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New Law & Order: SVU Episode Takes on "Legitimate Rape"

Law & Order: Special Victims Unithas never shied away from controversy. The events that unfold in the show’s sex crimes unit are admittedly and proudly “ripped from the headlines,” and whether the assailant is a fictionalized Jerry Sandusky or Chris Brown, the show’s unsubtle nods to current events can be quite powerful. In Wednesday night’s episode, a Congressman and quack doctor took the stand in a rape case to share his “expert” knowledge about how the female body has ways of “shutting down” pregnancy in instances of “legitimate rape.” Sound familiar?

The weekly show always opens with the line, “This story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event,” but after 14 years of covering topical subjects and mirroring real-life incidents, this statement should really come accompanied with a winky face. This week’s episode, titled “Legitimate Rape,” executes a pretty straightforward evisceration of conservative politician Todd Akin and other rape apologists who use de-bunked “scientific” evidence to blame the victim. The show brings the conservative politician’s faulty and offensive remarks front-and-center, exposing the blatant ignorance and thinly veiled misogyny that underlie these claims.

In “Legitimate Rape,” a popular sports reporter (Lauren Cohan) accuses her cameraman of rape and stalking, and later finds out she’s pregnant with his child. Bringing the rape to court destroys her career and personal life, and when her rapist decides to act as his own lawyer, she is forced to endure his subtle tactics of harassment and degradation publicly in the courtroom.  Her rapist calls in an “expert,” who flies in from out of town because he’s so passionate about the issue of “women lying” about rape.

Under cross-examination, the “expert knowledge” of the Congressman sporting a red tie and American flag pin unsurprisingly falls apart— citing the extensive research that has since de-bunked the doctor’s decades-old research, the prosecutor proves instead that women are just as likely to get pregnant from rape as they are from consensual sex. When the Congressman refutes by saying that women are less likely to conceive under stress, the prosecutor forces him to clarify that the research indicates that is only true for long-term stress, not short-term stress that would result from situations of rape.

But the Congressman’s words were enough to sway a single juror, which proves to be enough to get a rapist acquitted. After his acquittal, the rapist sues for custody rights and uses the victim’s subsequent PTSD and anti-depressant use to argue that she’s an unfit mother, successfully winning visitation rights with the infant. 

The episode shines a harsh light on the significant role that conservative politics play in perpetuating rape culture. The episode also makes a more timely reference to a New Mexico bill that would criminalize abortion for rape victims, hinting that Akin’s gaffe was not a one-off flub, but rather one of many instances that reveal that victim-blaming is embedded in right-wing ideology.

Of course, real-life conservatives claim to be the real victims of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: SVU. Right-wingers have hated the show for years, stating that the show exploits current events to “promote liberal agendas and to bash Christians.” It’ll be interesting to see how those conservatives respond to this episode, seeing as a nearly verbatim delivery and factual deconstruction of Akin’s remarks is all that it took to so-called “promote the liberal agenda.”

 If right-wing conservatives don’t like being “victimized” by a prime-time entertainment television show, they may want to consider how much worse it must feel to, well, actually be a victim. When a little empathy and science seems to promote your enemy’s agenda, then you’re probably doing it wrong.