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Sexual Violence and Illuminating the Road to Health and Happiness

Olivia Benson is strong and compassionate, unflinchingly resolved to righting what is wrong. It's the kind of role that can define an actor's career and I feel privileged that it also defines my life.
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Like most people these days, I can admit to a dependency issue with email. I have a computer in my office, a laptop at home and a Blackberry in my pocket. I am a lousy typist, but these gadgets keep me connected to my friends, family and business associates. And, on an almost daily basis, my website receives emails that remind me why I do what I do. "I have never told this to anyone before," is how they often begin. What follows is all too familiar: heart-wrenching, soul-shattering stories of domestic violence, abuse and sexual assault.

According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network ( one out of six women and one out of thirty-three men in America are victims of sexual assault. Every two-and-a-half minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in our country. It is happening right now, as you read this. And it is unacceptable.

When I first took the role of detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in 1999, I was not aware of the epidemic level of sexual violence in America. I was an actor who was more comfortable working in comedies and I grappled with the complexities of playing a woman who was conceived when her mother was raped. Olivia Benson is strong and compassionate, unflinchingly resolved to righting what is wrong. It's the kind of role that can define an actor's career and I feel privileged that it also defines my life. It has turned this actor into an activist, one who is committed to seeing an end to domestic abuse and sexual violence in our lives.

Illuminating these issues in an uncompromising and often controversial television drama was my professional responsibility but it became a personal mission. The show exposes the darkest corners of the human condition, but it also explores our hopes for a more loving and respectful society. The idea that we can recover from our wounds is an integral part of the scripts and it resonates with viewers who have found the courage to disclose their painful memories to me.

That is a sacred trust, one that far exceeds the dream that most actors have of forging a connection with other people. I felt a great responsibility to these brave survivors to let them know that they had been heard and that they could have hope. I studied the subject, trained to become a rape crisis counselor, and have used my visibility as an actress to become an advocate. In 2002, I started the Joyful Heart Foundation to help survivors of sexual assault heal their minds, bodies and spirits and reclaim their lives.

I am honored to be talking about this on Living Now, which can set an example of the good things that can happen when technology and humanity create a conduit for inspiration and change. This is what Joyful Heart and my work as an actor, woman, wife and mother is all about -- letting people know that their lives have value and meaning, that no matter what has happened to them, they can recover.

Often when women are abused and assaulted, it is like the doors to their souls are slammed shut. The goal of Joyful Heart is to let the light, and the life, back in -- to banish the darkness and shame and illuminate the road to health and happiness. In the process of creating programs for our members, we quickly realized that everyone heals differently, but that positive experiences can reprogram the damage that emotional and physical trauma cause. Joyful Heart provides an extensive network of resources for women and groundbreaking retreats that include yoga, writing workshops, art therapy, surf camps and swimming with dolphins in the wild, which complement traditional counseling and therapy. It replenishes my spirit to see how these activities can bring the light back into the eyes of survivors. It is a great reward for doing what has always felt right to me.

As Willow Bay put it on a recent post on this page, "There are some things in life we just know are true. Now science, it seems, is proving our hunches right."

I started on the path to where I am now with little more than a hunch, a feeling that I had an opportunity and that I could make the most of it if I trusted my instincts to guide me. It takes persistence and a certain fearlessness to believe in something that others don't yet see, but it is absolutely worth it. That effort has taken me from being a struggling actor in Los Angeles to living a life of fulfillment and purpose in New York City. I was not planning to become an advocate for social change but I listened to an inner voice that said, "You can make a difference." I trusted that it was telling me the truth.

There are some things we know are true that can never be proven by science. We know that hate kills and love heals. This knowledge exists inside of all us, in the collective heart that makes up humanity, and the world will be a better place when we validate these truths in the examples we set, the deeds we do and the lives we lead.

-- Mariska Hargitay, President & Founder, The Joyful Heart Foundation