‘SVU’ tackles alcohol, sexual abuse on college campuses
By Lingxi Chenyang
Published on Tuesday, November 16, 2010
“One out of four co-eds will have been raped or sexually assaulted in their time at college” — that’s the take-home lesson of Wednesday’s episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” The show, known for dealing with controversial subjects (including sexual violence) will focus on alcohol abuse and date rape on college campuses — issues that have continually been a topic of much debate on Dartmouth’s campus, as at most colleges nationwide.
The episode, titled “Gray,” deals with a rape case at the fictional Hudson University. The case becomes murky when the detectives Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson (Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, respectively) find out that a student involved in the incident had been drinking “a little too much trashcan punch,” at the time of the assualt, as Stabler puts it. Their investigation becomes even more difficult when they find that the vindictive victim, Bethany, has created a website that borders on harassment, which decries the perpetrator, Chuck, as a “rapist and scumbag.”
Faced with a campus administration that Olivia accuses of being all too eager to “sweep the incident under the rug,” the detectives have almost no chance of indicting Chuck until another student speaks up. Thus, the SVU team shifts their focus to a student who, we learn, has recently miscarried the baby she had conceived with Chuck. From this point, the plot twists with the caliber of weirdness that only “SVU” can provide — involving a case of erectile dysfunction and an abortive drug.
Although this episode gets just plain bizarre toward the end, “Gray” should definitely strike a chord with our campus — which has lately been publically grappling with the twin issues of alcohol abuse and sexual assault. At his Commencement address to the Class of 2014 College President Jim Yong Kim announced his intent to place sexual assault and alcohol abuse among his top priorities, The Dartmouth previously reported.
Students were further drawn into the conversation by an anonymous blitz sent during the first week of term accusing all fraternity brothers of rape, Hanover Police’s legal efforts to curb binge drinking and a seemingly endless stream of columns printed in this publication dealing with the intersection of alcohol abuse, sexual assault and the Greek system.
“Gray” succeeds at shining a light on a crucial, though less often discussed, side of the issues at hand — the failure of the fictional college security officers and administrators to work with the detectives and prosecutors to provide justice for the victim.
In the episode, both the school security officer and the dean fail to report the incident to the police, as they are required by law to do. Instead, they rely on the decisions of a disciplinary committee that allows the student’s actions to slide. When questioned by the detectives, the dean hides behind a slew of privacy acts that prevents information regarding the committee’s decision from being released.
The episode attributes this lack of proper jurisdiction to the commercial role of colleges. In a discussion about the dean’s shady behavior, the district attorney explains, “Higher education is big business … and no one wants to send their daughter to Rape U.”
In some respects, Dartmouth is at least a few steps ahead of Hudson. Our administration is not dismissive of the issue, but has made it a priority with, among other measures, the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault. Other campus organizations and programs — including Mentors Against Violence and Sexual Assault Peer Advisors — further the dialogue surrounding sexual assault.
Despite these efforts, the issue of sexual assault is still rather pressing here, as evidenced that Dartmouth reportedly has the highest number of reported sexual assaults in the Ivy League. Thus while closer town-gown collaboration may be a part of the solution for Hudson University, our College clearly needs something more — for that, the episode has no answer. Perhaps that is because there is no easy answer.
“I don’t know that there is a correct answer — if colleges are not handling it well, students have to encourage people to go outside [of the campus administration],” “SVU” executive producer Neal Baer said in a conference call interview.
Baer, who has a master’s degree from Harvard University in sociology, said he hopes that “Gray” will not only attract more college-aged viewers, but will also prompt discussion of college binge drinking and sexual assault.
Much of that discussion will likely center around issues addressed only in the first 15 minutes of the episode — including most strikingly how to prove that sexual assault has occurred when one or both students involved is under the influence of alcohol. Although legal and institutional policies state that no party can give consent while impaired in this manner — as Olivia points out to her colleagues — this protective measure ultimately falls apart in court as such cases devolve into “he said, she said,” as the district attorney argues.
The episode emphasizes the difficulty of trying such cases as it abandons Bethany’s rape early on in the episode in favor of a somewhat contrived, albeit infinitely more clear cut and dry, crime. While this is an effective tactic in highlighting the “gray” area of alcohol-related rape, let us not follow the show’s lead in avoiding the more complicated issue.
“Gray” will air Wednesday at 9 p.m. on NBC.