As detective turned captain Olivia Benson on TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay has helped sexual assault victims find justice and closure. Now, in a personal essay published by People on Wednesday, Hargitay has shared her own story as a survivor of sexual assault, revealing that she was raped in her 30s by “a friend.”
Hargitay, 59, founded the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 to educate the public and advocate for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse. On the foundation’s website, Hargitay’s work on SVU is cited as her motivator for creating the organization: “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,” the site says of Hargitay. “She received hundreds, then thousands of letters and emails from survivors disclosing their stories of abuse, many for the first time.”
Hargitay now sees Joyful Heart’s establishment as an essential step in her own journey of healing and coming to terms with that assault.
“I was building Joyful Heart on the outside so I could do the work on the inside,” she wrote in the new essay. “I think I also needed to see what healing could look like. I look back on speeches where I said, ‘I’m not a survivor.’ I wasn’t being untruthful; it wasn’t how I thought of myself.”
For the longest time, she wrote, she edited the experience out of her personal backstory, even denying it to herself. “I couldn’t process it. I couldn’t believe that it happened—that it could happen,” she wrote. “So I cut it out. I removed it from my narrative. I now have so much empathy for the part of me that made that choice, because that part got me through it. It never happened. Now I honor that part: I did what I had to do to survive.”
She called the fan appreciation for her SVU character, Olivia Benson, “an honor beyond measure,” adding that others sharing their own stories has helped her. “Survivors who’ve watched the show have told me I’ve helped them and given them strength. But they’re the ones who’ve been a source of strength for me.”
She said that she has a “renewed determination” to put a stop to sexual assault: “I want this violence to end,” she said, adding that she also aims to banish shame for survivors. “I said for a long time that my hope was for people to be able to talk about sexual assault the same way they now talk about cancer,” she wrote. “Tell someone you’ve survived cancer, and you’re celebrated. I want the same response for sexual assault survivors.”
Sharing her personal story is just another step in her own healing. She said that she’d consider getting an acknowledgment and an apology from her rapist to be the first step in achieving justice.
“This is a painful part of my story,” she wrote. “The experience was horrible. But it doesn’t come close to defining me, in the same way that no other single part of my story defines me. No single part of anyone’s story defines them.”