Law and Order: SVU season 7, episode 15, “Manipulated,” is the gift that keeps on giving. Every time I think about it, I discover more reasons to ferociously criticize its portrayal of people with disabilities. [Here’s my plot summary of the ep if you haven’t read it. http://blogofstench.
1. People with disabilities do not have active, fulfilling sex lives. Linus props up this statement with his claim that he hasn’t had sex with Tessa “since the accident” three years ago. His statement directly connects a lack of satisfying sex and the beginning of Tessa’s disability, thus portraying Tessa as a woman with a disability who can apparently never have sex again.
Later in the ep, Tessa elaborates on Linus’ dire scenario, saying that oral sex [her on him] “is the only way [they] have to be intimate.” Of all the possible sexual activities in the world, Tessa has apparently been limited to one because of her disability. Because she is apparently limited to one activity and because that activity does not entail Linus pleasuring Tessa, the implication is that Tessa’s sex life is circumscribed and miserable.
2. People with disabilities are pitiable because they suffer constantly. Linus apparently believes this; in the final scene, he says to Benson and Stabler that his wife Tessa “is a victim. You have no idea what it’s like for her. Her neurologists say she’s in constant pain.” In Linus’ view, Tessa’s constant pain takes her out of control of her own life and makes her a “victim,” a low-status entity to be regarded with condescension and pity.
Not only does Linus believe that Tessa is deserving of sympathy and pity, but the show seems to suggest this as well. More precisely, the show believes that Tessa is pathetic, which is to say contemptible, because of her physical and mental suffering. When Tessa’s lawyer hands Novak a “not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect” paper, she describes her client, in a pat-the-little-fellow-on-the-