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How SVU led Mariska Hargitay to stand up for sexual assault survivors

How SVU led Mariska Hargitay to stand up for sexual assault survivors

<p>How <em>SVU</em> led Mariska Hargitay to stand up for sexual assault survivors</p>
Victoria Stevens

"I stay motivated because an extraordinary amount of work remains to be done," Hargitay says.

The Emmy-winning actress discusses how her longtime role on the crime-drama series inspired her to bring hope and healing to sexual assault and abuse survivors.

The Advocate: Many celebrities support just causes, but to start a foundation like Joyful Heart, now 20 years strong, is pretty amazing. What motivates you to continue to grow the organization and be such an active part of it?

Mariska Hargitay: The most straightforward reason will always remain that I was responding to the survivors who reached out to me when I began my role on SVU. I started getting letters, and was sitting there, holding these stories in my hand, with my heart and my mind churning for how to respond. I was deeply moved, and so angry — and motivated. Those reaching out to me represented such a diverse spectrum of people, proof that the experience of sexual violence is shared by so many. Yet the letters combined to tell this story of shared isolation and pain and shame — maddeningly misplaced shame.

I stay motivated because an extraordinary amount of work remains to be done. The nature of abuse is constantly shifting…. Today, image-based abuse is everywhere, aided by the rise of AI and other technologies. We know that one in 12 adults in the U.S. have already reported they had been victims of this kind of abuse. Just as we did on the rape-kit backlog, we are currently crafting a comprehensive, actional framework to change the trajectory of this crisis.

The Advocate: Earlier this year, you bravely opened up about your own experience of being a victim of sexual assault. What inspired you to do so at this point in your life?

Mariska Hargitay: It’s interesting to read your phrasing: “You bravely opened up.” You’re right, I did feel very brave, but it’s important to interrupt the narrative that those survivors who tell their stories are brave and those who don’t aren’t. To me, the pursuit of healing is brave, and that takes many forms and means different things to different people. For some survivors, it’s the possibility of opening the door just enough to maybe entertain the idea of hope again, and someday, who knows, even joy. That can be a monumental step in someone’s journey. For others, that step is sharing their story.

2024 is a pivotal year for me: I turned 60, I celebrated 25 years on SVU, and Joyful Heart is celebrating 20 years. And [my husband] Peter and I are celebrating our 20th anniversary! I do believe in the power of telling our truth as one of the ways to help break the isolation, secrecy, and misplaced shame that allows issues of abuse to affect, and sometimes control, our narratives. For me, in my own process, it was just time.

courtesy Joyful Hearts Foundation

The Advocate: What have been the greatest rewards in creating Joyful Heart?

Mariska Hargitay: I know that there are survivors who feel less alone because of what we do. I cannot tell you how much that means to me. I have the extraordinary experience of hearing that from survivors firsthand, and I also know that there are those who see Joyful Heart’s light from a far greater distance…. The reward of knowing that strength flows to survivors because of our work is profound.

The Advocate: After 25 years on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the longest running primetime drama series in television history, you’ve earned such a diverse fan base who not only love you as an actor and activist, but the character and the stories. What does the fandom mean to you?

Mariska Hargitay: It means everything. That through this television show, with its brilliant scripts based on the dark realities of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, along with an array of diverse characters depicting victims, law enforcement — and perpetrators — we have given voice and representation to many who had never been heard or seen…. I have no intention to stop lifting up these stories, and Joyful Heart and its dedicated staff and board will not stop supporting survivors on their healing journeys.

Find out more about how Joyful Heart helps combat sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse at


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