“Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” star Mariska Hargitay revealed this week that she was sexually assaulted by a former friend more than two decades ago.
In a personal essay published Wednesday by People, the longtime advocate for survivors of sexual assault and abuse recalled the harrowing attack, which she said she suppressed for years.
“A man raped me in my thirties,” Hargitay, 59, opened the essay before detailing the encounter.
“I tried to make jokes, to be charming, to set a boundary, to reason, to say no,” Hargitay wrote . “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 TV star made the revelation to help remove the stigma and shame tied to survivors of assault and abuse, arguing that they should be celebrated similarly to patients who survive cancer.
During the immediate aftermath of the attack, she said she hadn’t seen herself as a survivor. She had even told her husband she didn’t think it was rape. Instead, she dug into her work, playing her “Law & Order: SVU” character, Olivia Benson, a police detective who investigates sex-related crimes in Manhattan. She’s held the role since 1999, winning an Emmy for the part in 2006 and has been nominated seven other times. To prepare for the role, Hargitay trained to become a rape survivor counselor. And in 2004, she founded Joyful Heart, a nonprofit that advocates for and supports survivors of sexual assault, abuse and domestic violence.
But in her essay, Hargitay said she struggled to acknowledge her own attack.
“I couldn’t process it,” she wrote. “I couldn’t believe that it happened. That it could happen. So I cut it out. I removed it from my narrative.”
Over time, however, and with the help of friends, Hargitay was able to confront the incident and realized that her friend had raped her.
“Now I’m able to see clearly what was done to me,” she continued. “I understand the neurobiology of trauma. Trauma fractures our mind and our memory. The way a mirror fractures.”
As a part of her advocacy work, Hargitay testified before Congress to ask for more federal funding to combat rape test kit backlogs, an issue that plagues cities across the United States. A year earlier, more than 11,000 untested rape kits were uncovered in a Detroit police warehouse, according to the Detroit News. Some of the kits were decades old and contained DNA needed to prosecute attackers.
In 2014, Hargitay advocated for a law in Michigan that set more direct requirements for police to be proactive about testing rape kits in order to assist investigators in identifying offenders. The law has assisted in the the identification of more than 800 rapists.
The untested rape kit backlogs was documented in the 2018 HBO documentary “I Am Evidence,” which Hargitay produced and appeared in.
”SVU” will begin airing its 25th season next week, the show’s first since the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes ended last year. Hargitay is returning as Capt. Benson, alongside co-stars Christopher Meloni and Ice T. However, “SVU,” TV’s longest-running live-action prime-time series, has been mired in controversy since prominent TV writer David Graziano took over as showrunner ahead of Season 24.
After Graziano got the gig, the show’s script coordinator quit and the subsequent job posting triggered warnings from individuals who had previously worked with him. In a 2022 Times investigation, more than a dozen individuals who have worked with him on other shows described him as a volatile and bullying boss who rage-fired underlings, left staffers in tears and made inappropriate and demeaning comments toward women, support staff and people of color.
Graziano, who still heads “SVU,” admitted to The Times that he was “a difficult person to work” but denied the heart of the allegations, while vowing “to work on myself daily.”
At the time, Hargitay did not respond to The Times’ requests for comment on the allegations.