- Mariska Hargitay reveals a painful personal experience of sexual violence and the traumatic impact it had on her.
- Hargitay explains how her own experience informs her portrayal of Detective Olivia Benson and her dedication to raising awareness about acquaintance rape.
- Through her role on Law & Order: SVU, Hargitay has become a source of strength for survivors, empowering them to confront their own experiences and find a way through.
As an integral part of the Law & Order franchise, Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay has the appearance of being strong and fully in control, but in a recent essay for People Magazine, the actress opened up about a time that she “checked out of her body” when she was raped by a friend when in her thirties.
Mariska Hargitay plays Olivia Benson in the Law & Order franchise, a dedicated and compassionate detective in the Special Victims Unit of the NYPD. Benson specializes in investigating sensitive crimes like sexual assault and child abuse. Over the years, she evolves as a character, confronting her own traumatic past, forming strong bonds with colleagues, and developing a maternal instinct towards victims. Now telling her own story, her ability to tap into Benson’s character is clearly driven by her own experiences.
It wasn’t sexual at all. It was dominance and control. Overpowering control.
in her first person piece, the actress continues:
“He was a friend. Then he wasn’t. I tried all the ways I knew to get out of it. I tried to make jokes, to be charming, to set a boundary, to reason, to say no. He grabbed me by the arms and held me down. I was terrified. I didn’t want it to escalate to violence. I now know it was already sexual violence, but I was afraid he would become physically violent. I went into freeze mode, a common trauma response when there is no option to escape. I checked out of my body.”
The attack left Hargitay feeling like she could not allow the incident to be part of her life going forward, and therefore completely shut it out. She explained:
“I couldn’t process it. I couldn’t believe that it happened. That it could happen. 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.”
Mariska Hargitay’s Law & Order Role Has Helped Other Survivors
Despite spending years blocking out what happened to her, Hargitay eventually had a reckoning that finally allowed her to face what happened to her, and go on to be a beacon of hope for others who have suffered similar experiences.
“Now I’m able to see clearly what was done to me. I understand the neurobiology of trauma. Trauma fractures our mind and our memory. The way a mirror fractures. I’ve navigated a lot of unwanted advances. This was not for me to navigate. This was beyond that. That’s why I’ve talked so much about acquaintance rape, because many people still think of rape as a man jumping out of the bushes. This was a friend who made a unilateral decision.”
Appearing in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has given others a character that they see in themselves, and one that has given them strength to face their unjustified feelings of shame and doubt over their ordeals. She continued:
“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. They’ve experienced darkness and cruelty, an utter disregard for another human being, and they’ve done what they needed to survive. For some, that means making Olivia Benson a big part of their lives—which is an honor beyond measure—for others, it means building a foundation. We’re strong, and we find a way through.”
Hargitay noted that she feels there are still issues with the way society often makes rape victims question whether they were the ones to blame, and that they “brought it on themselves.” She adds that for her, a big part of processing what happened is wanting an apology from her attacker, but made it clear that there is much more to her than the attack and its ramifications on her life. She concluded:
“This is a painful part of my story. 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. I’m turning 60, and I’m so deeply grateful for where I am. I’m renewed and I’m flooded with compassion for all of us who have suffered.”
All 24 seasons of Law & Order: SVU are streaming now on Peacock, and season 25 will debut on NBC on January 18, 2024.