There is a peculiar strain of pop culture that traffics in the lurid and transfixing gravitas of sexual trauma. These productions are not confined to the margins. They are not waiting to be secretly consumed in a seedy adult bookstore or on a restricted website hosted by a Russian Internet server. These tales of rape, torture, and pedophilia are fixtures on bestseller lists; they are the raison d’etre, the jewels of prime time shows and soapy 9 p.m. dramas. These true and fictional tales of sexual misery, wherein the victim is typically always female, are aimed at and voraciously consumed by women.
Consider the long running and massively popular Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Outliving all other Law and Order shows, SVU is starting its 15th season, in NBC’s prime time slot, and it currently boasts more than six million viewers (about double that of Mad Men). And the majority of them are women.
The long-running police procedural, loosely based on “ripped from the headlines” plots, follows the sex crime unit of the New York Police Department (NYPD) as they investigate, as their introduction says, “sexually heinous crimes” perpetuated against society’s most vulnerable citizens. Here, then, a small but representative sampling of plot lines: a woman is beaten and an unborn child is ripped from her womb; a woman in a coma is raped and impregnated; a teenager is murdered by a sex group she mingles with online; an elderly woman is raped by junior high students; a cult leader kills one of his followers; a gang rape leads to the birth of twins who are molested by their therapist. Anchoring it all, the main protagonist, Detective Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay, is the child of a rape.
I am the first to admit the content of the SVU is so grotesque, so gruesome at times that it should be almost unwatchable. The writing is stilted. The acting is patchy. The show can feel like an atavistic way to rub up against taboo subjects—like incest. Certainly the novelty of hearing such heinous crimes recounted on prime time has worn off. There are countless episodes that belong in the trauma kitsch waste bin.
And yet, and yet, like so many of my female friends—who have pre-ordered Elizabeth Smart’s new memoir—I am a devoted fan of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I have seen no less than 400 episodes (that’s not even the whole series!) and will continue to watch with the millions of other women who make up their fan base.
That intuition, that wriggling feeling in your gut when someone makes eye contact for too long or stands too close, is not a signal you should ignore for the sake of being polite. That is your body’s survival sense telling you to get the hell out.
The mass appeal of these horror stories is not new. They are very much in style and substance like the gothic novels popularized in the 19th century. The show provides melodrama, highly charged emotionalism; moral polarization, extreme states of being; overt villainy, clear evil, persecution and torture of the innocent.
Researchers have long known that men are much more likely to watch violence than women. So what is it about these stories that so ignite the female psyche? Why does the rape and torture of women so greatly appeal to women? Why is it that, according to a paper published by research psychologists Amanda Vicary and R. Chris Fraley, “women are more drawn to true crime stories whereas men are more attracted to other violent genres”?
The argument has been made that these stories of sexual trauma offer solidarity and comfort to those who have been abused. If you look at how women talk about Law and Order: Special Victims Unit online, this is borne out. In a New Yorker article in June Emily Nussbaum writes, “For survivors, there may be something validating about seeing one’s worst experiences taken seriously, treated not as the B story but as the main event.” On the website Jezebel, after a post titled “What Is It With Women and Law and Order: SVU?,” one commenter writes: “I want to believe that some survivors get help and support the way I never did. There's an alternate version of my life, my own parallel universe, where Elliot gets mad on my behalf and arrests my abuser with just a little more force than necessary, Olivia understands and supports me through the trial, Alex brilliantly and successfully argues for his conviction, and I emerge from therapy whole and unafraid. A girl can dream.”
According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, one out of six adult women, and one out of 33 men in the United States experience sexual assault at some time in their lives. But that data underestimates the real magnitude of sexual violence because it is one of the most underreported crimes. From 2005 to 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 35 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to law enforcement.
Yet catharsis doesn’t come for viewers every week: There are countless episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit where the perpetrator—the “perp”—gets away with it, or a rape trial falls apart because of lack of evidence beyond testimony. Indeed, the character of Eliot Stabler (who was played by the sexually charismatic Christopher Meloni from 1999 to 2011), the marine turned cop-with-a-temper, is at times incapacitated from rage due to the lack of justice delivered in the court room.
I don’t think that the six million viewers of SVU are all survivors of some sexual blacking factory. In fact, I think there is a darker, mostly unacknowledged motivation that drives so many women to return to SVU’s stories of rape, abduction, and sexual abuse.
The truth that most men don’t quite understand is that most women can look back on their youth and isolate moments when they put themselves in sexual danger, moments when they got too close. Sexual contact with a stranger, for men, is not as often tinged with the threat of rape as it is for women. Gavin de Becker, a security specialist for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) writes in his book The Gift of Fear, “At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.” De Becker argues in The Gift of Fear that intuition, that wriggling feeling in your gut when someone makes eye contact for too long or stands too close, is not a signal you should ignore for the sake of being polite. That is your body’s survival sense telling you to get the hell out.
Put simply, there are freaks out there, unwhole men who maim and harm women. The Ariel Castros of the world. (We know there is another Ariel Castro out there right now.) It is these men that women fear the most, because their malformations are invisible, women have to read signs or go on hunches; a woman has to be able to detect if the man she meets at a bar carries the seeds of madness.
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit helps women spot the freaks on a weekly basis. The universe of SVU is populated by perverted emergency room doctors, groping dentists, sexually violent high school baseball captains, and speed daters whose online profiles look just too good to be true. And more often than not, these men look like the kind of men we’d want to date. (Fred Savage played a rapist! Andrew McCarthy a sadist!)
In each plotline, each week, there is some element of detective work in finding out who the likely freak is. The stories on SVU offer, in a way, some sort of practical education without putting a woman in harm’s way.
In their study, Vicary and Fraley cite the work of controversial evolutionary psychologist David Buss (the author of The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill): “Evolved survival strategies include not only the propensity for people to commit murder in some situations, but also people’s obsession with murder. In other words, by learning the motives and methods of murderers, people learn ways to prevent becoming their victims.” Buss makes the case that fascination with murder could come from an evolved need to “monitor fitness-relevant information.” In other words, to stay on our toes.
In her research, Vicary found that women were more likely to read true crime that featured female victims. “It makes sense that women would be more attracted to a book with female victims,” her study says. “Essentially, women, more so than men, would have something to gain from reading these books. ... By understanding why an individual decides to kill, a woman can learn the warning signs to watch for in a jealous lover or stranger. By learning escape tips, women learn survival strategies they can use if actually kidnapped or held captive. ... If a woman, rather than a man, is killed, the motives and tactics are simply more relevant to women reading the story.”
In a vast survey of the research on our proclivities to watch violence, Andrew J. Weaver of Indiana University puts it simply: “People expose themselves to media in ways that satisfy their individual needs.”
Yet there is a paradox here: The research also shows that the more we watch, the more fearful we become. Vicary reminds us: “Even though statistically, men are way more likely to be killed than women, we fear the crazy rapist or serial killers lurking in the shadows. Which is ironic, as it’s much more likely our boyfriend or husband is going to kill us. Most likely we are making it worse by watching these shows.” But, she adds: “So much of this is happening on a subconscious level: I don’t think most women think ‘I better learn some tips on how to avoid being raped, so I better turn on the show.’ In fact, as we know well, people are very bad at knowing the reason they do the things they do, the reasons they feel the way they do.”
In the SVU episode “Closure,” the opening scene features a blonde woman sitting down in front of her telephone inside an apartment, her hair damp from a shower. Her voice, shaky but still clear, tells the receiver, “Hello, I’ve just been raped.” We see her then in an emergency room, knees spread while she receives an examination; it’s slow, silent, and agonizing. She is brought into police headquarters right after being given a pill to terminate a pregnancy and another to kill the STD her rapist may have infected her with. She sits in an interrogation room wearing baggy scrubs and tries to wring out every detail of her rape for the detectives: he had a gun, he unzipped his pants, he grabbed her ankles, he grabbed her wrists, he pulled her nightgown over her face. The rape lasted for 42 minutes (she looked at her bedroom clock). Everyone at the precinct is encouraged by the amount of detail she provides—many rape victims are too traumatized to remember the small things.
“Could you identify him in a line up,” agent Stabler asks.
The case goes cold. Months go by, the woman’s relationship falls apart, she quits her job and turns on the cops, refusing to cooperate, telling them that she’s moved on. When the assailant is caught, the victim can longer identify him in the line up. The episode ends.
Consider this comment from another reader of the Jezebel story: “I got my sexual assault ‘out of the way’ when I was in elementary school. I'm raising a daughter in a world that, despite a deep need for further feminist efforts, largely thinks women have reached equality. I'm living in, and raising her, in a world that is still unfairly dangerous and unjust for women.”
At its best, Law and Order is not a drama, but a true grotesque, a production with no consolation, a story that showcases absurdity and unfairness. Much like being locked up in a house and being raped for 10 years. It seems the biggest flaw in the universe according to SVU, is being born a woman.