Twenty years ago, the world saw the premiere of a crime drama that would alter both the television landscape and the way sexual violence is portrayed onscreen. Law & Order: SVU debuted on NBC on Sept. 20, 1999. Led by Mariska Harigitay’s Detective Olivia Benson, the show has left its mark by deftly navigating the complexities of sexual assault cases, in the process becoming the second longest-running scripted primetime TV series on the air.
By consistently focusing on the stories of women and children, and by showing actual consequences that befall perpetrators, SVU has, over the years, been commended for its mostly faithful portrayal of the criminal justice system—even if the drama is dialed up for entertainment value.
Among a spate of crime procedural dramas such as NCIS and CSI, Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU, in particular, helped to change the way people think about sexual assault, according to law experts and researchers who have studied the influence of the show. Among them is Stacey Hust, a professor of communications at Washington State University who published a study in 2015 showing that viewers of SVU had healthier attitudes toward sexual consent and a better understanding of the causes of sexual violence than those who watched shows like NCIS or CSI.
“The main difference between SVU and any other crime drama is it includes both the crime and the prosecution of the crime,” Hust tells TIME. “Not only do viewers see the crime take place, they then see the perpetrator punished. The message is that, yes, this occurs, but it’s bad and you can get in trouble for doing it.” Shows like Chicago P.D., CSI or NCIS, she says, focus more on catching the criminal and don’t always delve into the outcome for the perpetrator. “That difference has an effect on its viewers.”
When it comes to discerning the role a show like SVU may have had in changing attitudes, it’s important to factor in changes to the criminal justice system that have coincided with the procedural’s two-decade run. One crucial change has to do with longtime societal tendencies to discredit survivors of sexual violence based on their behavior, such as asking what a person was wearing or why a person would remain in contact with a perpetrator or fail to report the crime to police. According to Kristen Gibbons Feden, a former sex crimes prosecutor who served as a special prosecutor in Bill Cosby’s trial for sexual assault, those tendencies have historically influenced juries.
But across the country, states have changed laws to allow people serving on juries to obtain a more nuanced view of the dynamics of sexual violence. In 2012, for example, Pennsylvania became the last state in the U.S. to permit expert testimony in sexual assault cases. “Through experts, we are allowed to educate a jury during trial and have an explanation of sexual violence,” says Feden, who practiced in Pennsylvania. The #MeToo movement, which gained steam in 2017 as stories poured out from many women and some men around the world about harassment, abuse and the ways in which people in power took advantage of them, further transformed how prosecutors and detectives investigate cases and handle the testimonies of victims.
So where does a fictional show like SVU fit into the broader landscape of total societal change? According to Feden, by bringing all these topics to the forefront and turning these stories into entertainment, it meets people on their level. Even if someone is not up to speed on the intricacies of the law—and most audience members are not—a show like SVU might teach them something about how a criminal proceeding unfolds and what the actual dynamics of sexual assault look like.
“Law & Order showed that sexual violence does not discriminate,” says Feden, who describes herself as a big fan of SVU. “It happens in all socio-economic statuses, all religions, all cultures and all groups. It also highlights aspects, like grooming, that lead to sexual violence.”
For the millions of viewers who tune in to SVU, that education can be valuable. (The show’s 20th season drew 7.6 million viewers overall, though ratings have dipped since SVU‘s most critically acclaimed seventh season, which drew between 12 and 17 million viewers per episode in 2005.) But it can also have downsides, says Feden. “For a real-life survivor of sexual assault, the show presents an unrealistic expectation of how long the actual process is,” she says. “It could take two years to get a case to trial. On TV, it happens within a week. I tell victims that this is not Law & Order. This is not going to resolve in 30 minutes.”
And the show’s clear-cut narrative of justice served does not always match up to reality. The world of the show is one in which survivors’ stories are taken seriously and detectives do everything they can to help them. But perpetrators in the real world frequently go unpunished, while people who report being assaulted often find that they are not believed or treated well by police. (The acclaimed recent Netflix series Unbelievable begins, as its title suggests, with this premise.) Three in four cases of sexual assault go unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). According to RAINN’s statistics, of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 230 are reported, and of that, just 46 lead to arrest. Only about nine cases will get referred to prosecutors, and of those, just five will lead to a conviction.
In a legal sense, SVU’s biggest influence has been on jury pools, according to former prosecutors. Members of a jury who are familiar with the show come in with very high expectations for evidence because on SVU, there are typically clear pieces of evidence against the perpetrator, such as DNA or phone records or videos. Feden says that in her time prosecuting sex crimes, probably only two cases had DNA evidence. “SVU makes it seem like 50% of cases have DNA evidence. It also makes it seem like there could be a witness in a lot of these cases, and the majority of the time, there is not,” she says.
Arthur Aidala, a current defense attorney and former prosecutor who previously worked in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office in New York, says that advances in technology that are highlighted in shows like SVU have turned viewers—who are potential jury pool members—into armchair experts on what to expect in a criminal case. This can be a drawback because, as Feden notes, the majority of sexual assault cases do not carry the clear-cut types of evidence portrayed in shows like SVU. And most sexual assault cases end in a plea bargain, according to Aidala. On the other hand, the basic knowledge people gain from the show can come in handy in cases that that do end up going to trial, which tend to have the kind of evidence a viewer of SVU might expect.
“The TV shows like SVU have almost trained jurors on what to be looking for. The prosecutor doesn’t have to direct them,” he says. “They’re doing a deep dive like they’re investigators.”
Ultimately, SVU has demystified the work of detectives and prosecutors to the general public. Whether it has really encouraged more survivors to come forward or changed the way police work is hard to quantify, according to Feden, who says that many factors that silence victims are still in play. Victim blaming and shaming continue, despite the advances of #MeToo and the popularity of an influential TV show like SVU.
“Sexual violence survivors still have an uphill battle,” she says.
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