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Life Imitates Art: Why Actress Mariska Hargitay is Taking on Violence Against Women


When actress Mariska Hargitay started playing Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims’ Unit,” the content of the scripts, as well as the work she did to prepare for the role, opened her eyes to the staggering statistics about sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse in the United States. She received thousands of letters and emails from survivors disclosing their stories of abuse. She wanted to answer those letters, to address the suffering and isolation they described, and honor the acts of courage they represented.

Because she wanted to reach out to each and every one of them, her response was to create Joyful Heart Foundation. Inspired by her deep connection and love for ‘Hawai‘i, Mariska founded Joyful Heart in Kona in 2004 to help sexual assault survivors heal and reclaim a sense of joy in their lives. Today, Joyful Heart is a leading national organization with a mission to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors’ healing, and end this violence forever.

1. How did your portrayal of Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims' Unit” inspire you to start the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 and what are some of the organization’s biggest achievements so far?

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 sexual assault and domestic violence.

  • 1 in 3 women reports 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 the thing that really moved me to action was the letters that started coming to me from viewers disclosing their personal stories of abuse. So many [people were] sharing with me 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 this, came an 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.

Our focus since 2010 has been the elimination of the rape kit backlog through our End the Backlog initiative. Through partnerships with federal, state and local government, non-profit organizations, law enforcement, advocates and survivors, we are working to bring attention, critical funding, and reforms to improve the criminal justice response to sexual violence.

Behind every kit is a person—a sexual assault survivor—waiting for justice. To me, the rape kit backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how sexual assault victims are regarded in our society. Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: “You matter. What happened to you matters. Your case matters.”

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.

2. The Joyful Heart Foundation is behind a major effort to process all victims’ rape kits. What has been the problem and why is it this such an important issue moving forward?

Thousands upon thousands of rape kits are sitting untested in police storage facilities across the country in what’s known as the rape kit backlog. Survivors deserve justice—and that is what rape kit reform represents.

The rape kit backlog exists for a combination of reasons, but the most fundamental one is, as one news magazine recently called it, “an epidemic of unbelief.”

In the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, a victim may choose to undergo a 4-6 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 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.

Joyful Heart has identified more than 225,000 untested rape kits sitting in police crime labs 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.

Ending the rape kit backlog will take a coordinated effort and deep commitment at all levels of our government and in communities across the United States. Our six essential pillars for reform mandate that states: test all new and backlogged sexual assault kits; conduct quarterly audits of kits in law enforcement custody; track all kits; provide survivors with access to information about the status of their kit; and allocate money to fund these efforts. Together, these laws will eliminate the backlog of untested kits, prevent future backlogs, support survivors, and help transform law enforcement’s response to sexual assault.

Readers can go to www.endthebacklog.org to see the status of reform in their state and how they can get involved.

3. You were recently quoted in a “Parade" article as saying that the #MeToo moment is a “complete and utter celebration.” Why is that?

I applaud the survivors whose extraordinary acts of courage have ignited the #MeToo movement, triggering an awakening and seismic shift in the way our society addresses and understands sexual violence. Yes, these issues are steeped in pain; yes, there are deep concerns about who gets listened to in our society and who doesn’t, but I celebrate that this moment has come where the conversations that the anti-violence movement has been trying to have for so long have finally broken through.

The conversations about rape culture, affirmative consent, victim-blaming, and the prosecution of sex crimes, are vital and evidence of change. It’s inspiring to see some of the smartest, most determined people apply their best thinking to these issues, not only to raise awareness around them but to also implement change.

I also see 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 incredible 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.

4. What message do you want to give to those women who’ve either experienced sexual violence and are afraid to report or are experiencing trauma from the experience?

First and foremost, you’re not alone. That’s the most important thing for you to know.

Now, before I answer more completely, let me say 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—once again: 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. People who use interpersonal violence rely upon vulnerability and silence. It allows the abuse to continue.

As 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 instinct. Survivors often say that there is a voice within 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”; “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. 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 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.

Healing from trauma is possible. Sexual assault and 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.

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.

For more information about Joyful Heart Foundation, go to www.joyfulheartfoundation.org/.


Susan Pascal is editor of The Sunday Paper. She lives in Los Angeles with her two kids.

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