As Detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order: SVU and through her real world activism, Mariska Hargitay has been standing up for survivors of sexual assault for decades. Now, she’s her own advocate.

In a candid essay for People, Hargitay revealed that when she was in her 30s, she was raped. Like many victims, Hargitay writes that she knew her assailant, and describes a feeling of being “outside” of her own body. She also explains that in the aftermath of the assault, she tried to erase the event from her memory.

“I couldn’t believe that it happened. That it could happen. So I cut it out. I removed it from my narrative,” Hargitay writes. “I now have so much empathy for the part of me that made that choice because that part got me through it. It never happened. Now I honor that part: I did what I had to do to survive.”

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Hargitay writes that she hopes to help ease the shame sexual assault survivors often feel, but also, like her iconic character, she wants to end sexual violence altogether. That starts with accountability. “Sexual violence persists not because of something unchangeable in our human condition, it exists because power structures are in place that allow it to happen,” she says.

In 2010, Hargitay’s own Joyful Heart non-profit foundation began prioritizing its focus on the huge number of untested rape kits in the United States through its End the Backlog initiative. “I couldn’t believe that this could happen,” Hargitay told People in a 2020 interview. “This is a crystal clear microcosm of what is wrong with our society.” The effort was depicted in her 2018 documentary, I Am Evidence.

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