How Olivia Benson Helped Me Heal From My Sexual Assault

by Theo Alvarez 

TRIGGER WARNING: This piece talks about sexual assault

I’m not much for watching police procedures shows, or, as people call it, “copaganda.” The reason is precisely because it perpetuates the idea that the police are good or, at least, normal/neutral, something you need to have around, and I’m a prison abolitionist. So, for that reason, I always thought Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) wasn’t for me, though I knew about the show, of course. I mean, who doesn’t, right? It’s the longest-running show on TV.

However, in 2019, I met this cute girl through Twitter who was obsessed with it, and I wanted to impress her. With the pandemic occurring in 2020, I had all the time in the world, so I finally gave it a chance. I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest. I thought it was just gonna be something I could talk about with my crush, and that was enough.

Olivia Benson sits on a bench and talks to Brooke in a courtroom in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

I have been sexually assaulted several times. It first happened when I was a kid. I don’t know how many times, though I think it was constant for a few years. I completely erased it from my memory and didn’t remember anything until it happened again in 2017 at a party when I was extremely drunk. I had trouble figuring out it was rape because I blamed myself.

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It was confusing because I’m a lesbian who definitely wouldn’t hook up with a guy under normal circumstances, but I was drunk, and drunk people do stupid things, right? Well, maybe they do, but getting so intoxicated to the point you can barely walk or talk and having consensual sex is not one of them.

Although I didn’t think of it as sexual assault at first, my body knew it was trauma, and I started having graphic flashbacks to when I was a kid when this happened for the first time. I started therapy a few months after that (for a completely unrelated reason), and I struggled to tell my therapist about it.

I finally did, but it didn’t end well. She didn’t comfort me; she simply acknowledged what I said. I know now (after becoming a psychology major) that she was a psychoanalyst, and that’s just how they are. However, it didn’t work for me. I changed therapists, and the second one was better, but it still wasn’t ideal. She acknowledged I’d been raped at the party. She comforted me but kept saying my flashbacks were merely nightmares I imagined to deal with the trauma, meaning she thought I was making it up.

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I was at that second therapist when I started SVU. I knew what it was about and thought I might get triggered, but I would do anything for my crush. Honestly, some episodes did trigger me; they were hard to deal with. However, most were fine. I’m good at compartmentalizing. The worst episodes are about child sex abuse, and the ones that anger me the most are the stories about fake allegations, but I learned how to handle even the most uncomfortable things.

Olivia Benson and Velasco stand in the squad room in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Contrary to what I initially thought, I didn’t do it for my crush. I did it because I found Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay). Olivia and I don’t have the same story — far from it, but I found comfort in her in a way that I haven’t with anyone. I don’t know why. Procedural shows are not the best at constructing characters. They focus more on the case they’re presenting than on the lives of the detectives working on them. Olivia isn’t different; there’s a lot I wish they’d show us, and they don’t. For some reason, what they do show us is enough for me to love her.

She has this history of rejection. Although it’s different from mine, it resonates. She has an alcoholic mother, and she was conceived by rape. If that were me, I would be much more messed up than she is. She’s focused on what she calls “her mission” (working with sexual assault and domestic violence victims) and has intimacy issues.

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However, there’s so much more good in her than her flaws. She’s caring, compassionate, a pursuer of the truth and a victim’s advocate. She has this power while talking to you where you feel calm, and things seem to be less horrible than they truly are. By hearing her speak to her victims, I’ve healed. 

It’s kind of absurd that a fictional character would have this power over me. Maybe it’s because I think she would believe me when I say I truly feel like my “nightmares” are real and happened when I was a kid. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t really have anyone I could trust to talk to about this.

She gave me the courage to change therapists again. I finally found one who believed in me and said we don’t need any proof that my “nightmares” happened. We work with what I feel is true and how it resonates with my life. In her words, I have real-life consequences and feelings about this, so why would she emphasize that my “dream” is not reality? It doesn’t matter.

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I especially think about the episode “911,” where a little girl, Maria, calls 911, and they have Olivia talk to her. Everything makes you doubt Maria. Nobody in the squad believes her. However, Olivia does, and it turns out to be true. They saved that girl’s life because Olivia never gave up on her. It’s so important to me. I can’t even put it into words.

Olivia Benson sits on a couch and talks to a woman with an iPad in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

I’m so glad that in these later seasons, Olivia is finding herself through therapy. It’s overdone, but I love that this is happening because Mariska has more power now and wants to do what’s right for Olivia. Her healing journey is essential to the show, as she has helped so many people heal from their trauma.

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