On the small screen, fighting sexual assault and domestic violence is usually reserved for the cops who work in the Special Victims Unit. In reality, however, that role belongs to all of us. At least that’s what “Law & Order: SVU” star Mariska Hargitay believes.
Hargitay, who has played Detective Olivia Benson on the show for the past 15 seasons, doesn’t just play an advocate for victims on TV. Over the past few years, the actress, who founded the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, has worked relentlessly to help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Just last month, Hargitay made her directorial debut with a PSA campaign for NO MORE that will feature prominently at venues across the country over the next three years.
You can find out what Hargitay has to say about bystander intervention, her message to the victims who are reading this, and more by checking out the interview below.
ACT: When did you realize you wanted to use your platform as an actress to advocate for these issues?
MARISKA: When I started getting letters from viewers. First a few, then more, then hundreds, and thousands since then. The women and men writing the letters didn't ask for an autograph or a headshot. They disclosed their stories of abuse. I held in my hands the stories behind the statistics that I had learned. Each letter was of course unique, but themes kept coming up: isolation, shame, fear — and a lot of pain. Those letters, and the very courageous people who wrote them, just made a very deep impression on me.
I was very proud to be on a show brave enough to explore subjects no one was talking about, but I also knew I wanted to do more and play a larger role to help survivors heal and reclaim their lives.
The Joyful Heart Foundation was my answer.We've raised more than 14 million dollars in private funds, directly served over 13,000 survivors and the professionals who care for them, and connected with over a million individuals through education and awareness initiatives. We've also championed critical legislation and policy reforms to pursue justice for survivors, including the All-Crimes DNA law in New York State, the first of its kind in the country. And we're at the forefront of the movement to test the hundreds of thousands of untested sexual assault evidence collection kits — known as rape kits — sitting in police storage and crime lab facilities across the country.
ACT: Bystander intervention is so important when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault. What can people do if they see or hear something?
MARISKA: I think there's possibly a narrow view out there of what bystander intervention actually is. I think people perhaps have an image that it involves tackling a perpetrator in the act and holding him down until the police arrives. Yes, sure, that can happen — especially on TV — but there's a far wider range of what people can do.
Simply asking a neighbor or friend if they're okay, that's bystander intervention. And that can be a powerful question in the life of someone who may feel very much alone in an abusive relationship. If an inquiry like that — "Are you OK?" or "I noticed you missed a couple of days of work. Is everything all right?" or "I totally don't mean to pry, but can I ask you about those sunglasses you've been wearing the last couple of days?" — comes from enough people, that person might actually get the message that she has a community of support around her. And that can alter the trajectory of her life and her eventual healing.
Then the important thing becomes that those people around her are committed enough to stay in her life, and not just ask the one question and feel like they've done their part.
ACT: What would you like to tell your fans who are reading this who might be victims of domestic violence and sexual assault?
MARISKA: 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.
Secondly, 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. So that's the second thing I would say: "Tell me what happened. I want to hear." And then I would listen. Simply listen. Without judgment.
So if you think you might have experienced domestic violence and/or a sexual assault, and if there is someone in your life whom you trust and who can listen to you in the way you want to be listened to, that could be a good place to begin. It is often good to talk about options together. If there is no such person—and it's not your fault that there isn't, because those people aren't necessarily easy to come by—or if you feel more comfortable or safer contacting a service, there are many available. You can find some very good ones at:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224, www.thehotline.org
Editor's Note: You can also call the Dating Abuse Helpline at 1-866-331-9474
ACT: What’s one thing you think EVERYONE needs to know about domestic abuse and sexual assault?
MARISKA: As I said above, if you're a person who has experienced sexual assault or domestic violence, the most important thing is: you're not alone.
There are a lot of people very hard at work to make sure that a survivor has ample and abundant proof of that fact. And that fact becomes more gloriously realized every time another person engages in banishing the isolation that victims of these crimes have had to live with for so long,
Beyond that, I think the ONE thing that EVERYONE needs to know about domestic violence and sexual assault is that it's going to take more than knowing just one thing. It's going to take really smart, engaged, committed, creative, determined people who are willing to buck society's appetite for easy answers and really take this issue on. That's when things change: when enough people decide that they've had enough. When enough people say NO MORE. The burden to bring change around these issues has fallen to a relatively small number of individuals in the past—advocates, survivors, a handful of corporations, certain key figures in government—and opportunities abound for carrying some of the weight of this cause.
ACT: What can we expect from the Joyful Heart Foundation and the NO MORE PSA campaign in the future?
MARISKA: Perpetrators of this kind of violence rely on the fact that a campaign like this won't materialize, won’t coalesce. If society is afraid to speak out, if we all hope the problem will somehow just... go away. To all of that, we say: NO MORE.
The peace sign, the red ribbon, the pink ribbon — each of them has changed how we think about, respond to, and behave around urgent issues. Now the movement working to bring domestic violence and sexual assault to an end comes together under one symbol, one sign, one beacon: NO MORE. It's a commitment, a vision, a line drawn — and most of all, a call to action.
NO MORE unifies the movement to end domestic violence and sexual assault for the first time. The campaign’s symbol inspires solidarity, boosts awareness, sparks vital conversations and gives hope in the quest to end — yes, end — this violence. Joyful Heart Foundation is deeply proud to be a part of this transformative initiative that will unite survivors, advocates, companies, legislators — and the public — around the message that together we can end domestic violence and sexual assault.
NO MORE launched on March 13, 2013, and the symbol is already appearing at sports venues, community events, and public gatherings across the nation. It is appearing in the news, on t-shirts, and in episodes of "SVU." It's already racing around NASCAR tracks. We want it to be everywhere, front and center, top of mind.
Come stand with us. You'll make a difference.