Why Watching 'Law & Order: SVU' Can Lead to Healthier Attitudes About Consent

Mariska Hargitay - SVU - Photofest - Still - H - 2016

Dr. Stacey Hust of Washington State University on her 2015 study that showed how TV shows with rape storylines can reflect viewers' opinions about unwanted sexual activity.

In my second year as a researcher of communication, specializing in sexual assault reduction, at Washington State University, the president asked me to co-chair a campus-wide study to reduce rape. This got me thinking about how the media affects our beliefs around sexual relationships. Studies already had shown that television was associated with rape-myth acceptance — that the victim somehow "brought it on him or herself." But I wanted to know if consistent storylines about rape could also have a positive effect on viewers.

My team and I asked subjects about every crime drama on the air at the time and found that there are some real differences about how they're put together: In CSI, the whole narrative is focused on investigating the crime scene, and you may not know who committed the crime — or see the person punished. Same with NCIS, which focuses on crimes within the navy. But Law & Order has the order component — the police apprehend, the suspect is tried, and with some exceptions, the suspect is found guilty.

Our study found that it really does make a difference when the prosecution is shown. We found that individuals who watched Law & Order programs reported lower acceptance of rape myths, greater intentions to refuse unwanted sexual activity and greater intentions to adhere to their partner's sexual-consent decisions. Essentially, Law & Order viewers see that individuals are prosecuted for not adhering to consent decisions and so they likely want to avoid facing such prosecution in real life. Additionally, because Law & Order programs emphasize that everyone, sex workers included, has the right to refuse sexual activity, these viewers may feel more empowered to refuse in real life.

Of course, TV watchers bring to their viewing all of their existing information and beliefs — like what their loved ones think and what's happening in their societies. When you get Donald Trump talking about assaultive behavior on the Access Hollywood tapes, it's dangerous. Because he's someone who's been rewarded with power and status, his actions, gone unpunished, come off as acceptable.

The tapes promoted the idea that women are an object for pleasure, without consent. That obviously is legally and morally wrong. But I was equally interested in women who found the tapes acceptable.

I have a study dealing with women's acceptance of potentially deviant sexual behaviors — from unwanted cat-calling to inappropriate touching. What we found is that women who accept being a sexual body first, and a thinking individual second, have an easier time accepting those deviant behaviors. This means that women, not only men, contribute to the problem. What we see in some of them is a belief that [behavior like Trump's] is not all that bad — that he didn't actually do anything. But it is bad. It's describing assaultive behavior. We need to teach young girls and boys about consent and objectification, so we can stop the cycle.

This story first appeared in the 2016 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.