Actress Mariska Hargitay Turns a Role into a Movement
Advocacy The award-winning actress shares how her role as Detective Olivia Benson on NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” has inspired her to shift the nation’s view on violence.
Mediaplanet: How did your character on "Law and Order: SVU" inspire you to establish your own organization?
Mariska Hargitay: When I first did research for my role on SVU, I couldn't believe the statistics I was finding. Then letters started coming to me from viewers, disclosing stories of abuse. Again and again, I read the words “I have never told this to anyone”. I found myself holding in my hands the stories behind the statistics I’d learned. And they made a very deep impression on me.
I was proud to be on a show that was going into territory that no one was talking about, but I knew I wanted to do more to help survivors heal and reclaim their lives. The Joyful Heart Foundation, which I started in 2004, was my answer.
Over the last 10 years, we've evolved into a national organization that's paving the way for innovative approaches to healing and wellness, education and awareness and advocacy and policy reform.
MP: Why do you think so many victims of domestic violence remain silent about the incidents?
MH: Much of the reason survivors stay silent about domestic violence and sexual assault is that as a society, we simply don’t talk enough about these issues. It's so much easier to join a conversation than to be burdened with starting one. On top of that, victim-blaming is woven deeply into the way we think, talk and behave around these issues.
"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 OK, and no one has the right to treat you that way."
At Joyful Heart, we talk about a society that says, "We hear you. We believe you. And your healing is our priority." Unfortunately, society tends to question, doubt and assign blame. And perpetrators of this violence rely on that response.
MP: What do you think the solution is to domestic violence?
MH: We must all foster—envision, pursue, create, not settle for anything less than—a society that simply does not tolerate these crimes.
I am deeply proud that the Joyful Heart Foundation is a part of the transformative NO MORE initiative. NO MORE unifies the movement to end domestic violence and sexual assault for the first time, and seeks to break social stigma, normalize the conversation around domestic violence and sexual assault, and increase resources to address these urgent issues.
MP: In what ways can family, friends and community members contribute to ending violence?
MH: Engage your loved ones and friends in the conversation about sexual assault and domestic violence. And engage in a conversation with yourself. Examine your own attitudes that might be contributing to—or tacitly sanctioning—the perpetuation of violence. As the collective of people willing to take a stand grows, the weight of these heavy issues, the weight of having these difficult conversations, the weight of bringing enormous social and cultural change, will begin to be more evenly distributed.
MP: What advice would you share with someone who finds themselves in a domestic violence situation?
MH: Before I answer more completely, let me say that first and most importantly, if you're in an emergency situation, always call 911. Emergency situations can include a recent threat of violence, a recent act of violence, or if your safety or someone else’s is in imminent danger.
The next most important point: you're not alone. The experience of sexual assault and/or domestic violence can be extremely isolating. Some might even say these acts cannot exist without isolation that perpetrators depend on it. So I would speak against that very clearly and say, emphatically: you're not alone. And then I would listen. Simply listen. Without judgment.
And then I would say to the person how deeply sorry I am for what happened, and I would talk about the resources I think would serve that person best. I always remind myself that I don't have to be an expert, I just have to care. A lot.
And when you evaluate what happened to you, when you're trying to make a judgment about whether something was sexual abuse or domestic violence, trust your inner voice. 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: "This is not OK. This could escalate. I'm not being respected here. He just said it won't happen again, but he said that last time." And that's the important voice to listen to in this situation. 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 OK, and no one has the right to treat you that way.
No one action step is right for every person—but every person should know that they are supported in their individual choices. And one last time: you're not alone.