Depictions of Sex Offenders in the Television Show, Law and Order: SVU

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Sexual offenses and those who perpetrate them tend to evoke strong negative emotions in others and continue to generate significant public, political, and academic interest. In order to protect communities and effectively manage sex offenders, legislative responses have intensified which include harsher sanctions for sexually related crimes which apply to a broad and varying range of individuals who commit sex related offenses. However, highly publicized and rare cases involving sexual offenses that result in the death of a child have influenced the development of these sanctions (Levenson, Brannon, Fortney, & Baker, 2007). Various studies have demonstrated the significant impact media sources have had on the decisions, perceptions, attitudes, and beliefs adopted by the general public across a wide range of subjects and areas of interest, including sexual offenses and those who commit them. Exploring how accurate the information presented by the media is imperative given its influence and potential impact. However, research pertaining to how sex offenders are portrayed in the media has been lacking. In order to explore how sex offenders are depicted in entertainment television media, fifty episodes of the television show, Law and Order: SVU, were included in this present study. The results showed that sex offenders were depicted in a manner that promoted stereotypes about the sex offenders' gender, age, race/ethnicity, marital status, and victim type which may provide viewers with an inaccurate impression that most sex offenders are alike and fit a particular mold. The types of sexual offenses most often depicted in this television show were forcible rape and child molestation committed with a degree of violence and predation that correspond with typologies of rape and child molestation that are least common. The characters were depicted in a manner that supported myths sex offenders are violent, incurable, and likely to reoffend.

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