Does lying about who you are in order to have sex constitute rape?
On Law & Order: SVU Season 18 Episode 3, Olivia convinced a reluctant Barba to prosecute a case based on the belief that it does.
This storyline seemed less than realistic, but it certainly was dramatic.
The story, such as it was, involved women such as Laura Collette, who chose to have sex with the Dean of Admissions in order to guarantee her son a spot in Hudson University's freshman class.
When the man Laura had sex with turned out not to be who he claimed to be, Laura – with some help from Olivia – moved ahead with a claim that he raped her.
He is disgusting. But he's not a rapist.Lawyer
Carisi and Rollins weren't sure it was rape. Fin said lying was commonplace. Barba said that there is no rape by fraud statute in New York. Even the judge had serious doubts about the merits of this case.
Yet everyone pushed ahead anyway.
Barba: Are you telling me to dismiss this case?
Judge: Of course not. That would be an abuse of judicial power.
I'm not sure which was more problematic – the prosecution's argument or the judge's reaction.
Claiming that a consensual sexual encounter was not really consensual because the man lied about his identity is somewhat troublesome. Laura agreed to have sex with Tom. He made a point of asking if she consented and she said she did. Later, she said she didn't really consent because he was not actually the Dean of Admissions.
Did Laura really not consent? She agreed to have sex with the man in her bed, even if she wouldn't have had she known his identity. This question got superficial treatment; even Rollins, who usually stands up for her beliefs, didn't do more than question whether this was rape for 30 seconds.
As for the judge, his behavior seemed to border on judicial misconduct.
Despite his claim that he was not trying to influence Barba, their private conversation seemed altogether inappropriate. He accused Barba of having a self-serving agenda and threatened him with contempt. Later, he more or less demanded that Barba plead this one out whether he wanted to or not.
Two wrongs don't make a right, especially not in the judicial system, and the judge would have been far more credible had he simply turned any hypothetical guilty verdict aside on the grounds that there was no law against what Tom did.
On top of the oddness of the case, there seemed to be little reaction from Laura's family to what she had done until the last few minutes of the hour.
He's gonna get away with it. This whole case was a waste of time.Laura
Laura said that her marriage was in shambles and her son wouldn't look her in the eye, but viewers didn't get to see that. Laura was the only member of the family who was really featured at all.
This lessened the impact of her decision to testify. It didn't seem like that much of a dilemma for her.
Benson: I'm doing the right thing.
Barba: I know. That's what worries me.
It was unclear why Barba decided to take the case, other than the fact that Olivia really wanted to. He said himself that there was no rape by fraud law, so trying a case that he knew he could not win made little sense.
The other thing that made no sense was the ending of the episode. Perhaps if viewers had seen Laura's life falling apart, it would have been understandable that her son appeared to have committed suicide at the end. As it was, it seemed like the ending was tacked on for shock value.
SVU is capable of far better and usually delivers. This could have been an interesting, controversial story that kept people talking but instead it was full of contrived drama.
It's really a pity that only 30 seconds were devoted to Olivia's concerns about Noah's language skills, as that subplot held far more promise than the main story.
Did you think Tom's behavior constituted rape, or was he just gross? Did this case hold your interest? Did you think Barba needed to stand up to Olivia more about not asking him to prosecute unwinnable cases?
Weigh in below!
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Jack Ori is a senior staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter.