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'Law & Order' and Myths Regarding Rape

New research finds the long-running series conveys healthy messages regarding sexual consent. CSI, not so much.
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The Law & Order logo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Law & Order logo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS franchises tend to get lumped together by television critics and scholars. But new research finds that, when it comes to teaching young adults about rape and sexual consent, the series are hardly created equal.

The study suggests the three franchises send very different messages to young adult viewers trying to understand the rights and responsibilities of sexual activity.

A survey of 313 college freshmen found regular viewers of Law & Order were less likely to accept common myths about rape. They also expressed a stronger intention to refuse unwanted sexual activity.

In contrast, watching the CSI shows was associated with "decreased intentions to seek consent," while viewing the NCIS franchise was linked to "decreased intentions to refuse unwanted sexual activity."

"Prior research has established that exposure to crime dramas is associated with positive outcomes, such as decreased rape acceptance," writes a research team led by Stacey Hust of Washington State University. "This study's findings suggest that marked differences in content between the three main crime dramas should be accounted for."

Hust and her colleagues note that, for all their similarities, the three franchises—all of which center on teams of professionals who solve crimes—have significantly different formats. Law & Order follows a case from the police investigation phase through the trial of the defendant, while the CSI programs "focus on the technical aspects of collecting and analyzing evidence."

Neither CSI nor NCIS (which features a team of agents investigating crimes tied to the Navy or Marine Corps) generally depict the prosecution of perpetrators. Only Law & Order typically concludes with the criminal's conviction.

The study was limited to freshmen at a large American university because, among college students, they are "most at risk for sexual assault," the researchers note. The 313 participants (61 percent female) filled out a lengthy questionnaire in which they noted which crime dramas (if any) they regularly watch.

Other questions were designed to reveal students' acceptance of common rape myths, intent to seek consent before engaging in sexual activity, and intent to refuse unwanted sexual activity. Using a one-to-seven scale ("strongly disagree" to "strongly agree"), participants responded to such statements as "If a woman is raped when she is drunk, she is somewhat responsible for letting things get out of control," and "I would stop and ask if everything is OK if my partner doesn't respond to my sexual advances."

The results: "Exposure to the Law & Order franchise was associated with increased intentions to refuse unwanted sexual activity, and to adhere to decisions related to sexual consent," the researchers report. However, "Exposure to the CSI franchise was associated with decreased intentions to seek consent prior to initiating sexual activity, and with decreased intentions to adhere to sexual consent decisions."

Why such different responses? "The Law & Order franchise prominently depicts the criminal prosecution of the perpetrator," Hust and her colleagues note. "The negative consequences for committing a sexually violent act are made accessible to the viewer."

In contrast, a 2010 study asserts that the CSI franchise "objectifies the female victims" and reinforces "common rape myths that imply that the victim 'asked for it' based on suggestive dress or behavior." In this way, the researchers write, "CSI content may send the message that expressions of consent are irrelevant."

"NCIS, of the three franchises, features the least amount of content related to sexual assault," the researchers add. "Therefore its relative lack of effect on rape myth acceptance ... is not surprising." That said, viewing the show "was associated with lower intentions to refuse unwanted sexual activity," perhaps because the drama "is reinforcing traditional sexual scripts."

Hust and her colleagues note that many of the study's participants reported watching all three franchises. This raises the possibility that the unfortunate messages conveyed by CSI may be negated by the more empowering ones embedded in Law & Order—or vice-versa.

While sorting that out will require more research, this study confirms that television dramas can be "a useful tool for health communication practitioners focused on preventing sexual assault." But those who do so need to choose what they watch carefully—perhaps staying away from shows known by their initials.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.