! Not possible! You'd think this would be egregious behavior for officers (even fictional) that are charged with investigating sexual crimes. But apparently it's acceptable (on TV) because the potential victims are the criminals that have been charged with the episode's crime and are entering prison.

I can definitely understand the writers' impulse here: in the televised morality play, the viewer wants to see eye-for-an-eye justice. And with such heinous crimes being depicted, of course we want to see the "monster" suffer as much as possible. However, rape is NEVER OK. Not even in prison, not even when the victims are rapists themselves. And joking about prison rape erases a very serious and brutal problem with our nation's incarceration system. It's slightly more disturbing because these (fictional! I know!) detectives are charged with investigating all sexual crimes, including presumably those that take place in prison. The writers seem to have lost their way!

As the jokes would seem to allude, rape is a real threat for all inmates in the US - men, women, juveniles, etc. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission released a report in 2009 detailing the epidemic. Although rates varied across facilities, overall about 5 percent of adults in jail reported sexual assault, and an even more shocking 20 percent of incarcerated youth reported that they had been the victim of non consensual sexual activity in the last year or since entering the facility. They also found that these problems were neither inevitable nor a natural part of incarceration, and that strong leadership and policies could essentially eliminate the problem. A Justice Department report this year states that 12% of juveniles inmates are raped - we are talking about children here.

SVU's writers do come back to this topic in later episodes, where the detectives' jokes catch up with them. And that's great: own your mistakes, acknowledge what went wrong, ensure they won't happen again, and move on! But that's not what happened. After the contrite episode, characters continue to make prison rape jokes! So, that's a media fail.

This is still, I think, pretty good television. However, a couple of reasons not to watch more than two SVU episodes per week (learn from my experience!)

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