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How shows like Law & Order are helping viewers fight sexual assault

Before each new episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" airs, the script is read by a retired special victims' unit inspector, a former prosecutor, a medical examiner and on occasion a psychiatrist.

"We take their notes to heart," said Warren Leight, the crime drama's executive producer and show runner. "When you start writing a show about sexual assault and violence, you realize it's not the same thing as a murder mystery. If we're going to tell these stories … we (don't want to) cheaply sensationalize them or fake them."

"Law & Order: SVU", in its 17th season and seen by nearly 10 million viewers each week, intentionally tackles difficult topics, and a new study says those episodes are having an impact on how viewers understand sexual crimes.

The study, published recently in the Journal of Health Communication, found that college-age viewers who watched "Law & Order: SVU" were less likely to believe rape myths, more likely to refuse unwanted sexual activity and more likely to listen when a partner said "no."

"The main take away is the way we talk about sexual assault in the media is going to have an effect on viewers," said lead author Stacey Hust, associate professor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. But it's not just talking, she emphasized. The other crucial component is having the show depict rewards for good, healthy consent decisions and punishment for poor behavior and unhealthy decisions.

Media influence

Hust is well aware of the powerful influence television crime dramas have on viewer behavior. One of her prior studies found that college students who watched crime dramas said they'd be more likely to intervene and stop a sexual assault.

Yet not all crime dramas are created equal, which is why Hust and her colleagues wanted to compare "Law & Order: SVU" and ""CSI" in this most recent study.

Not only does "Law & Order: SVU" directly challenge myths about sexual assault, but the show makes clear that every woman — even a prostitute — has a right to consent, according to the study.

"Law & Order: SVU" also shows the perpetrator being charged and going through the criminal justice system, linking the bad behavior with negative consequences.

In contrast, the bad guy may get caught on "CSI," but because there's no depiction of a trial or prosecution, it's a less-than-effective deterrent for sexual assault, the study says.

The show's storylines also frequently "reinforce common myths related to sexual assault, like the myth that the woman 'deserved it' by failing to follow safety procedures," according to the study. This can be seen in episodes where a woman is sexually assaulted and murdered after leaving her windows unlocked, or when a woman is sexually assaulted after accepting a tainted drink from a stranger.

"CSI" also uses "bloody, graphic and visceral camera movements" to show the violent crime, which some scholars say shows a "lack of respect for the victim," and is even stylistically similar to pornography with its "emphasis on carnality," according to the study.

With such differences noted, the study found that while viewers of "CSI" were not more likely to believe rape myths, they were less likely to ask for consent or accept a "no" answer in sexual situations.

The "CSI" producers offered no comment for this article.

"I really was disappointed to see … that 'CSI' actually was associated with people not respecting their partners' wishes," said Emily Garrigues Marett, co-author and an instructor in the Department of Management and Information Systems at Mississippi State University. "(There are) a lot of people who dismiss entertainment media (and say) it doesn't do anything, but really it does. What we say in our entertainment does have an impact on people’s atittudes."

Tough topics

Media influence can be even greater when individuals haven't experienced something directly — like spending time in prison, living through a tornado or recovering from sexual assault.

In those cases, social cognitive theory says that a person will learn by watching how others behave, and then model that behavior, explains Rebecca Ortiz, an assistant professor of advertising at Texas Tech University.

"If someone stubs their toe, then other people learn not to walk on that sidewalk," she said. "The same (is true) with media. People are getting a lot of their information about what sexual consent negotiation looks like, what sexual assault looks like through media exposure, instead of personal experience."

However, many individuals will experience an assault as there are nearly 294,000 victims of rape and sexual assault each year, according to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

College-aged women, 18-24, are the largest group of victims at the rate of 4.3 per 1,000, compared to women of any other age who experience 1.4 victimizations per 1,000, according to the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

However, educational, police and advocacy efforts have contributed to the rate of violence against women declining 64 percent from 1995 to 2005, then staying steady through 2010, according to the BJS.

While that's great progress, Ortiz knows from talking to students that there's still a long way to go. Many of them believe they understand sexual consent. However, when she asks them specific questions about pressuring, alcohol involvement, etc., they realize they haven't taken time to think deeply about the topic. She encourages them to do that and to be mindful of their media consumption.

"When you're watching something … think critically," says Ortiz. "Is this message a message that makes sense to me? Is this something that I want to model or is this something that I need to chalk up as dramatic effect?"

While SVU's Leight hesitates to use the word "mission" and "television show" in the same paragraph, he said he's glad that people who watch the show indicate a deeper understanding of what is and is not acceptable in sexual situations.

"There's a lot to talk about and very few shows dealing with it in any real way right now," he said. "I like that we've been around for so long — we get to do things that new shows probably don't dare try. We're shooting (an episode) this week dealing with affirmative consent. I can't imagine there's another TV show going anywhere near that this week."

sisraelsen@deseretnews.com