Why Binge-Watching 'Law And Order' Is A Great Idea, According To Science

Olivia Benson might just influence your beliefs about sexual assault.
NBC via Getty Images

Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.

The Background

Watching "Law & Order" is a lot like eating Oreos -- once you start, you can't stop. But how does watching all of that trauma and sexual violence affect our psyches? Previous studies on crime shows have suggested that the genre has a positive effect on attitudes toward sexual assault. Researchers from Washington State University, however, had a hunch that not all crime shows are created equal when it comes to promoting healthy beliefs about this type of violence. In their new study, they pitted the "Law & Order," "NCIS" and "CSI" franchises against one another to see how they each stacked up.

The Setup

The researchers had 313 freshman students at a large Northwestern university take a survey in which they reported how often they watched crime dramas like "Law & Order," "NCIS" and "CSI," and how much attention they paid to them. The survey also assessed how much participants subscribed to rape myths, like, "If a woman is raped while she is drunk, she is at least somewhat responsible for letting things get out of control," as well as their intentions to seek and adhere to sexual consent, and how often they were able to refuse unwanted sexual activity.

Since the sample included a mix of men and women from different backgrounds, the researchers controlled for participants' gender, previous experience with sexual assault and how often they viewed television and crime dramas specifically.

The Findings

Out of the three crime dramas in the study, "Law & Order" was the one that seemed to promote healthy ideas around sexual assault. Watching the franchise was associated with decreased rape myth acceptance, as well as increased intentions to refuse unwanted sexual activity and to adhere to decisions related to sexual consent

According to the researchers, this is because "Law & Order" typically portrays "a shift in the power differential that traditionally exists in sexual relationships between men and women." The show's storylines often challenge all-too-common victim-blaming tropes -- like rape can't occur within intimate relationships or only chaste women can be violated -- by portraying intoxicated women, strippers and prostitutes as clear victims. No woman on a "Law & Order" episode "has it coming," and previous studies have found that the show doesn't support perpetrator's excuses for committing sexual assault, like the idea that a woman "deserved" to be attacked for dressing or acting "provocatively." (Yes, there's a growing body of academic literature on "Law & Order.")

The study also noted that the perpetrators on "Law & Order" are typically punished in some way or another, whether it's through a criminal sentence or a lengthy court process. The researchers hypothesize that "viewers who are exposed to the negative consequences of sexual assault in the 'Law & Order' programs are more likely to adhere to sexual consent decisions."

"CSI," however, had previously been found to objectify female victims and promote the "idea that women are burdened with protecting themselves against sexual violence." The style of the show has even been likened to porn. Therefore, the researchers were unsurprised to find that the franchise "promotes the traditional power differential between men and women in sexual relationships" by portraying female sexual assault victims as somewhat "responsible" for their attacks because they made poor decisions, like accepting a drink from a stranger or failing to lock their windows. "CSI" also doesn't depict perpetrators being punished for their crimes.

Compared to the other two crime dramas, "NCIS" features storylines revolving around sexual assault the least, which could be why the researchers didn't find that it promoted healthy attitudes about sexual violence to the same degree as "Law & Order."

The Takeaway

Of course, these findings don't suggest that watching a certain crime drama will cause anyone to take on certain beliefs around sexual assault -- they're just correlations. Who knows? Maybe people who already don't subscribe to rape myths are the ones who are drawn to "Law & Order" in the first place.

That said, the next time you decide to throw on sweatpants, order pizza and stream hours of "Law & Order" episodes, you can feel heartened that you've made an excellent choice (on all counts).

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