SVU Gets Into Some Rocky Reality-T.V. Sexual Consent Territory

Image: NBC.
If data science has anything to teach us about the benefits of watching television, it's this: Law & Order SVU viewers have a better understanding of consent than people who are more regularly tuned in to other crime series.

That makes a lot of sense, actually. Long before "yes means yes" slogans swept across college campuses, Olivia Benson and company were confronting the so-called gray zones of sexual consent — and teaching the world a lot about what that does and doesn't mean as a byproduct of their investigations.

Last night's episode was no different, save for the fact that it looked at a consent scenario that most of America would be unlikely to find themselves tangled up within: What happens when a contestant is raped on reality television?

"Assaulting Reality" centers on a female contestant named Melanie (on a Bachelor-meets-Real-World series) who realizes that she has been assaulted after seeing footage of her own rape played back to her on live camera. SVU detectives arrive on the scene to find out that this case is going to be more complicated than expected: Though there is nearly 24-hour footage of everything that's going on in the house setup, they have trouble zeroing in on the tape that would actually show them what happened to Melanie that night. That's on purpose, of course, because when it comes to reality T.V., we only see what the producers want us to see.

Things get even trickier when the series execs, a husband-and-wife power duo, step in to "help" with the investigation; it becomes ever more clear that they are manipulating the situation to an advantage with the goal of creating good show fodder. It all gets into even murkier territory from there, when it becomes clear that SVU detectives have become a part of the plot themselves. Execs filmed them during the investigation proceedings — and sculpted the footage in such a way that it doesn't seem like law enforcement did due diligence by the survivor.

By the end, we're a few layers deep from reality: what actually happened to Melanie, how the story has been shaped by the footage, and how the investigation of the rape is portrayed. If that sounds messy, that's because it is — this isn't a perfectly executed SVU episode. But despite the imperfections of the narrative itself, the story actually functions as a woefully on-point metaphor for the way rape survivors are often treated: Their testimonies are reshaped and called into question, filtered through layers of subjective listeners. The truth of what happened and the way it gets portrayed don't always end up being the same thing. That's why it's sad but all too believable that Melanie doesn't get any kind of real justice at the end of her ordeal.

She may know the truth about who attacked her. But with so many other voices and perspectives weighing in, her version of reality is under assault — something that, sadly enough, many real survivors will be able to relate to.

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