Intervening in Sexual Assault

Violence in the media is a hot-button issue, especially when it comes to the way viewing violent images affects a person’s attitude toward crime. 

While opponents of media violence normally focus on whether violence in television, movies, and video games makes a person more aggressive, new research hints at a positive effect of popular crime dramas: willingness to help a victim. 

Researchers at Washington State University (WSU) found that people who watch popular prime-time crime dramas like Law & Order and CSI say they would be more likely to intervene during a sexual assault than those who don’t watch these programs. The study was published in the Journal of Health Communications.

“Although content analyses have not established whether crime dramas portray individuals intervening in sexual assault, we knew from watching some of the programs that at least some episodes featured bystanders who intervened before the crime or who came forward to help after the crime was committed,” lead researcher Stacey Hust, associate professor of communication at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communications, said in a press release. “We wanted to see if watching these programs was associated with bystander intervention.”

To a certain extent, it was.

SVU Viewers Are More Likely to Help

One show that focuses on sexual assault and the impact it has on victims is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Now in its 14th season, every new episode is watched by close to eight million people, according to the Nielsen ratings. 

The show has portrayed bystanders coming to a victim’s aid, whether by calling the police or by directly approaching the perpetrator. The WSU researchers hypothesized that shows like SVU could help quell myths about rape and empower viewers to intervene in real-life situations.

To test their theory, the WSU team gave questionnaires to 462 college freshman to determine their attitudes about sexual assault and the myths surrounding rape. The questions included, "If a woman doesn’t physically resist, does it constitute rape?" and, "How confident are you that you would intervene in a sexual assault scenario?"

College students are an important demographic to test because one in four college women will experience sexual assault during her time at university. 

Researchers say those who reported watching crime dramas were more likely to say they'd help in situations where a woman was at risk of being sexually assaulted.

Attitudes About Rape Affect Intervention

Women’s rights advocates have been fighting back against myths associated with rape for decades, especially blaming the victim.

A major factor in determining whether someone will intervene in a sexual assault scenario is how that person views rape, namely their attitude toward victims. Researchers found that people who were more likely to accept rape myths—that the victim's clothes were too revealing, for example—as reality were less likely to intervene in a sexual assault scenario. 

However, respondents also said they would be more likely to intervene if they believed their friends would do the same and if they were confident in their ability to help.

“Increasing bystander intervention is critical to sexual assault prevention efforts,” Hust said. “Bystander intervention both creates an environment in which sexual assault is not tolerated and an environment supportive of victims.”

To some extent, then, fictional detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler are increasing the likelihood that sexual assault victims receive the aid they desperately need.

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