SVU: Sex Work And Orgasms In Sex Crimes

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By Koli Marie

“Hysteria” is our first introduction in SVU to the ideas that many cops and ordinary citizens like you and I hold about sex work. From the very beginning we hear the Vice Cop, D’Angelo, refer to the victim as a “dead whore”, though she hasn’t yet been identified. He says he can “just smell them”. We see what this woman has on, it’s a party outfit. It’s a cropped halter top and a gold mini skirt. D’Angelo is ogling the victim and Benson tells him to go check on his partner, who “puked himself”, as it was his first D.O.A. (Dead on Arrival). At this point everyone is still under the impression that she’s a sex worker (the term prostitute is used). D’Angelo comes back and asks for “double prints” of the pictures being taken for the Vice bulletin board.

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When Stabler tells him to have a little respect, D’Angelo’s response makes my blood boil. “Don’t get your boxers in a twist. She’s NHI.” Which we learn in just a few seconds means “No Humans Involved”. As Stabler elaborates, “don’t work too hard on this one, why sweat it, the victim was just a useless piece of garbage.” Benson has a classic, well, Benson come back for our pal D’Angelo. “Kind of like a cop who ought’ta retire.” That’s just the teaser for the case. We also learn that Stabler’s middle daughter Kathleen, who is 12, has a friend who’s pregnant and who has dropped out of school. We later learn that this friend is ever so slightly older at 14. If the lack of sex ed that Stabler’s kids are obviously subject to doesn’t piss you off, if the attitude of the Vice cop doesn’t make your blood boil, just wait. It gets worse.

Cragen sends Benson and Stabler out to question other sex workers to see if they can make an identification or if they had any “John’s” that may have been rough with them. One responds that it’s business as usual, they’re all “perfect gentlemen”. Olivia pleads with them to help, saying they could be in real danger. We then hear the story of abuse that one of the women, Rose (Stabler calls Children’s Services because he says Rose is a baby, but we never actually find out how old she is), and in classic Olivia Benson style, she gives Rose a card with the number for victims’ services and tells her to call.

One of the other women gives them a tip on another woman who escaped this predator named Lorinda, and the search begins. But not before another stop at Vice, finding D’Angelo at lunch, they start asking about another girl found dead, with a garbage bag wrapped around her head, much like their current victim, who’s name is Carmel, and D’Angelo says, without batting an eye, “What’s a Carmel?”

Read that again. “What’s” a Carmel? Not who, not “where was Carmel found?” WHAT. This guy, as we’ve seen treats sex workers as less than human and it drives me up a wall. Here we meet another Vice Cop, Ridley, who actually seems like he cares about these women who are being murdered.

Now we learn a little about the history of the vibrator and why exactly this episode is called “Hysteria”. John Munch (The ever fabulous Richard Belzer) in court testifying against a doctor who is on trial for molestation. He diagnosed his patient with hysteria, which stopped being viewed as a medical diagnosis in the early 50’s, a “disease” whose symptoms were in line with just being a female, including anxiety, sexual “forwardness” and conversely a lack of sexual desire, fainting (keep in mind when this started being diagnosed women wore corsets and couldn’t breathe), and of course, causing trouble. Rather than prescribe her prozac or another antidepressant, he told the victim “to disrobe, put her feet up in stirrups and picture David Hasselhoff on Baywatch.” When the defense objects saying that Munch wasn’t qualified to speak to the treatment of hysteria, he says he is, that until 1952 it was one of the most commonly diagnosed illnesses in women and the treatment was simple, hysterical paroxysm. When asked to spell it for the stenographer, he responds “o-r-g-a-s-m.” and about how the manual version of this treatment was commonplace until the vibrator was invented to speed things along. How’s that for sex ed?

Benson and Stabler find an identification and find that their victim, Tracy Henderson, was a sophomore at Colombia and was not in fact a sex worker. In fact her mother slaps Stabler at the implication. So, now they have a murderer on the loose attacking sex workers and a woman he thought was a sex worker. And this is all still just the beginning of where this episode goes. Thought it couldn’t get worse? It still gets worse. Trust me.

They debate whether Tracy could have been a sex worker on the side, Benson and Jefferies my two favorite people in this episode are there to come to try and talk some sense into the men in the squadroom, with Jeffries noting that it was hot the night of the murder and the outfit the victim had on wasn’t unlike what she’d wear if she were to go out clubbing. Stabler insists he’d never let his daughters dress “like that”, to which Benson says “Yeah right, just wait.” And then we have Munch, whom I usually love, calls everyone’s attention back to “the dead whore”, then he says “I respect hookers, at least they earn their money upfront,” after Jefferies tells him to have some respect. When Jefferies asks him “So you’re saying all women are whores?” he responds with “Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t know all the women in the world.”

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Do we see why I want to scream at all of these men? Do we see why the women in this episode are my lifeblood? They talk to her boyfriend, the community literacy center she volunteered at, went to go talk to one of the people who frequented the literacy center, but it turns out he’d OD’d a week before she was killed. They find that whoever this perp is, he’s killed a minimum of two women, and attempted at least one more, Lorinda. More transphobic language is used in as they try to figure out where to find Lorinda, who tried to get in with a group of transgender sex workers. Cassidy (Dean Winters) happens to know exactly where the trans* sex workers chased the cis female sex workers off to. From “canvassing” he says.

And we finally meet Lorinda (Selenis Leyva, AKA Gloria from Orange is the New Black) and she talks about how she was attacked, she was blinded from the side even though he was standing right in front of her, she was hit with the flashlight, he wrapped a bag around her head and he’s wearing smooth latex gloves (SVU found powder from latex gloves on three of Carmel’s fingers which was determined to be police issue) so she couldn’t claw his hands away. Instead she twisted his “cajones” and ran away. She asks why they’re “working this so hard”, and then with a tearful voice asks, “He attack somebody who matters?”

Benson and Stabler run through it with the rest of the squad, Cragen said something about the latex gloves and the powder on Carmel’s fingers, how maybe she was clawing at the perp’s hand and her fingers slip inside, and John connects some more dots when he realizes that the way Lorinda was shielding her eyes wasn’t consistent with a civilian holding a flashlight. He gives a clue, “non gun hand, held to the side”. That’s when the realization sets in that they’re looking at a cop.

So, we’re looking at D’Angelo, that is until Cragen sits down with Lennie Briscoe, and brings up our friend Ridley. Remember Ridley, the cop who seemed like he cared so much about these women being killed? We learn that his mother was a sex worker, and if she left saltines out that meant she was working and not to come in, leaving him with a deep seated resentment for sex workers. Benson and Stabler start going through Ridley’s records when Stabler leaves to have the talk with Kathleen (which starts with him trying to use soccer analogies to get her to not have sex, and ends with her responding “Dad, I’m a virgin, okay?” kicking the ball back to her shocked father.) and Olivia stays behind and goes through thirty one years of murdered sex workers, positioned in a way that when the pictures are put side by side, they’re holding hands like paper dolls. When they bring Ridley in for questioning he admits to killing all of the women that Olivia connected to him. All except Tracy Henderson, who he refers to as “it”. So the question is, at the end of the day, who killed Tracy?

After tracking down footprints at the scene and they linked on set of footprints to a high end shoe. A high end shoe that they tracked to Tracy’s boyfriend. When they searched his closet they couldn’t find them, and then Olivia looked at his feet. He was wearing them. This episode elicits such a visceral response of anger. Likely because seeing the attitudes that were in this episode towards sex workers is something that is still so prevalent. Regardless of what kind of sex work a woman does, then and now, we look down on her. We dehumanize her, we turn her into an object. It is utterly frustrating looking back nearly 20 years ago and seeing that this is still the attitude we see in regards to these issues.