Survivors dishonored: A response to SVU

This is a guest post from Angie Epifano. Angie is a 20-year-old Survivor of rape who formerly attended Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Since leaving Amherst she has begun to finally heal and find herself, and this summer she will finally be traveling to West Africa.

SVUAt the beginning of every Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) episode, there is a disclaimer: “The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.”

On April 24th, SVU premiered it’s latest episode entitled “Girl Dishonored,” which followed the story of a girl on a college campus who was gang raped while at a fraternity party (Lindsey). SPOILER ALERT: While investigating her rape, the SVU team uncovers that the college had been covering up sexual assaults for years and was a nest of corrupt, victim-blaming officials. The SVU team follows the stories of several other Survivors on campus and meets a Survivor named Renee who is committed in a Psychiatric Ward throughout the episode. The episode concludes with Lindsay committing suicide, the DA charging school administrators as accomplices to rape, charging the rapists themselves, and (on a positive note) Renee deciding to return to school and start a Survivor group.

I first heard about the episode from fellow Survivor-activists and was unsure how to respond as word broke regarding the similarities between the episode and our real lives. This morning I downloaded the episode and open-mindedly began watching it; within two minutes I was sobbing uncontrollably.

The episode was my life; Renee was me. Watching the episode made me relive every second of injustice and pain that I experienced at Amherst.

May 25th of this year marks my two-year anniversary as a survivor of rape. In 2011 I was raped by an acquaintance while a student at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Over the following year and a half, Amherst administrators worked endlessly to try and cover up my rape, placate me into silence, and convince me I was crazy. After finally hitting rock bottom during the summer of 2012, I left. I packed up, withdrew from Amherst, and worked on regaining control of my life. What drove me insane though, was the silence that I was living in. No one at that time was talking about college sexual assault, no one knew that schools were working to cover up rapes and were driving Survivors to depression and, in the worst cases, suicide.

So I stopped being silent.

In October 2012 I published my story, recounting what Amherst had said and done to me and reminding Survivors that we no longer needed to be quiet. My story quickly reached national attention and has been read by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Within hours, hundreds of college sexual assault Survivors began emailing me, sending me their support, and telling me their stories. I’ve become friends with many of those girls and I know their stories now just as they know mine.

“Girl Dishonored” is SVU’s cheap take on my story and the stories of other Survivors around the US who have begun to speak out.

So many parts of Renee’s story ranging from her broken home, to corrupt school judicial policy, to being forcibly committed to a Psych Ward, came from me.

It’s sickening, appalling, and unnerving to realize that the worst experiences of your life have been condensed into 45 minutes of cable TV drama.

Granted, the episode was powerful and the writers did a good job squishing all of my survivor friends’ and my stories together to make a whole, but at what cost? I feel like I’ve been stolen from, cheated out of the chance to tell them how the story should go. My main problem was the episode’s ending, with disgustingly optimistic tone, for, as I mentioned earlier, the corrupt school officials and rapists are brought to trial and Renee decides to return to school.

That is not real life.

Yes, schools are slowly beginning to be brought to justice; we’ve seen activist agitation at colleges including Occidental, UNC, Swarthmore, Northwestern, Yale, Rice, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Darmouth, and Amherst .

Yes, Survivors have been more vocal than we have in years and have founded collectives to remind ourselves that we’re not alone and can keep fighting.

No, the rapists are not always brought to trial, and, if they are, they are not necessarily found guilty or given sentences that are equitable to their crimes.

No, almost all school officials don’t resign, even if they’ve been found guilty of covering up sexual assaults.

Survivors often end up between the two extremes of Lindsey and Renee, realizing that you’re not broken and that life can continue is a hard fought battle, that SVU only briefly touched upon.

And no, the local police do not come running to the rescue to save the day.

Crime shows capitalize off of human suffering and the firm knowledge that other people love being reminded that “at least you’re not this person, so your life’s pretty great.” There is no way to eradicate such shows, but I do believe that NBC and SVU have a responsibility to give back to Survivors after they decided to borrow our stories.

I do realize that SVU should be commended for putting college sexual assaults into the cable TV spotlight, but, honestly, at what cost was it done? They will capitalize off of the episode, go on their merry ways and never have to think or worry about us Survivors again. Id nothing else, the ending should have more accurately reflected the continuous battle against colleges that Survivors face. Instead of ending the episode with such finality, it should have been left open, reminding people that the fight against corrupt colleges is never ending.

I wish that I and the other girls whose stories were used had been contacted ahead of time about the episode. I might’ve been willing to give them rights to my story as long as they made it explicit that the episode was real and that battles around the country were continuing, and explained how people could support Survivors.

Instead, there is a brief mention on the SVU Production Blog that “Girl Dishonored” was inspired by the of the show being inspired by stories from, “Notre Dame, Wesleyan, Amherst, North Carolina, UCLA, Missoula, and more, and even among high school students, in places like Steubenville, Nova Scotia, and Saratoga.” A stream of names that means nothing to a reader unless they dedicate time to perusing the attached hyperlinks (not included here).

If you’re willing to put it on your blog NBC, why not come forward and explicitly say it in the episode? Maybe, for once, instead of pretending that SVU is fiction, they could embrace reality, make a difference, and say, “The following story is NOT FICTITIOUS, it is based on the real lives of brave, young women from across the country. They’re still fighting to be heard and you can help.”

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 27, 2013 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    Firstly, I’m sorry you feel your story was used. It doesn’t surprise me that it was. The legal/crime genres have rarely been to my personal tastes, but I find the way shows like SVU pick from the latest horrors in sexual assault cases to be especially heinous.

    The thing about SVU and similar legal drama / crime shows is that they aren’t, unfortunately, aired for the sake of survivors or to encourage critical discourse. They aren’t at all concerned about, or considerate of, the reality survivors face. More than anything, even above pure entertainment value, these shows are written to promote a single trope: that the overall system is inherently good. Producers, and perhaps writers too, are perfectly happy to do all sorts of ironically dodgy things in the process of selling this idea (e.g., Mike Tyson episode that contributes to the whitewashing of some of Tyson’s own real-life behavior).

    Even when justice isn’t served in these types of shows, they nearly always go out of their way to suggest someone, somewhere is working tirelessly for the cause, whatever the cause may be, that one day goodness will prevail. They rarely, if ever, showcase one of the innumerable examples where this is not how things play out, where perpetrators go free and communities and cops are complicit, where victims (of any sort) result to desperate measures in response to such injustice. And, just as in this episode you’ve discussed here, they often end with sort of Happily Ever After, either for the survivors, the legal team, or the law enforcers.

    These shows are about selling a concept of security and goodness, which is why they’re so popular. Usually in forty-five minutes of time, the viewer sees evildoers brought to justice and feels like law enforcement is truly on their side; they get to feel the world is moving in the right direction without any effort on their part. It’s one step below slacktivism.

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