Lessons from SVU

My teenager has been binge watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit this summer.  This has provided an interesting juxtaposition of life and art in a time when the Sexual Health Curriculum in Ontario is a major topic of conversation as the government seeks to repeal and replace it.

No real person or situation…

Each episode of the series includes a disclaimer that no real person or situation is depicted in the storylines.  At the same time, this show clearly touches on real issues regarding gender, sexuality, consent, bullying and the Internet – all themes that are in the updated curriculum that has now be repealed.

Example 1 – “A Misunderstanding”

The storyline depicts two teenagers who converse via text and then find themselves in the darkroom during a school dance.  The male, wanting to be memorialised as part of the “Cherry pickers’ club”, becomes aggressive despite the pleas of the female for him to ‘slow down’ and ‘don’t go down there’.

The investigation and trial becomes a he said/she said battle that is complicated by teenage insecurity and parental assumptions.  I suspect there are those who could easily relate to and sympathise with the characters on both sides.  As a result, we are reminded that, all too often, young people are not equipped to navigate sexual relationships appropriately leaving them vulnerable to the consequences of ‘a misunderstanding’.

Example 2 – “Transgender Bridge”

A transgender teen is bullied by a group of teenage boys and falls off a bridge.  When the transgender teen dies, the District Attorney decides to try the 15 year old assailant as an adult with the hate crimes statute attached.  The defense argues that a teenager’s impulse control is not fully evolved and that, presented with someone who contradicted his understanding of maleness, he reacted out of confusion and the fear that he didn’t want his friends to think he was gay.

This premise seems to suggest that education about the transgender community could have changed the outcome of such an encounter significantly.  Protection from discrimination based on gender identity and sexuality are provided in Ontario and Canada. Ensuring that young people are taught about these individuals could reduce stigma and the possibility for bullying and violence.

In real life…

Rehtaeh Parsons was 17 years old when she killed herself after having been assaulted by four teens at a party and finding photos of the event online which led to bullying and harassment.  After reviewing the updated Ontario curriculum, Rehtaeh’s father suggests that if that particular curriculum had been taught at his daughter’s school, she might well be alive today because the curriculum “…talks about mental health, it talks about suicide and it talks about consent.”  He goes on to say: “I think the young men involved in Rehtaeh’s case don’t believe what they were doing was sexual assault or rape.  They don’t believe that whatsoever, and I think a lot of the kids in Rehtaeh’s school who victim-blamed her had no idea around issues of consent. If they had, they may not have been so willing to torment her.  If there were courses at school about sexting and sharing an image like that of her – people would have said this is child porn, this is against the law.  And other kids would’ve come to her defence, or they might have confronted the ones who were victim-blaming and calling her names.” See here

There is much to learn…

As mentioned in this post, a lot has changed in the past 20 years.  Art has highlighted these changes through programs like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.  In Ontario we are currently confronted with the question: what will be taught in schools come September?  What tools do you think our children need to ensure they can safely navigate through the realities of life in 2018?

We want to hear from you: Would you allow your children to watch Law and Order: Special Victims Unit?  How might this program become a springboard to talk with young people about sexuality, gender, relationships and consent?  To what extent do you think these topics should be discussed in schools?

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