Nov 232021

“Twenty-Five Acts”, aired October 10, 2012 IMDB

The Law & Order franchise often fictionalizes real-world events. In this case, it alludes to the publication and popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy, in an episode aired only 6 months after the trilogy was re-released by Vintage. (FSOG was first published May 25, 2011 by Writers Coffee Shop, and the trilogy was re-released by Vintage in April 2012.)

I thought that this episode also referenced the case of Jian Ghomeshi, a Persian-Canadian radio host and interviewer who allegedly strangled his girlfriend and excused it as consensual BDSM. However, in an odd moment of life imitating art, I found that this episode actually aired 2 years before the allegations about Ghomeshi went public in 2014. 

The author of the hot new erotic novel Twenty-Five Acts, Jocelyn Paley, appears on a talk show. The host, Adam Cain, meets her for dinner, and she secretly gives him her panties under the table. They go back to his place. After some sex she initiates, he crosses the line, throws her on the bed and chokes her with a belt.

The cops are brought in when Paley’s assistant finds her at the hospital and assumes she was raped. Paley doesn’t press charges. 

The cops interview Cain.

Cain: “You know her book, right? Well, we acted out a few scenes. She wanted me to throw her down and take control.”

Munch: “Whose idea was the belt?”

Cain: “That. That was hers?”

Fin: “You said you were in control.”

Cain: “Everything that happened between us was consensual. Now look, I don’t wanna kiss and tell, but she gave me her panties in the restaurant. She was all over me.”

The next night, Cain harasses Paley at a book party, follows her into an elevator and rapes her again.

Cain: “You know you wanted it. And you know that you want this too.” 

This was captured on security camera, enough to press charges. Cain preemptively uses his show to paint it as a case of false accusations, and his lawyer moves to bring in the book and the man who allegedly inspired it. 

Paley’s lover turns out to be an ordinary guy who says he never did anything kinky with her. Paley, by all accounts, wasn’t involved in BDSM at all. The detectives speculate whether she was involved with a professor or just researched it. 

Fin: “You can put a diploma on it. Porn is porn.” 

This assertion goes unchallenged. 

SVU provides one of its signature plot twists when it turns out that Jocelyn Paley didn’t write Twenty-Five Acts. One of the clues leading to this discovery is that the book references the ecstasy of St. Theresa of Avila, which leads to the revelation that Paley’s former history professor, Prof. Dobson, actually wrote it and hired Paley as a front. (I.e. she’s younger and prettier than Dobson.)

Dobson: “I knew talk show hosts wouldn’t want to discuss my sexual fantasies.”

She does say she hates the idea of using BDSM to excuse rape.

Dobson: “In my world, I am between a pariah and a laughingstock. That’s why I wanted to use Jocelyn’s name. But to think that someone would ascribe my fantasies to her and use that as a smokescreen for assault… Well, it sickens me.”

Cain’s lawyer brings up that Palye lied many times. She shows a clip from the interview.

Adam: “So, Jocelyn, tell me, why do women want to be dominated?”

Jocelyn: “Women do it all these days. Career, kids. Sometimes they just want a man to throw them down and take control.”

Adam: “And is this your personal fantasy?”

Jocelyn: “My fantasy… being here with you.”

Jocelyn, in court, says she was playing a part and flirting. So is she a liar or a masochist?

When Adam Cain takes the witness stand, and claims it was all consensual, the DA goads him into recreating the incident. He even gives the defendant his own belt and volunteers to be choked from behind. He then shows the jury his own unmarked neck and compares it to the visible bruising on Jocelyn Paley’s neck from the photograph taken as part of the rape kit. 

This doesn’t entirely make sense, as he is comparing himself moments after the choking to a picture taken hours later. Furthermore, the presence or absence of visible marks on the body should not indicate whether a crime has been committed. Lots of masochists/bottoms will happily and consensually play until their bodies are massively bruised, cut or otherwise visibly marked. 

I would argue that what this episode should be about is consent, how far Jocelyn Paley’s consent went, and when Adam Cain exceeded that. Rather than delve into that topic, the show proposes that consensual BDSM can be distinguished from non-consensual assault by visible evidence. When your victim has confessed to committing fraud, this may be necessary. 

There are a lot of unquestioned assumptions in this story. Perhaps the biggest is the assumption that a sexually explicit book by a woman is necessarily confessional, rather than the work of imagination. If she talks about it, she must have done it and/or want to do it. This belief encourages (though doesn’t cause) Cain’s actions. 

There are also hints that sexually explicit media contributes to sexual violence. 

The DA, Barba, brings up a previous case in which a man accused of strangling a woman excused it as S&M and the jury was deadlocked. 

Barba: “Later we found out that half of them [the jury] read your victim’s book.”

Did the book contribute to Cain raping Paley? Cain had a history of sexually coercing women long before the book was published. The story refuses to make a statement either way, but it sticks to SVU’s mission statement that victims should be believed, even when they’re not pure as the driven snow. 

See Criminal Minds for another police procedural TV show which referenced Fifty Shades.

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