'Law & Order: SVU': Here's how Olivia Benson inspired Mariska Hargitay to become trained rape crisis counselor
'Law & Order: SVU' is television's longest-running drama — when the Dick Wolf first premiered in the 20th century, Bill Clinton was the president of the country. Since then, the United States has seen four more presidents (and about to see the next within a few months). There are many reasons that 'Law & Order: SVU' has been going on for so long and one of those reasons is its compelling characters, especially Detective Olivia Benson, played by Mariska Hargitay. Hargitay has been nearly every one of the 450+ episodes of the show and as Olivia Benson, Hargitay has delivered a character who is now a household name in the country. She is so inspirational that Taylor Swift has even named her dear cat after Olivia Benson.
And as much as Olivia Benson has inspired the rest of us, playing the character has had a big impact on Hargitay herself. The Emmy award-winning actress realized that her character listening to survivors' stories made a difference and in turn, made her an "accidental activist," as Hargitay told People earlier this year, leading her to believe that she was meant to become an advocate for the survivors. Her character, Olivia Benson, was heavily involved in the rape and domestic violence cases in New York; in many episodes, she defended the women, because she knew the trauma that they had experienced. In 2018, Hargitay's documentary, 'I Am Evidence', premiered on HBO and featured the actress sitting down with sexual assault survivors and discusses the backlog of rape kits in the country.
In 2004, Hargitay trained as a rape crisis counselor and started the nonprofit organization, the Joyful Heart Foundation, to support survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. With this, she was able to talk to these women, make them feel better, and let them know that they are not alone; she helped the victims to be able to live their lives again.
In 2019, she prioritized her foundation's "End the Backlog" initiative. She also teamed up with Michigan prosecutor and rape activist Kym Worthy to take on the cause, telling People, “I met Kym and said, ‘Listen to me, I’m your soldier. You tell me what you need. How can we do this?’ And we just joined forces.” The Joyful Heart Foundation’s End the Backlog initiative has identified more than 225,000 untested rape kits sitting in police offices, crime labs, or other storage facilities across the United States and helped establish legislation supporting rape kit reform in 41 states. Congress has also approved $131 million for the Sexual Assault Kit initiative.
She told InStyle magazine, "It has been an incredible privilege to tackle these issues on- and offscreen. It’s also been overwhelming at times, but whenever things get difficult and I feel like I can’t do something, I always hear my father asking me, 'Why not?' He’d always ask me that question when I was younger, and it really taught me that no one can ever tell me what I can or can’t do."
'Law & Order: SVU' Season 22 premieres on NBC on Thursday, November 12, at 9/8c.