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SVU's Star-Crossed Lovers

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If Shakespeare wrote about sex crimes in New York... the result probably wouldn't look like this week's SVU episode. This thug was no Romeo. Nevertheless, "Betrayal's Climax" was a powerful episode, illuminating the tragic consequences of modern gang violence, misogyny and misguided codes of honor.

Recap:

Olivia is promoted! During a beautiful ceremony, tears well up in the characters' collective eyes (mine too). Congratulations, Sgt. Benson. After 15 years of compassionate and dedicated service, you deserve this.

Meanwhile, 16-year-old Avery lives in a posh brownstone on the Upper West Side and paints happy portraits of lovers holding hands. She's madly in love with her Hispanic boyfriend, Manny, who lives in the projects and is trying to save money to buy his dead brother a tombstone. Avery's patrician parents, of course, disapprove. This disapproval grows just a tad when a study-date at Avery's house turns into a gang-rape, where three members of the notorious BX-9 gang hold a gun to Manny's head while brutalizing Avery on her parents' 600-threadcount Egyptian cotton sheets.

Turns out, Manny was a recent BX-9 recruit. Immediately before the assault, his friends called to say they were coming over to Avery's house to "party," and he knew what that meant. Raping Avery was the gang's way of punishing Manny for botching the robbery of a pharmacy a few weeks back.

But guess who feels worse than Manny? Poor bruised Avery, who experienced orgasms during the rape, while Manny watched. She never came with Manny -- and now apologizes to him, swearing that she loves him despite her body's involuntary response. He's cold and angry. If she loves him, he says, she should drop the charges against his friends. She's so filled with self-loathing, Amanda can't stop her from throwing herself off an eight-story building! (Really, Olivia? Your first official move as boss is to have your sex-crime detective doing suicide negotiation?) Luckily, firefighters catch Avery on the world's sturdiest moonbounce.

Barba has a case stronger than, like, 90 percent of real sex-crime cases, but insists that he can't win without Manny's cooperation.

Nick uses his sexy Spanish language skills (Sí, sí, Detective Amaro!) to learn that Manny's older brother was not killed by a rival gang, as everyone thought, but by BX-9 itself. And, in a cruel twist, the gang gave Manny the same gun that killed his brother, to use in the botched pharmacy robbery. Manny is so upset, he finally testifies against his gang. He is promptly murdered and his tongue is cut out.

Fortunately, Barba can still use Manny's grand jury testimony, because the gang leader unwisely tells his girlfriend that he ordered the murder -- while chatting on a recorded call from jail. Unfortunately, the leader also threatens Olivia. She threatens him right back, then declines any police protection. (Yikes, between BX-9 and Louis, I am seriously nervous for Liv).

Avery, meanwhile, moves on to painting exploded, bloody hearts, which were frankly an improvement on the hand-holding pictures. I guess you do have to suffer for your art.

Verdict: A-

What They Got Right:

Yes, orgasms can happen to rape victims. This is such an important point for the public to know. Arousal is involuntary response -- and it doesn't mean the victim consented. Prosecutors often have to call expert witnesses to teach the jury that arousal does not mean that the rape was enjoyable or that the victim was asking for it. Roughly four percent to five percent of rape victims describe experiencing orgasm, while more experience general arousal.

This reaction makes it even more difficult for the victim to recover emotionally.

As Popular Science noted:

Unsurprisingly, rape survivors who experience arousal and rape report confusion and shame thanks to this conflation of the physical response of arousal and its usual association with enjoyment. A survivor may ask, "Was this something I subconsciously wanted? Am I in some way guilty? If my body responded this way, does it mean I'm mentally disturbed?" The reality is that the body's arousal response is no more an indication of guilt or mental illness than an elevated heart rate or adrenaline flood would be under the same circumstances.

Tonight's episode was also an authentic look at how real-life gangs work. In my novel, Speak of the Devil, I explore the real-life gang MS-13, which seems to be the basis for the fictional BX-9. Tattoos and gang colors mark the members; initiation rituals include gang-rape and assault; and a community gun is often passed around. For members who want to leave the gang or testify against it, the punishment is death. Gang treatment of women is particularly horrible.

The way the squad arrested the gangbangers tonight was authentic. One was leaving his probation officer; another was doing community-service garbage trash pickup. In real life, these thugs are often repeat offenders with no fixed home, and the best place to find them is when they're doing their court-ordered activities.

Finally, most jails do record the phone calls of their inmates. The inmates are informed of this -- in fact some are warned by a message before every single call. Nevertheless, the amount of incriminating statements captured on these phone calls is astounding. From my perspective as a prosecutor, the hardest thing was just keeping up with their sheer volume, especially if the conversation is in a foreign language and has to be translated.

What They Got Wrong:

Barba didn't need Manny's testimony at all. So what if he kinda sorta invited his friends over to "party?" A boyfriend cannot consent to his girlfriend getting raped.

And this was a strong strong case. The victim was credible, an excellent student with no criminal history, saying three strangers raped her. She had extensive injuries. Their semen was inside her. Her parents' house was trashed. There was blood on her parents' sheets. What more could Manny add? Let the defendants try to claim this was consensual -- a jury would just hate them even more.

And leaving Manny to his own devices would have avoided all those illegal heart-to-hearts that Ice and Nick had with him. Manny's lawyer had to be there. After a defendant is represented by counsel, the police may not talk to him again without his lawyer present, especially if they're trying to get him to cooperate in their investigation. That is a delicate and important subject that must be hammered out with an agreement, on paper. Maybe if he'd had his constitutionally-guaranteed lawyer on his side, Manny could have gotten a better deal, and not ended up with his throat slit.


What do you think, 'SVU' fans? Was that a pregnancy kit in the preview for next week? Should Olivia have gotten protection, either in the bodyguard or family-planning sense? And is Amanda the worst suicide negotiator ever? Leave your comments!

Follow Allison Leotta on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@AllisonLeotta