Mariska Hargitay, better known as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” Detective Olivia Benson, is the human intersection of life and art.
Precisely, the line between the fictional role she plays and the role she has carved out in real life is approximately a hair’s breadth. The passion television viewers witness on the popular crime show — the rage, the disgust, that curled lip, the twitching eye — may be part of the actor’s toolbox, but it’s no act.
Philosophically, at least, Olivia and Mariska (pronounced Marish-ka) are one and the same. This much was clear when Hargitay visited Washington recently to launch her “No More” campaign related to her victims’ advocacy group, the Joyful Heart Foundation ( joyfulheartfoundation.org).
“No More” means no more bystanders to crime, no more silence about domestic violence and sexual assault. The motto comes with an icon — a blue donut, more or less — that Hargitay hopes will become a unifying symbol as familiar as breast cancer’s pink ribbon.
Hargitay’s transformation from an actor into a powerful voice for victims began about 15 years ago when she began researching the role that would make her a household name. In the process, she stumbled upon the appalling statistics about sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. Especially offensive was the fact that hundreds of thousands of rape kits remained unprocessed.
This meant that hundreds of thousands of victims, mostly women, were never taken seriously or given an opportunity for justice — and their rapists were free to rape again. Why is there no outrage?
Hargitay set about to make her own outrage known, creating her foundation, which advocates for justice and the sort of prosecutorial zeal one wishes weren’t only on TV. Speaking at the National Press Club, she urged an end to the silence that feeds shame and posed: “Think how helpful it is to a criminal if we refuse to talk about it.”
A rape kit, as fans of “L&O: SVU” know, is the evidence collected during a medical exam following a sexual assault, including DNA swabs. Typically, it costs $1,200-$1,500 to process a kit, hence, in part, the backlog. But more to the point, a rape kit takes several hours and is both invasive and humiliating for someone who already has endured a violent attack. This alone should be sufficient to dissuade those who assume that many rapes are not “legitimate.” Why, otherwise, would anyone put themselves through such a hideous ordeal?
As Hargitay put it, the rape victim’s body is a living, breathing, feeling crime scene. “After a four-to-six hour invasive exam, you’d think they’d be eager to process.” Instead, old attitudes persist, relegating rape kits to cold storage and awarding rapists free passes.
Hargitay, who became emotional several times during her luncheon talk, conceded that the characters on her show are not typical. The sympathy, empathy, psychological sophistication and compassion displayed toward fictional victims are also mostly fictional. More often, there is only passing regard for real women alleging rape, some of whom may be perceived (because of behavior or dress) to have been responsible for whatever happened.
In a time of cost-cutting and smaller staffs — not to mention other immediate cases — it is difficult to argue that old rape kits urgently need to be processed. But Hargitay’s persistence has paid off. In Detroit, where 11,000 rape kits have been collecting dust for as long as 20 years, 23 serial rapists have been identified from the recent processing of just 400 kits. Three resulted in convictions, according to Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy.
New York — which has a DNA databank that, thanks to Hargitay’s lobbying efforts, includes samples from anyone convicted of a crime — has cleared its backlog of 17,000 kits. The result: an arrest rate that leapt from 40 percent to 70 percent, according to Hargitay. Similarly, Los Angeles has cleared its 12,669 kits.
There are still tens of thousands to go, but Hargitay has succeeded in demonstrating that one ticked-off cop can make a difference — even if she is only a TV cop. These days, the pretend character is learning from the real-life woman who plays her. Hargitay admitted that what you see on television is often informed by the work of her foundation. The lesson she hopes to convey is as no-nonsense as the lip-curling Olivia Benson: Rape victims are victims, period. And perps will be prosecuted.
But first, America has to say, “no more.”
Kathleen Parker is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org