Last night Law & Order: Special Victims Unit aired "Girl Dishonored," essentially a greatest hits compilation of recent highly-publicized college rape cases complete with zeitgeisty references to Snapchat and "Gangnam Style." The episode's standard disclaimer — "The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event" — is utter bullshit, given that SVU writers stole lines straight out of survivors' mouths; cobbling together so many parts from real-life stories into one plotline had a Frankenstein effect.
We spoke with the women who directly inspired "Girl Dishonored" to figure out whether the episode spread awareness or was just a titillating "rape porn" hodgepodge.
Here's the basic plot line of "Girl Dishonored": naive sorority pledge Lindsay Bennett is pressured by her Mean Girl sisters (who have, naturally, circled all of her body fat with red marker) to take a photo of Tau Omega brother Travis's dick at a "Red Light, Green Light" party. (Green = "DTF.") Travis sweetly asks a drunken Lindsay for a kiss; moments later, he's gang-raping her along with two of his bros. A devastated Lindsay almost jumps off a ledge, but decides to report the incident instead. Detective Olivia Benson and Co. obviously and soo realistically believe Lindsay and want to help, but the school nurse told her to shower which messes up the rape kit. To make matters worse, Lindsay Snapchatted a topless photo of herself to Travis the next morning upon request, which is now all over an anonymous slut-shaming site. Her peers tell Benson that they're sorry Lindsay had a bad night but she's probably just "embarrassed she got slutty"; Travis says there's no doubt in his mind that "kinky" Lindsay clearly "wanted it."
Lindsay decides not to press charges because she remembers what happened to a former student named Renee Clark, who is now undergoing shock therapy in a mental institution because no one believed that Travis raped her. Benson and Co. convince Renee to speak up even though she's wary of authority because the administration covered her rape up and pressured her to commit herself to the institution. Dean Meyerson says Renee is a "troubled girl from a broken home," while Travis is set to graduate with honors. Can the detectives check out the files? Nope; they're sealed. Soon, more survivors speak up (including that bitchy sorority girl) and Dean Meyerson ends up lying on the stand about how the school reports all rapes even though we know THEY SO DID NOT.
"Our students chose a progressive liberal arts university for a reason," Dean Reyerson says when asked to defend "No means yes, yes means anal" chants and "We don't take 'no' for an answer" rush t-shirts. Eventually — thanks to a video of the rapists joking around à la Steubenville — Dean Reyerson and the head of campus security are charged with "accessory to rape," but not before Lindsay kills herself. Renee, now out of the mental institution and preparing to go back to school, pays her respects at Lindsay's makeshift memorial while students silently hold up signs protesting rape culture in the background. "I was thinking about maybe starting a kind of support group on campus, so survivors know they're not alone," Renee says.
Here's a rundown of some "Girl Dishonored" plot points and the corresponding real-life incidents.
SVU: Lindsay is gang-raped by three frat guys who later claim she's crying rape because she's embarrassed about her slutty behavior.
Real Life: Four University of Montana football players allegedly gang-raped a drunk female student; charges were dropped because it was unclear whether she was "just embarrassed" about what happened.
SVU: Lindsay Snapchats her rapist the next day, leading students and administrative officials to doubt that she was actually raped.
Real Life: Woman allegedly raped by Mizzou basketball player Michael Dixon Jr. texts him the next day, leading students, officials and cops to doubt that she was actually raped.
SVU: "I'm sorry that girl had a bad night, but why would Travis need to rape somebody?" a frat bro muses.
Real Life: Students at campuses all over the country don't believe that Big Men on Campus can be rapists.
SVU: Students call Tau Omega the "Rape Factory."
Real Life: A former Wesleyan student is suing the university for failing to "to supervise, discipline, warn or take other corrective action" against a frat which she says had a "reputation in the Wesleyan community as the 'Rape Factory.'"
SVU: Renee is pressured to leave school and commit herself to a mental institution after she attempts to self-harm after the school ignores her rape report. Her rapist is set to graduate with honors.
Real Life: Former student Angie Epifano says Amherst abruptly decided to admit her into a psychiatric ward after she made suicidal comments spurred by the despair she felt when her allegations were repeatedly ignored. Her rapist graduated with honors.
SVU: Renee is penalized by her school's Honor Court for "intimidating her rapist" by speaking out.
Real Life: UNC sophomore Landen Gambill says she was punished by the Office of Student Conduct for "intimidating" her rapist by speaking to the press about her sexual assault.
SVU: Renee is told that sex "is like a football game" by a school official.
Real Life: Former UNC student Annie Clark was told that rape "is like a football game" by an administrator.
SVU: The university's mental health counselor says she was met with resistance when she tried to support rape survivors' reports.
SVU: Dean Reyerson says she couldn't stop Tau Omega alumni from selling "We don't take 'no' for an answer" rush t-shirts.
Real Life: Amherst's administration came under fire for holding an ineffective closed-door discussion related to a similar frat t-shirt.
SVU: Dean Reyerson says students have the right to assemble, even if they want to chant, "No means yes, yes means anal."
Real Life: Yale frat boys once gleefully ran around campus chanting exactly that.
SVU: Dean Reyerson says she can't stop students from posting photos and rumors about rape survivors on an anonymous website because of "free speech."
Real Life: Oberlin's administration cites the First Amendment and does next to nothing about undergrads who are seriously harassed via its student-run anonymous message board.
SVU: Lindsay kills herself.
Real Life: Elizabeth "Lizzy" Seeberg committed suicide nine days after accusing a Notre Dame football player of sexually assaulting her in a dorm room; Notre Dame investigators failed to interview the student she accused until 15 days after Seeberg reported the attack and five days after she killed herself.
SVU: Frat boys are caught on video joking that they "raped [Lindsay] dead. (Also that they "raped her Gangnam Style," which is one we haven't heard before!)
Real Life: Anonymous leaked a video of former Steubenville High School baseball player Michael Nodianos cracking himself up as he calls a rape victim "deader than" JFK, OJ's wife, Caylee Anthony, and Trayvon Martin, amongst others.
SVU: At the end of the episode, students hold up signs protesting rape culture using real quotes said to them by members of the community following their assaults.
Real Life: Amherst students, inspired by Project Unbreakable put together a collection of photos of men and women who were sexually assaulted on campus, holding signs with words said to them by members of the community following their assaults.
SVU: "I was thinking about maybe starting a kind of support group on campus, so survivors know they're not alone," Renee says.
Real Life: A group of rape survivors including Dana Bolger (Amherst College ‘14), Alexandra Brodsky (Yale College ‘12, Yale Law School ‘16), Annie Clark (University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill ‘11), and Andrea Pino (UNC — CH ‘14), some of whom have filed complaint with the federal government against their universities, joined together to help students at colleges across the country stand up to administrations; they recently launched "Know Your IX," a campaign that aims to educate every college student in the U.S. about his or her rights under Title IX by the start of the Fall 2013 academic term.
We asked Alexandra, Annie, and Andrea what it feels like to have your rape fictionalized on national television. The consensus: "surreal" — both Annie and Andrea were directly quoted in the episode, and Renee shares Annie's last name — and violating.
"The SVU episode strikes me as an extreme example of the risk of going public as a survivor: your story is no longer your own," said Alexandra, who hasn't watched the episode. "A sensationalized narrative meant to titillate viewers isn't my idea of empowerment or social change."
"It's bizarre to see these headlines turned into entertainment," she added.
Annie and Andrea, who watched the episode together via Skype (Annie lives in Oregon; Andrea in North Carolina), also agreed that the show's writers only took the goriest parts of the stories and glossed over the most crucial issues, including the stressful, months-long adjudication process — it took both women "thousands of hours" to formulate their Title IX complaints — and typical lack of support from cops.
"The episode made it seem like the process happens rapidly, when in reality, that's not what happens," Annie said. "I mean, I wish I had Olivia Benson's help."
The three women also took issue with the way the episode focused on how life-shattering it is to be raped rather than how pervasive rape culture is on college campuses and how incompetent some administrations are at handling sexual assault reports. "I had a problem with the 'poor distraught raped girl,'" Andrea said. "If you ask any of us, the school's betrayal was worse than the rape itself. "
Of course, the largest difference between the IRL campus rape reports listed above and SVU is that, on Law & Order, justice was swiftly served. "In real life, none of us ever got justice," Andrea pointed out. "Not for our rapists or for our schools."
That's too true, but one can't really expect Law & Order to accurately depict a complicated months-long process within 45 minutes, or in a way that doesn't somewhat glorify its heroes.
The episode had a powerful effect overall; I couldn't help but get chills at the end when Renee resolved to take action as students silently protested behind her. The fact that popular shows like Law & Order are covering sexual assault on campus "means that we're making some noise and people are paying attention," Annie said. "I'm annoyed and frustrated, but sometimes you just have to get it out there."