‘Law & Order: SVU’ Producer on Why You Should Watch the ‘Legitimate Rape’ Episode


Warren Leight, Executive Producer of Law & Order: SVU, explains the process of turning a sensitive news story into a compelling hour of television.

When the Todd Akin story broke last August, fans of the show knew, and tweeted immediately, that Olivia Benson (Mariska Hartigay’s character) is the product of a rape.

When proponents of “legitimate rape” kept digging themselves in deeper, we started to dig more deeply into where this theory comes from, and also, how it might figure into an “SVU” story.

Screen-Shot-2012-10-26-at-11.04.37-AM2We wanted to wait until after the elections because the issues raised are more important than the politics or personalities.

While waiting, we stumbled upon an even more disturbing aspect of rape culture.

We knew women could, and often do get pregnant from rape.

We didn’t know that in 31 states, rapists have custodial rights to the children of those rapes.

So, some in the religious, medical and political establishment believe rape cannot result in pregnancy, but, if it does, the rapist has a right to raise his child.

The real stories about this are so disturbing — a Boston rapist sued for custody of the child he “fathered” with his 14-year-old victim — one of our challenges was to tone the fictional story down, so that it would believable.

Since the show was already depicting aspects of  American rape culture, we decided to set the story in the macho world of sports and sports broadcasting. Athletes and their frequent…. um, insensitivity to women gave us a thematically entwined world in which to place our victim.

We needed a heroine who would break our heart, and a villain who didn’t care if the audience hated him. We got very lucky when Lauren Cohan and David Marciano said yes. “Walking Dead” and “Homeland” are cultural phenomenons, and they both have very strong casts. It helped that the two leads, as written by Kevin Fox and Peter Blauner, were compelling characters.

Interestingly, although the two actors had several disturbing scenes together, they both kept their distance from each other between takes. I think they needed to do that, so that they wouldn’t, in any way, humanize the others’ character.

From their first take we realized we had cast the right actors. Most actors try to soften their character’s villainy. They really do want to be liked. Marciano drove into the skid. Lauren hooked onto the fact that this was her character’s one opportunity to have a child. She put herself through hell for the sake of that son.

A lot of times our set is a light place to be, with a lot of joking between takes, a lot of gallows humor.  This episode brought out a much more subdued and serious tone. Often rape involves grey areas, but the belief in “legitimate rape” is not one of them. Nor are custodial rights for rapists. Everyone on set wanted to tell this story in a straightforward way, in order to bring these issues to light.

Yes, I know that might sound self-righteous, but it is what happened during this shoot.


Watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: Legitimate Rape on Hulu.

Originally appeared on xoJane


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  1. It is interesting to see that in some “…31 states, rapists have custodial rights to the children of those rapes.”

    And the number of custody cases filed is? Very emotive content without balance – again!

  2. JustAMan says:

    So, I wonder when SVU will do an episode on a man being raped by envelopment, and his rapist becoming pregnant and choosing to keep the child, and him then being forced by the State to pay child support? As the Kansas Supreme Court put it, ever so delicately, “Victims have obligations as well as rights.” You know, somebody like the 14 year old boy to whom this happened? Or somebody like the 85 year old, disabled man whose “caretaker” forced herself on him, became pregnant, was found guilty and then successfully extracted child support to pay for the child that resulted?

    Oh, wait, we’re talking about SVU and Hollywood. That storyline will appear on The Twelfth of Never.

    • Mark Neil says:

      Pretty much. There are only two episode I’ve seen of SVU that even acknowledged the possibility men can be victims. The first had a rich guy who claimed a younger girl raped him using blackmail. At no point did it even cross the officers minds that he could be telling the truth, and of course, there’s no way the story could end with him having been telling the truth. The second was a story of false accusations, a teacher accessed of raping his student, the teacher denying the allegations, the students story shifting and showing inconsistencies, but the cops never wavered until near the very end… and of course, that episode ended without a resolution. You can’t acknowledge false accusations, you’d be called a misogynist and rape apologist. Never have I seen an SVU episode where a man was the victim, without ambiguity. It’s actually quite offensive they can come up with a woman a week as victim, but never a man, even with all the female teachers springing up in the news these days

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