The line between reality and fiction has always been somewhat porous when it comes to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, between its ripped-from-the-headlines plots and its star Mariska Hargitay’s advocacy efforts on behalf of victims of sexual assault. The show has been accused of exploiting real-life tragedies for ratings, of making “rape a spectator sport,” and of descending into paranoid alarmism from time to time. But as a recent study conducted by Washington State University reveals, the Law & Order franchise might also be educating viewers about rape.
The study, published in the Journal of Health Communication, took 313 college freshmen and surveyed them on whether they watched the three main procedural franchises on network television: Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS. Students were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with statements that explored rape-myth acceptance (“If a woman is raped she is at least somewhat responsible for letting things get out of control”), intentions to seek consent for sexual activity (“I would stop and ask if everything is okay if my partner doesn’t respond to my sexual advances”), and intentions to refuse unwanted sexual activity (“I would refuse unwanted sexual activity from my date even if it may destroy the romantic atmosphere”).
The surveys found that exposure to Law & Order was associated with “lower rape-myth acceptance,” greater intentions to seek consent for sexual activity, greater intentions to refuse unwanted sexual activity, and greater intentions to adhere to decisions related to sexual consent. By contrast, exposure to CSI was associated with lowered intentions to seek consent and a greater acceptance of rape myths. There were fewer significant findings related to NCIS, although exposure to the show was associated with lower intentions to refuse sexual activity. “Our results indicate that specific crime-drama franchises are associated with decreased rape-myth acceptance,” the study states.