The Feministing Five: Mariska Hargitay

Mariska Hargitay, NoMore.Org

Mariska Hargitay, NoMore.Org

Known to millions of viewers as Detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order: SVU, TV star Mariska Hargitay has just recently amped up her own “real life” activism with her involvement in the NO MORE campaign. The new campaign raises awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault through celebrity PSAs, social media strategy, and perhaps most importantly, offers resources for survivors.

Although the NO MORE campaign has just launched, Hargitay is no stranger to the world of anti-violence organizing: nearly ten years ago, inspired by her role on SVU, Mariska formed her own organization, the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to support sexual assault survivors.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Mariska Hargitay.

Suzanna Bobadilla: Can you describe how your acting career has influenced your anti-gender violence activism? It’s really emotionally tough stuff; what strategies do you use to help you stay engaged in this work? 

Mariska Hargitay: When I first did research for my role on SVU, I couldn’t believe the stats I was finding. Then the letters started coming to me 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. And they just made a very deep impression on me.

So I educated myself about these issues. I trained to become a rape crisis advocate, I joined Boards, I got involved. I was proud to be on a show that was brave enough to go into territory that 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, which I started in 2004. 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. For more information of the rape kit backlog, go to www.endthebacklog.org.

As far as staying engaged in this work goes, sometimes I find that it actually takes conscious effort to disengage from it. I’ve heard that from a lot of advocates. For example, I find myself always asking about the crime rate whenever I visit a place I haven’t been before. A friend told me once that she was on a family vacation on a beach in Hawaii, and all she could think about was how far away the nearest Level 1 Trauma Center was in case of an emergency. So a big part of being able to stay in this work is having strategies for stepping off the field and taking the time to catch your breath, so that when you step back on the field, you can continue to do your best work.

One tried and true strategy for me is laughter. It’s a cliché, but it really is the best medicine. When I’m cracking up about something, it’s almost like I can feel my brain getting rewired. Another thing that can really shift my thinking is to find my way back to gratitude. I say “find my way back” because it’s really easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s a privilege to do this work. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to be engaged like this, and I feel myself let go a little when I get back in touch with that truth. And lastly, a nice hot bath is high on my list too. Sometimes just a little self care goes a long way. It’s a good way to send a signal to yourself that you also have an important place among the people you’re caring for and about.

SB: What makes NO MORE different from other anti-gender violence campaigns? Can you share partnerships/innovations that make you particularly proud? 

MH: For the first time in history, the domestic violence and sexual assault movements are coming together under one symbol and one unifying message: “NO MORE. Together we can end domestic violence and sexual assault.”

The significance of that unity is not to be underestimated. Because these issues have been so underfunded, organizations have had to stand out to receive support, which, by definition, means that they have had to stand alone. But that is going to change. It’s not a coincidence that the first word in the NO MORE declaration is “Together.” It’s great news for those working to end this violence, bad news for perpetrators who will surely experience the power of that unity.

And it isn’t only the movement coming together. NO MORE engages and invites all sectors of society committed to ending this violence. As the collective of people willing to take a stand grows, the weight of these heavy issues, the weight of having these difficult conversations, the weight of bringing enormous social and cultural change, will begin to be more evenly distributed. With more people doing what they can, advocates and survivors will no longer have to shoulder so much of the burden of bringing attention to this cause.

And NO MORE doesn’t aim to compete with the field for funding. Instead, the goal of NO MORE is to lift up the entire movement and push forward its many advocate partners so that they can reap the benefits of greater awareness – and increased funding that will become available as these issues move towards the center of public and institutional concern. And the research that will be done. And the public policies that could change. That’s a real turning point in this movement.

Another remarkable aspect of NO MORE is the top-down, bottom up approach. There are those participating at the highest levels of government, those working to engage more corporate involvement and forge high-level media partnerships and, at the same time, those individual advocates across the country gaining strength from this unified effort. Just to name one example, one friend who works in the Midwest for a domestic violence organization, the only one covering an enormous area, told me she always felt so isolated in her work. She said what’s even more isolating is the conversations – or non-conversations – she has about her line of work. “People just really don’t want to hear about it,” she told me. “But I can’t tell you how empowering it is to be able to point to the NO MORE symbol and know that I’m part of a bigger movement. And I’m so proud to be able to point to it and say, ‘Look at that. That’s what I do. That’s what I stand for.’ It’s a real gift to those of us out in the field.”

On a personal note, directing the NO MORE PSAs was a dream come true. What we saw during the filming, brave and strong and authentic person after person, was people standing up for each other, for the people they love, for their partners, wives, husbands, children, friends, mothers and fathers, for people they’ve never met, for themselves. I was just moved beyond words.

Society still misplaces the shame and stigma on survivors – it’s embedded in the way we think and talk about these issues – and it has to end. A vital goal of NO MORE is to lift that shame and stigma, to liberate the conversation from the attitudes that have suppressed it for so long. Once the conversation begins, the actual depth of people’s concern about sexual assault and domestic violence often comes out. But those same people haven’t had a way to demonstrate publicly that these are issues they think about. That’s where the NO MORE symbol comes in. It’s the simplest, most eloquent way to say, “This matters to me.”

Simply put, NO MORE is a commitment, a vision, a line drawn – and most of all, a call to action. Like the red ribbon for AIDS or the pink ribbon for breast cancer our hope is that NO MORE will break down the barriers that prevent people from talking about the issues and taking action to prevent them. I have to say, I look at how people have shown up for this effort – corporations, artists, marketing and advertising geniuses, volunteers – and it fills me with so much confidence and renewed hope.

SB: What would you say to someone who thinks they might be/have experienced domestic violence and/or sexual assault? 

MH: 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.

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 next thing I would say: “Tell me what happened. I want to hear.” And then I would listen. Simply listen. Without judgment.

And then I would say to the person how deeply sorry I am for what happened, and I would talk about the resources I think would serve that person best. I always remind myself that I don’t have to be an expert, I just have to care. A lot. If the first organization isn’t the right fit, I’d make sure to stay in the person’s life enough so that I can follow up and try another organization.

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, including:

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or 1-800-787-3224, www.thehotline.org
  • Rape, Abuse and Incest National Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), www.rainn.org

And when 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 inner voice. Survivors often say that there is a voice in 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: “This is not okay. This could escalate. I’m not being respected here. He just 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. And one last time: you’re not alone.

SB: What are ways our readers can support the campaign? 

MH: Perpetrators of violence have relied on the fact that the movement to stop them would not come together. They depend on our silence to keep doing what they do. And so we say to them in one collective voice: NO MORE. We will not be silent any longer.

SAY IT. Learn about these issues and talk openly about them. Break the silence. Speak out.

We’re not saying these issues are easy to talk about. They’re not. But for that very reason, we have to talk about them. And the more we talk, the easier the conversation will get.

SHARE IT. Help raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault by sharing NO MORE. Share the PSAs. Facebook it. Tweet it. Instagram it. Pin it.

We are examining and challenging longstanding societal and cultural attitudes. Have the courage to examine your own, then let your commitment to NO MORE encourage those around to do the same.

SHOW IT. Show NO MORE by wearing your NO MORE gear everyday, supporting partner groups working to end domestic violence and sexual assault and volunteering in your community.

Visibility will change the landscape for sexual assault and domestic violence. Don’t underestimate the light you can shed on these issues with these simple actions.

SB: And finally, a Feminsting Five tradition: you’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?

Food would be prosciutto. I know it’s salty and would make me crazy thirsty, but it’s totally worth it. Drink would be coconut water, to stay hydrated after all that prosciutto. And as for one feminist: Gloria Steinem. And we’d read her essay “If Men Could Menstruate” over and over again for entertainment.

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