The ‘Special Victims Unit’ star is fighting for survivors — on screen and off
On Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay plays Olivia Benson, a courageous detective dedicated to protecting survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Off screen, the actress is doing that very same thing — through her Joyful Heart Foundation. For Domestic Violence Awareness Month (October), Mariska told me how her work on SVU motivated her to start the organization. She also opened up about her fight against the rape kit backlog, and what we can all do to help support survivors.
Katie Couric: You’re so beloved for your work on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, in which you play the tough, brilliant and compassionate Detective Olivia Benson. What has SVU taught you about the ongoing issue of domestic violence?
Mariska Hargitay: From the beginning, SVU had the vision to venture into a territory that most people shied away from. Twenty-one years ago, these conversations about domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, and child abuse just weren’t happening. The show made topics that were not discussed the subject of water cooler conversations, and with conversations came greater understanding of these issues. The blame our societal attitudes place on survivors is shocking. While still prevalent today, there has been significant improvement, and I think the work we have done over the past two decades has contributed to that shift.
I have also seen how conversations about our SVU storylines are changing — the writers on our show are more determined than ever to not only authentically reflect events, but to represent how current cultural attitudes can add layers of complexity into these issues. It’s inspiring to see these writers continue to dig deeper as the show goes on — it pushes me to dig deeper with each episode, each season. It is such an honor to continue to work on a show that sheds light, expels shame, and helps destroy the stigma that burdens so many survivors.
Your work on SVU helped inspire you to found the Joyful Heart Foundation, which is dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. We’d love to hear how you came up with the idea to start this organization.
I got the role as Olivia Benson on SVU in 1999. And when I started doing research for the role, I was floored by the statistics on the prevalence of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse:
• 1 in 3 women report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives.
• 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by their eighteenth birthday
• Every day in this country, five children die as a result of child abuse and neglect
• Up to 15 million children witness violence in their homes.
I think my first reaction was, “Wait, this can’t be” — but of course it is.
I knew right away that I wanted to do something about it, but what really moved me to action were the letters that started coming to me from viewers disclosing their personal stories of abuse — the shame and the stigma. I was holding in my hands the stories behind the statistics that I had learned.
So I educated myself. I trained to become a rape crisis advocate, I joined Boards, I got involved. I was very proud and grateful to be on a show that was brave enough to go into territory that no one was talking about, and with that came this opportunity of a platform to speak about and address these issues openly. I knew I wanted to respond in a more complete and personal way, to do more to help survivors heal and reclaim their lives. In 2004, the Joyful Heart Foundation was my answer.
Today, we are a national organization based in New York City, dedicated to transforming society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, supporting survivors’ healing, and ending this violence forever. Joyful Heart is paving the way for innovative approaches to treating trauma, igniting shifts in the way the public views and responds to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and reforming and advancing policies and legislation on the city, state and federal levels to ensure justice for survivors.
What have been some of your proudest moments at Joyful Heart?
One of the things I am most proud of is our work to end the backlog of untested sexual assault evidence — rape kits — in this country.
In the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, a victim may choose to undergo a four-to-six hour invasive medical forensic examination to collect evidence left behind during the assault. The specific purpose is to collect DNA and other evidence used to identify the perpetrator. Survivors who take this step expect that their rape kits will be tested. The public expects the same.
When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, reveal serial offenders, and exonerate the wrongly convicted. Yet, there are hundreds of thousands of rape kits sitting untested in police storage facilities across the country representing potentially serial offenders free on the streets to commit more crimes, and thousands of leads to investigate, cases to prosecute, and survivors to re-engage with compassion and care.
Since 2010, Joyful Heart has made the elimination of the rape kit backlog a top priority through our End the Backlog initiative. Survivors deserve justice — and that is what rape kit reform represents. Joyful Heart has identified more than 225,000 untested rape kits sitting in police, crime lab or other storage facilities across the United States. And, with approximately 15 states remaining that have yet to count the untested rape kits in their possession, we believe there are several hundred thousand more yet to be discovered.
We are implementing a national campaign with the goal of passing comprehensive rape kit reform legislation — which for us includes six different mandates — in all 50 states. Since we launched our national effort, 41 states and Washington, D.C. have passed laws supporting some aspect of the six pillars of reform.
In 2017, as part of my work to raise awareness about this issue, I produced the HBO documentary I AM EVIDENCE. This film follows stories of survivors who have waited years for their kits to be tested, as well as the law enforcement officials who are leading the charge to work through the backlog and pursue long-awaited justice in these cases. With I AM EVIDENCE, we wanted to provoke outrage, elevate the voices of those most impacted, mobilize the public and ultimately, join forces with advocates across this country to fix it as part of our national campaign.
Last month, I was deeply honored to accept the Best Documentary Emmy on behalf of our incredible team. I am proud not just of what we created and the way we all came together in service to this cause, but so grateful and inspired by the survivors who allowed us to bear witness to and tell their stories. This progress is not swift. But we are committed to keeping at it until every state has implemented all six pillars. And I believe together we can end the backlog.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. What do you wish more people knew about this issue?
First and foremost, I wish more survivors knew that they are not alone. That’s the most important thing for people to know. The experience of domestic and intimate partner violence
can be extremely isolating. Some might even say these acts cannot exist without isolation, that perpetrators depend on it. People who use interpersonal violence rely upon vulnerability and silence. It allows the abuse to continue.
Second, survivors often say that there is a voice in them that tries to minimize what happened, a part of them that wants the abuse not to be true. But there is another voice that says: “That was not okay.” Or, “This is not okay. This could escalate. He said it won’t happen again. But he said that last time.” And that’s the important voice to listen to in this situation. Survivors should trust their instincts. Sometimes being in danger starts with a subtle shift around respect. Tearing down how you look, how you talk, how you dress, what you think, what you say is not okay, and no one has the right to treat anyone that way. No one action step is right for every person — but every person should know that they are supported in their individual choices.
Third, healing from trauma is possible. Domestic violence can have deep impacts on emotional and physical functioning. But we also know that the brain and the body are wired to heal. That pathway looks different for everyone. But it’s absolutely essential to know that recovery and joy are a possible outcome. It’s the cornerstone of Joyful Heart. Someone who experiences violence may not ever forget what happened to them; but with support, care and attention, she or he can transform it from the main narrative of their life to something that no longer has the power to dominate their story. Space will open up for a fuller, broader narrative.
And lastly, what can each of us to do to help support survivors and stand up against this issue?
At Joyful Heart, we talk about a society that says, “We hear you. We believe you. And your healing is our priority.” Unfortunately, that’s not society’s central message. Society tends to question, doubt and assign blame. The focus is far too often on the victim’s behavior, not on the person who is perpetrating violence. This simply doesn’t happen with other crimes. And victim- blaming attitudes are deeply ingrained in our society.
I always advise people to never underestimate your power to affect the course of a survivor’s healing journey. You don’t have to be an expert — you just have to listen without judgment. If someone shares their experience with you, you’re probably a person they look to for support, compassion and guidance. Although you can’t take away what happened to someone, you can be a source of comfort. Just hearing someone’s story can make an enormous difference in their healing. In telling you, a person is breaking isolation. That is a profound, far-reaching act.
Be brave in how you bear witness. Be compassionate. Be kind. You can change someone’s life.
This interview appeared on Medium.com