'Law & Order' Fans Understand Sexual Consent Better Than Other TV Viewers

Stabler
Don't feel guilty about your SVU binge, "Law & Order" is actually quite educational. vic_sf49 CC BY 2.0

Law & Order is one of the most watched shows on television, and in a world where “sex sells,” Law & Order SVU’s depiction of graphic sexual assaults helps send ratings through the roof. However, these reenactments don’t just make for great TV; a recent study has found that they are also helping to better educate viewers on the important issue of sexual consent.

Sex without explicit verbal approval of all participating parties is rape. The concept is simple enough, but still hundreds of thousands of men and women are victims of sexually based crimes each year. While these crimes are often due to deliberate violent sexual assaults, a team of researchers from Washington State University believes that a better understanding of consent can make a significant contribution to sexual assault prevention.

For the majority of us, the closest we’ll ever get to a real-life sex crime is a TV drama. Knowing this, the team sought to investigate how popular crime dramas influenced the public’s perception of consent and rape. A total of 313 freshmen were surveyed on their TV habits and their views of sexual consent. In doing so, the team observed an interesting trend: Law & Order franchise fans generally have a better grasp of what constitutes sexual consent than viewers of other crime dramas like CSI and NCIS. According to the press release, watching Law & Order was associated with viewers’ increased intentions to adhere to expressions of sexual consent and to refuse unwanted sexual activity.

According to the team, it’s not just Stg. Benson’s inspiring dedication or Ice T’s timeless one-liners that help shape viewers’ idea of consent. The legal perspective of Law & Order gives the show a better opportunity to address the legalities of rape than other crime dramas.

"For example, the process of preparing a case for prosecution frequently requires establishing whether consent was present," co-author Emily Garrigues Marett explained in a recent statement. "This provides a valuable opportunity to clarify misperceptions around this issue."

Sexual assault is unfortunately a very common occurrence in the U.S. According to The Huffington Post, when defining rape as “completed,” “attempted,” or “drug/alcohol related” penetration, nearly one in five women are raped in their lifetime. Men are also not immune to this crime, and the Rape Crisis Center suggests that at least 10 percent of all rape victims are male, although their numbers are more difficult to keep track of. The recent finding may suggest a more effective way to teach the idea of sexual consent to students and help to reduce the instances of these types of crimes. Although the team doesn't suggest that Law & Order appear on high school curriculums, certain themes depicted in the show could be adapted in a classroom setting.

"The results indicate that simply depicting the issue and its impact on the victim may not be enough to influence attitudes and behavior," lead researcher Stacey Hust said. "Instead, sexual assault reduction messages should emphasize the rewards of practicing healthy sexual consent behavior."

Source: Hust SJ, Marett EM, Lei M, Ren C, Ran W. Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS: The Association Between Exposure to Crime Drama Franchises, Rape Myth Acceptance, and Sexual Consent Negotiation Among College Students. J ournal of Health Communications: International Perspectives. 2015.

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