When Dr. Neal Baer, executive producer of the popular NBC show ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,’ visited the campus of Washington and Lee University in Virginia last year, he was presented with what he found to be an alarming statistic.
After talking to the typical college student frankly and openly, Baer discovered that the problem of alcohol abuse and date rape was more common on campuses around the country than he thought. After doing more research, Baer found that by the time a woman graduates from college, one in four will be sexually assaulted.
In the tradition of tackling challenging real-life legal issues in its episodes, ‘Law & Order: SVU’ will be airing a special episode on Wednesday that will touch upon sexual assault in college.
In the episode, detective Elliot Stabler, played by actor Christopher Meloni, speaks about rape prevention at a rally at his daughter’s college. While there, a student accuses another of rape; an investigation of rape on a college campus ensues, and the team is subsequently assigned to follow it.
In an interview via conference call with Baer and Meloni, both expressed their desires to develop this episode and also promote it to college students around the country.
Meloni, who plays the father of a college student, discussed the show’s purpose in targeting college campuses. He explained that the writers and actors alike wanted to focus on ‘the gray area of date rape and alcohol.’
‘There’s a very interesting stat,’ Meloni said. ‘[Co-eds] ages 16 to 24 will experience rape at rates that are four times higher than assaults on women who are not going to college.’
So why are college students at such a high risk for abuse? Meloni feels it is the ‘combination of alcohol, stressors, pressures and being with a lot of people all the time that will result in risky behavior and risky action.’
According to Meloni, statistics show that more than 70 percent of rape victims know their attackers, alcohol affects 74 percent of perpetrators and roughly half of all rape victims are under the influence as well. The common thread of alcohol abuse among college students is a huge factor with skyrocketing rates.
In airing this episode, the cast and crew of ‘Law & Order: SVU’ are trying to raise awareness for this growing problem.
‘I think there have to be some discussions about this on campus,’ Baer said. ‘You know, to understand first, are there cases that aren’t being reported?’
Studies show that less than 5 percent of rape victims in a college setting report the incident. This may be because of the role that alcohol plays in these attacks, as victims may be unsure of the details of sexual assault or concerned that they will be penalized for their own alcohol abuse.
‘I’ve heard anecdotal evidence from a lot of students I’ve talked to that this is kind of a dirty secret,’ Baer said.
The prime-time drama, which receives 53 million viewers per week between its twice-weekly network broadcasts and its cable syndication, has gotten the general public’s attention on controversial issues many times before.
‘I know from studies we’ve done that people have learned from our show,’ Baer said.
In terms of legislation, the show affected a legal issue right here in New York state; the abolition of a state-wide statute of limitations on rape was an action that Baer said was largely influenced by a ‘Law & Order: SVU’ episode.
To Meloni, the effect some episodes have on victims of the crimes they address is one of the most important things the show does.
‘I’ve had survivors of sexual assault, both male and female, come up to me, hug me ‘ tears in their eyes ‘ and come up to me and share their story,’ he said. ‘They want to thank us for what we do, [confronting] issues that people very often sweep under the rug. We’ve given them a voice and a sense of ‘ a way to say to themselves, ‘I’m not the guilty one. As the victim, I’m not the one who should feel ashamed of what happened to me.’
Baer explained that his goal in creating this episode was to make people everywhere, from victims of assault to officials at colleges around the country, aware that something needs to change.
‘This is something that needs to be reported and you have to change the norm about it. It’s not okay for this to happen,’ Baer said.
‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ airs 9 p.m. ET Wednesday nights on NBC.