Law & Order: SVU just dug up a concept we thought died back in 2012 on Wednesday night, but by the end of the episode, the series makes an irrefutable case and in a big way.
When Representative Todd Akin of Missouri went on television to declare that a “legitimate rape” couldn’t possibly result in pregnancy because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” the last thing I would ever have supposed is that the concept would inspire a Law & Order episode. When he was bested by Senator Claire McCaskill in the election for the Senate, it was pretty clear that his radical views on female anatomy and the idea that some rapes were somehow more “legitimate” than others was at least partly to blame for his fade into the background.
It was even more clear that Akin’s concept was so ridiculous, it would go down as nothing more than a bizarre blip in politics of days gone by. Yet somehow, SVU picked up the long-cooled concept and made drastic and effective claim with a what-if scenario that reeks of science-fiction, but aligns itself with the terrifying truth.
The March 27 episode follows young sports reporter Avery Jordan (guest star Lauren Cohan of The Walking Dead) as she attempts to prove that her former friend and cameraman raped her. It’s a typical episode of SVU until two elements come into play: First, because Avery was in shock when Rick forced himself on her, she couldn’t even muster the word “No,” making it difficult to prove the sex was non-consensual. Second, Avery became pregnant as a result of the rape and Rick employs an Akin stand-in as a quack and former doctor who tries to convince the jury that during a legitimate rape, the body responds to stress by shutting down the reproductive process (also known as a crazier version of the same nonsense Akin spewed back in August).
Proving that the sexual encounter, which happened weeks before Avery braved coming forward, happened against her will is suddenly an uphill battle. As Detective Rollins (Kelli Giddish) tells Avery, even the bruises she sustained will just cause the defense to “say you liked it rough. A single woman on the road with mostly men...” After losing everything, including her network executive lover and the job she worked so hard for, a very pregnant Avery struggles into court where she comes face to face with Rick, who’s being accused of stalking her in addition to raping her.
Thanks to some great casting, Rick is easy to hate. He’s a slimeball that the viewer and the jury can find guilty almost immediately, but questions like “Maybe he thought you had a relationship since you acted like nothing was wrong?” breed doubt. Well, they breed doubt to a degree. Eventually it’s obvious to us that he did stalk her and when he, as his own lawyer, absurdly grills Detective Benson (Mariska Hargitay) about whether or not she hates men or if she thinks all men are rapists, he’s convicted as far as we’re concerned.
That’s why it stings so greatly when a single seed of doubt planted by Rick and his quack doctor forces the jury to convict Rick on charges of stalking while acquitting him of the rape portion of the charges. This outcome would be a dark enough look at the potential impact of even a small section of the population maintaining such backward ideas about rape and women’s issues, but it gets worse.
When Avery’s baby is born, Rick slaps her with a lawsuit for custody of the child. As Avery’s public defender so helpfully explains, it is legal in over 40 states for rapists to seek custody of their biological children. Though, even if that weren’t true, thanks to one woman’s uncertainty about how rape works, Rick is not considered a rapist in the eyes of the law.
At the very least, Rick’s vindictive, sinister nature helps save Avery, who’s since lost her job and is on a steady diet of anti-depressants thanks to her ordeal with Rick, from losing her son to her rapist. It doesn’t however, allow the judge to prevent Rick from seeing his biological son. The judge reluctantly grants Rick two-hour supervised visits every Saturday, and in effect sentences Avery, a victim of rape, to a weekly visit with the man who violated her so he can bond with her young, developing son.
If the sheer anguish on Avery’s face isn’t indication enough, the poor woman has just been sentenced to her own personal prison. Her rapist must legally be in her life. Benson, whose conception was the result of her mother’s rape, knows just how excruciating that fate can be, and in the happiest ending possible considering all that Avery has been through, Benson sends her out of the country on a private plane and “beyond extradition.”
This seemingly melodramatic plot line may have seen every possible thing go wrong for Avery, and thus seemed too far-fetched to say anything about the process of convicting rapists in the U.S., but in truth, it simply exercised the rules in place and showed them to be as flawed as they are.
And the episode, despite its outdated legitimate rape peg, couldn’t come at more turbulent time. On television, the concept of rape came into question recently when Adam on Girls had forceful, unpleasant sex with his girlfriend Natalia. She didn’t say no and he didn’t hit her, but she did not appear to be consenting to the sexual experience. It begged the question, was that rape?
The question hit a national stage when the Steubenville rape case became front page news. Two teen boys were convicted of raping a classmate after they violated her while she was drunk and barely conscious. Debates raged when sympathizers for the convicted parties suggested that because the girl was drunk, she was somehow responsible for the sexual acts she was made to perform and that the teen boys didn’t know what they were doing was rape, despite the law which, thanks to a 2012 expansion, states that it was.
The SVU episode popped up at a time when the understanding of rape is becoming more clear to the public. For a long time, rape was a sexual encounter that occurs after the victim says "no," but the definition of common consciousness is that of a sexual encounter that occurs in any capacity without the victim’s consent, even if that victim is unable to speak for themselves or is stunned into silence, like SVU’s Avery.
The NBC procedural gave us a terrifying glance at what could happen if all of these things — the misunderstanding of what consent is, archaic laws and beliefs about rape, and inability to prove a rapist’s guilt with hard evidence — were to go wrong and the result is a terrifying one. While few people likely disagree that the legislation on rape doesn’t completely protect victims (and the courts are already taking steps to change that), the mentality can’t just change on the side of the law and in the minds of those who are already aware of the problem. All it took was one doubtful juror to set Avery’s hellish outcome in motion, and if even fictional examples like SVU’s can provide even the smallest nudge in the right direction, future and past victims of rape may be that much closer to justice.
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[Photo Credit: Michael Parmelee/NBC]