“My heart goes out to all victims,” she told me. “I ask that people not rush to judgment….these things are complicated.”
If you’ve ever watched even one episode of “SVU,” you can understand why Hargitay, who’s won both Emmy and Golden Globe awards for her portrayal of Det. Benson, has turned activist for the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Her latest effort, aimed “at getting the conversation started” about these issues that often “are swept under the carpet,” ironically relies on silence and raw emotion rather than on cleverly scripted words.
It’s a series of public service announcements for NoMore.org, produced by Viacom Velocity in a campaign called “Speechless,” airing on NBC, USA Network, CBS and a variety of Viacom’s channels. Viacom, the owner of MTV and BET, even showed the campaign on its headquarters’ screens in Times Square last month.
Those PSAs grew out another series that Hargitay directed featuring Vice President Biden, along with other government officials, actors, athletes, advocates and celebrities. Young & Rubicam’s Rachel Howald created the spots pro bono. They offer lines like, “No more excuses…No more she was asking for it…No more she’s too smart to let that happen.”
Something happened in the studio, though, as the camera kept rolling between takes.
“You don’t normally get to witness a moment of raw compassion and pure empathy in life, let alone on film—we’re too wired to default to sarcasm and cynicism.” Howald wrote in an e-mail to Hargitay that the actress shared with me. “And whether they are survivors themselves or have a loved one who is a survivor or are just open, honest souls, every person involved could have said no, I don’t want to have that depth of feeling exposed. And yet they all said yes.”
Captured in those speechless moments are such performers as Blair Underwood (the father of a teenage daughter, he’s also directed some of the PSAs for NO MORE), Chris Meloni, Dave Navarro, Debra Messing, Hilary Swank, Keshia Chante and Tim Gunn.
Earlier spots featured current and retired NFL players and ran during football games on Thanksgiving Day.
The idea is to get the conversation started. A survey sponsored by the Avon Foundation for Women for NO MORE found that three out of four parents with children under 18 admitted they haven’t talked about domestic violence or sexual assault with their kids, yet 64 percent of Americans said if we did talk about these subjects, it would be easier to help someone.
“Silence is what keeps the perps in business,” Hargitay said.
Hargitay’s passion for helping the victims of sexual assault and domestic violence began soon after she took on the role of Det. Benson, who is the product of a rape and who nearly becomes a rape victim on the show. The program has handled issues that hadn’t been shown before on television, and got “people talking about them around the water cooler.”
“Gray,” an episode from 2010, addresses some of those complicated issues surrounding campus sexual assault.
Hargitay soon noticed a difference in her fan mail after “SVU” premiered in 1999. Instead of requests for autographed photos, people were sharing their stories of domestic violence and sexual assault. “There was a theme of isolation,” she said. “Everyone feeling alone, carrying a secret, feeling so much shame.”
That led to her going through 40 hours of training in New York to become a rape crisis advocate.
A decade ago, the actress started the nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation to help victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse with programs focused on healing and wellness, education and awareness, and policy and advocacy.
The foundation has brought together such experts as David Lisak with the producers and writers of “SVU,” leading to compelling episodes on sexual abuse of male children by a coach (airing weeks before Penn State’s scandal was uncovered) and the backlog of rape kits.
Joyful Heart is just one of many organizations, along with corporations and governmental agencies, joining with NO MORE, a campaign to increase public awareness and engagement with the ultimate goal of ending domestic violence and sexual assault.
“It’s a symbol, a vision,” explains Maile Zambuto, CEO of Joyful Heart, about NO MORE. “It’s unprecedented — it’s retrofitting a movement with a brand.”
Hargitay compares NO MORE to a brain trust.
Men are getting involved, too. “When we educate our kids, we empower them,” said Neil Irvin, the executive director of Men Can Stop Rape, also involved with NO MORE, and the creator of the middle and high school programs Men of Strength (MOST) Clubs and Women Inspiring Strength (WISE) Clubs.
He advises parents to talk openly and honestly with their children, starting young with age-appropriate answers to questions. By the time kids reach the teen years, when peers become a more powerful influence, they have a foundation of values and trust and an ability to form healthy relationships.
“It’s exciting to see how many people are ready to start the conversation,” Hargitay said. “The key, obviously, is youth.” She said she hears from college campuses and even high school football and basketball teams asking, “Mariska, how do we do this?”
“The world is changing and it simply changes with a conversation and awareness,” she said.
One of those conversations may be talking to a victim, or survivor as some prefer to be known, of domestic violence or sexual assault. Many of us know someone — female or male — who’s suffered this kind of violence.
The right response? “I’m so sorry that happened to you,” Hargitay said. “And say it without judgment….it’s just about compassion and patience and openness.”
Then she quoted poet Adrienne Rich, a quote she said is a favorite of her husband, actor Peter Hermann, whom she met on the set of “SVU”: “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.”
That’s “pretty powerful,” Hargitay says. “That’s what warriors do — they go into the pain and come out the other side with this strength.”
She calls survivors her heroes and wants to remind people that they should not be blamed or shamed for what happened. “Put the shame on perpetrators where it belongs.”
Hargitay told me she’s most proud, though, of being a role model to young girls, who write to her saying she inspired them to want to become a cop or to go to law school.
“It’s pretty exciting for a 50-year-old woman to have girls say, ‘you’re a badass,'” Hargitay said.