Todd Akin's "Legitimate Rape" on Law & Order: SVU (Recap)



We realize that we're supposed to be impartial journalists who report news and events without bias...but holy frickin' mother of dog, that was one intense hour of television.

Last night, we watched the Law & Order: SVU episode that was based around some infamous word vomit from former Representative Todd Akin. As you may remember, Akin told KTVI-TV (Channel 2) reporter Charles Jaco last August that victims of "legitimate rape" rarely become pregnant. We know, we know; we're still shaking our heads over that one, too. But it rightfully became a big damn deal, which led Tina Fey to call the jerk out and the Twitterverse to adopt #LegitimateRape as its favorite hashtag. After that, Akin's campaign for the Senate collapsed and he became Missouri's biggest punch line since, well, we're kind of always a punch line, so whatever.

Because Law & Order episodes are "ripped from the headlines," it was only natural that its SVU spinoff claim 2012's biggest headline-inspiring gaffe for a plot line. The show changed up the details, though. Here's what went down. (SPOILERS AHEAD.)


Avery is a female reporter for an ESPN-style network, dealing with male athletes who flash their junk and a cameraman who leers at her. Avery admits to detective Olivia Benson that her cameraman Purcell raped her, and he's been stalking her for a long time, but she's tried to politely fend him off. She fears that by coming forward, her job at the testosterone-centric sports network will be in jeopardy.

Detective Nick Amaro questions Purcell, who eventually admits to sleeping with Avery but claims that it was consensual and besides, she's having an affair with their show's anchor. The anchor concedes the affair and shares that he received a video of he and Avery having sex in a hotel room. Benson tells Avery that the video builds a case that Purcell has been stalking her on an ever-escalating scale, and Purcell is arrested. Avery then feels stomach pangs and realizes that she's pregnant, something she thought was impossible. Because the anchor had had a vasectomy, she knows the baby belongs to her rapist Purcell.

Some time later, the detectives are in court testifying on behalf of Avery, who is quite pregnant now. Purcell fires his lawyer and represents himself. He cross-examines Benson, claiming that she hates men, that she has previously put innocent "rapists" behind bars and that Benson couldn't differentiate Avery's traumatic pregnancy from a consensual one. Avery tells the judge that Purcell had told her after the rape, "You're crying now, but you'll decide later that it's the best sex you've ever had." Despite this, Avery is keeping the baby because the thing inside her is a fighter like she is.

The real Todd Akin and the "congressman" from Law & Order SVU.
  • The real Todd Akin and the "congressman" from Law & Order SVU.


Purcell calls a former congressman to the stand, who claims that he's there to discuss "legitimate rape" and call out women who make false accusations. After telling the courtroom that pregnancy due to rape is nearly impossible because women's bodies have a mechanism for shutting down in response to stress, the congressman is nailed by Avery's attorney for making up "legitimate rape" and not having practiced medicine in many years because of misconduct. BOOM. The victory is short-lived, though, once Purcell calls Avery to the stand, makes her cry and alleges that she wanted him to impregnate her.

The jury finds Purcell not guilty of rape, but guilty of stalking.

Avery's water breaks outside the courtroom and the detectives rush her to the hospital to deliver the baby. Benson is visiting Avery and baby Theo when someone posing as a doctor serves Avery with papers; Purcell is suing her for custody of the child. Apparently rapists can sue for custody in 31 states, plus this case would be tried as a civil case instead of a criminal case.

Keep smiling, Todd. - FILE PHOTO
  • file photo
  • Keep smiling, Todd.

In court, Purcell paints Avery as a bad mother by pointing out her use of anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications. The judge doesn't buy it, calling his actions "reprehensible" and awarding full custody to Avery. But the judge also reluctantly gives Purcell visitation rights -- two hours with the baby every Saturday, and a court-appointed facilitator must be present.

Purcell arrives at the police station to meet with his facilitator and complain that Avery isn't around for his visit with the baby. Meanwhile, an angry, exhausted Avery is in her condo packing while Benson tries to convince her that running away will only turn her into a criminal. Avery claims that Purcell has been raping her physically and through the courts for a long time, and she's had it. Benson returns to the station, playing dumb about Avery's plans, and her team backs her up.

Whew. Yeah.

Continue for commentary from the show's executive producer and Twitter reaction to the episode.

Law & Order: SVU episodes generally are creepy and draining, as the stories involving sexual-assault cases are intensely emotional ones. This particular episode, though, was even more jaw-dropping because we were so familiar with its source material. Though many details were changed for the story, the episode indeed was built around Akin's strong belief in "legitimate rape." Admittedly, some of us at Daily RFT have ladyparts, so we became a bit riled up while watching.

Before the episode aired, SVU executive producer Warren Leight shared a few thoughts with XOjane readers:

We wanted to wait until after the elections because the issues raised are more important than the politics or personalities.

While waiting, we stumbled upon an even more disturbing aspect of rape culture.

We knew women could, and often do get pregnant from rape.

We didn't know that in 31 states, rapists have custodial rights to the children of those rapes.

So, some in the religious, medical and political establishment believe rape cannot result in pregnancy, but, if it does, the rapist has a right to raise his child.

Leight also said this:

Often rape involves grey areas, but the belief in "legitimate rape" is not one of them. Nor are custodial rights for rapists. Everyone on set wanted to tell this story in a straightforward way, in order to bring these issues to light.

Twitter users seemed to agree with Leight's intent. We've collected tweets through Storify, but here are a few choice reactions:

Did you watch the episode? What did you think about the plot's tie to Akin?

Follow Allison Babka on Twitter at @ambabka.