NEW YORK — Portraying a heroic sex crimes detective on television has provided Mariska Hargitay with a platform to help sexual assault victims in real life.
Hargitay, who stars as Detective Olivia Benson in the police procedural Law and Order: SVU, has turned her clout as an advocate for victims into the upcoming HBO documentary I Am Evidence, for which she also serves as producer.
"I feel like I was given a gift with this role. I was given a platform. It was a way for me to respond. I’ve had the privilege of having had so many survivors share their stories with me, and I feel a responsibility to that," Hargitay said.
She admits backing the documentary was driven by her "own outrage" of the way victims of sexual assault are treated by the system.
"People say, ‘why did you make this movie?’ I said because I was really mad," Hargitay said.
The film, which premieres Monday on HBO, focuses on four survivors whose rape kits went untested for years. Part of the problem is that many states have no legislation that demands testing within a reasonable period. As a result, hundreds of thousands of kits are backlogged, with many never tested.
In 2016, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report found more than 13,000 untested rape kits in evidence rooms around the state. The Florida Legislature then passed a budget boosting funding for the state crime lab to process all crime evidence faster, including $2 million as part of a three-year effort to reduce the rape kit backlog.
"I just couldn’t comprehend that in this country this was going on. That they were stockpiling rape kits," Hargitay said.
The documentary also examines the victim blaming that some rape survivors encounter from law enforcement officers who aren’t properly trained.
Hargitay started the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 as a means to help victims of sexual assault heal from their emotional trauma.
She said sexual assault survivors have reached out to her through letters and emails. Over time, she realized that Benson serves as a role model for their unheard voices, and want to make sure they are heard.
While the film deals with how rape victims are treated, Hargitay envisions a world where sexual assault never happens again. Hargitay feels fixing these problems are more basic than we realize.
"Compassion and empathy would heal so much, and it’s so simple. Women have carried this burden for so long, and it’s men that need to engage," Hargitay said. "Everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten."