By Sara Molinaro
In one of my classes in college, we had a rule: if you talked about Law & Order, you had to leave. (The implication was that the show was so fictionalized, so far from reality, that nothing could stand to benefit from discussing it.) That being said, there’s no doubting the success of the Law & Order franchise. The show, which has aired almost 500 episodes and is entering its 20th season, is a staple of nighttime TV drama, and has even coined a signature sound.
The popularity of the show is one of the reasons why it’s so problematic when the show depicts crimes inaccurately, and that problem is compounded when the crime is already one in which stereotypes abound.
Such is the case with John Stamos’ most recent stint on Law & Order: SVU. Now, my inner 3-year-old has a hard time taking an issue with anything that Uncle Jesse does (he’s so dreamy) but his guest stint on the crime show was just… inaccurate.
Continuing its “ripped from the headlines” style, Law & Order took the subject of Stamos’ episode from the media’s newfound interest in reproductive abuse. New studies have been released over the past few months, confirming what domestic violence advocates have known forever: one method domestic violence perpetrators use to control their victims is reproductive abuse. The phrase “reproductive abuse” refers to acts ranging from birth control sabotage to forced unprotected sex, with the intent of forcing the victim to become pregnant against her will. (This runs counter to the popular sexist notion that lots of women get pregnant “accidentally-on-purpose” in order to control their male partners.)
Redbook Magazine recently did an extremely accurate piece on reproductive control, focusing on the victim’s perspective. In addition to the enormous psychological pressure that her abuser put on her to become pregnant, he used other forms of abuse as well: made her believe that she was useless, he controlled her eating and activities, he physically assaulted her. In other words, reproductive control was just one of the many forms of abuse the batterer used, with the ultimate goal of controlling his victim completely.
This kind of narrative is the textbook definition of domestic violence: a pattern and cycle of abuse, which can take many forms, and escalates over time. Domestic violence is not just physical abuse. It extends to verbal abuse, emotional abuse, financial control, control of the victim’s education and employment opportunities, isolation from friends and family, control of how the victim dresses or behaves, and yes, reproductive coercion. Just as an abuser is not just some guy who, after years of being a great husband, "loses his cool" one afternoon, neither is an abuser just some guy who wants to have a lot of kids.
However, the “reproductive abuser” played by Uncle Jesse does not fall within this definition. Instead of having an obsession with controlling one woman, Stamos’ character is obsessed with having as many children as possible. The detectives track down 21 of his children in New York, all born to different mothers. In an extremely dramatic scene, Stamos reveals that if they had searched outside of New York, they would have found many more:
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In other scenes, Stamos does portray a man who is adept at emotional manipulation – this is how he convinces the women to carry his children – but never does this behavior stray into what could be accurately considered the cycle of domestic violence. While Stamos’ character comes across as super-creepy, none of the women are controlled or abused aside from the forced pregnancies.
These inaccurate depictions of abuse are harmful to the work that advocates do to break stereotypes about violence against women and promote a culture where abuse of any kind is not tolerated. A real depiction of reproductive abuse would show how truly dangerous it is for the victims. Indeed, one of the most dangerous times for a victim of domestic violence, in terms of the lethality risk, is during a pregnancy. So not only does the victim have to endure the abuse of becoming pregnant against her will, but if she chooses to continue to carry the pregnancy -- which may not even be a real choice, if she’s being so closely controlled and monitored – then she runs an enormous additional risk of harm to herself and her child.
So don’t believe everything you see on TV, kids. And if you hear a friend talking about violence against women in a way that’s inaccurate or plays on stereotypes, call them out on it. Tell them the truth. Help to end domestic violence.