Law & Order: SVU has dealt with many sex worker cases over the years, but never like this.
On Law & Order: SVU Season 22 Episode 5, the squad struggled with the seemingly impossible task of proving that a webcam girl who role-plays rape fantasies for money was raped for real.
They did a better job of standing up for sex workers -- especially those who indulge in this kind of fantasy -- than they ever have before, and that made this story that much more compelling.
In the past, SVU detectives have often judged people who engage in rape fantasies.
It's understandable why they would. After all, they deal with the trauma of rape and sexual assault every day, so it has to be hard for them to understand why anyone would be turned on by pretending to engage in non-consensual behavior.
Plus, in the traditional porn industry, there are questions about consent. Sometimes girls are trafficked and forced into porn, or real rapes occur on camera. And as this story demonstrated, it can be hard to determine what's role play and assault when people engage in faux rapes.
Kat: Zoey is worried the jury will see her as a crazy slut who tricked him. [Gabe]. Are we in trouble?
Carisi: We always knew this was a risk.
Kat: She's a good person, just trying to pay her bills. He's the crazy one.
Carisi: I know that. My job is to make sure the jury knows it.
But this time, there was no judgment whatsoever of Zoey, except by herself. And, of course, the stalker defending himself by trying to claim she wanted it. It was a refreshing change that demonstrated yet another way that SVU has evolved over the years.
Kat made some great points about how webcam work allows women to have more control over sex work than traditional porn. However, her confabulating current realities and condoning sexual violence was irritating.
In US society, sex work is considered immoral, and many types of prostitution are illegal in the majority of the country.
Zoey: Someone recorded that? They're not supposed to.
Benson: They were concerned that you didn't want that.
Zoey: I didn't. I was raped. But I'm a cam girl. I thought if I went to the police, they would laugh at me.
That stigma made Zoey reluctant to report her rape, reluctant to testify, and reluctant for anyone to know about what she does to make extra money.
And for all of Kat's arguments about female empowerment, it didn't seem like Zoey really wanted to do this kind of work.
Unlike her encounter with Gabe, her choice to do webcam work was consensual, but she felt forced into it by circumstances such as needing to pay for her father's long-term care and education.
This is true not just for this fictional character but for many people who engage in sex work of all sorts. Many prostitutes, porn stars, and other sex workers are desperate, needing money for reasons ranging from being kicked out of their home for being gay or transgender to not having any other way to make ends meet.
And when people engage in illegal sex work, getting arrested makes it harder for them to get other sorts of jobs so that they end up going back to it to survive.
Although there wasn't a lot of emphasis on any of that in this episode, the truth is that if there were better social safety nets, such as public health insurance programs and better access to housing for those who can't afford rent, there would be a lot fewer situations like this.
Also, decriminalizing sex work would make it less dangerous and make it easier for victims to come forward.
SVU couldn't really address all of these issues in just one episode. But they are definitely worth thinking about, and I hope the series will explore them more fully in future stories.
As for the case itself, if you take out the sex work aspect, it was a pretty standard stalking case.
Gabe believed he had a special relationship with Zoey, that they were in love, and that his behavior toward her was justified, and nobody could talk him out of that delusion.
His showing up at her father's nursing home in violation of a restraining order should have resulted in additional charges. I didn't understand why that wasn't addressed in Carisi's presentation of the case.
I know he wanted to overcome the jury thinking negatively about Zoey because she was a webcam girl. But it seemed to me that if he had demonstrated that Gabe was a stalker from the get-go, it would have helped his case.
The way Carisi finally demonstrated it was dramatic, and the jury couldn't deny what they saw with their own eyes. But it would have made sense to build up the argument that Gabe was a stalker from the beginning.
SVU also insisted on this theme of spending a lot of time on webcams making people lose their grip on reality, which I didn't quite buy.
All of Zoey's other clients seemed to understand that it was all fantasy and that she would say or do what they paid her to say or do. Obviously, there was something deeper going on with Gabe than treating himself too much screen time.
I also didn't like that the SVU staff wasn't concerned about Zoey's wellbeing when she went off the grid. My first thought was that someone who was that introverted and afraid of her secret being unmasked could be at risk of suicide, yet the cops never considered the possibility.
Despite these weaknesses, "Turn Me On, Take Me Private" was a solid story that kept my interest.
SVU does dark themes well. In the past few years, there haven't been enough stories that can't be tied up neatly with one of Benson's inspiring speeches. This one was a marked departure from that.
There were no winners and nothing Benson could say to Kat, Zoey, or anyone else that would help.
Your turn, SVU fanatics.
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Law & Order: SVU's historic 22nd season airs on NBC on Thursdays at 9 PM EST/PST.