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Mariska Hargitay on her decision to open up about rape: ‘I wanted to give it a name’

The "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" star opened up on TODAY about accepting that a man raped her and how she's healing after the experience.
/ Source: TODAY

This story mentions sexual violence. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" star Mariska Hargitay is sharing her story about a man raping her in her 30s.

In a People magazine essay published Jan. 10, Hargitay, 59, said a man she considered to be a friend raped her.

"It wasn’t sexual at all. It was dominance and control. Overpowering control," she wrote. "He was a friend. Then he wasn’t. I tried all the ways I knew to get out of it. I tried to make jokes, to be charming, to set a boundary, to reason, to say no. He grabbed me by the arms and held me down. I was terrified."

Now, the actor and advocate opened up about her decision to share her story publicly during a conversation with Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie on TODAY on Jan. 18. Hargitay explained that a close friend’s advice inspired her to name her experience.

“One of my best friends on this earth, for the last couple of years … she would always say to me, she’d just grab me and say, ‘Mariska, name everything. Name it.’”

“It was so important for me to write that article for that reason exactly, to name it,” she added.

Hargitay also noted that language matters when it comes to describing what happened.

“I said, ‘A man raped me.’ I wasn’t raped. A man raped me. There’s a big difference,” she said. 

She also shared her appreciation for the way her story was sensitively handled by People magazine with “such grace and respect and tenderness.”

Hargitay wrote in her essay that her body went into "freeze mode" during the encounter. Research shows that freezing during an assault is a common, involuntary neurobiological response that occurs in animals, as well, and can prevent a victim from fighting back.

"I didn’t want it to escalate to violence. I now know it was already sexual violence, but I was afraid he would become physically violent," she wrote. "I checked out of my body."

Hargitay also wrote that she could not process or believe what had happened and that she removed it from the narrative of her life.

"I now have so much empathy for the part of me that made that choice because that part got me through it," her essay reads. "It never happened. Now I honor that part: I did what I had to do to survive."

As Hargitay portrayed Detective Olivia Benson on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," she founded Joyful Heart, an organization with a mission to heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. She said in her essay for People that her work with the organization helped her "see what healing could look like."

She referenced previous speeches where she had said she was not a survivor herself: "I wasn’t being untruthful; it wasn’t how I thought of myself."

Hargitay wrote that she occasionally shared details of what the man did to her with those closest to her, but that she minimized it.

"Then things started shifting in me, and I began talking about it more in earnest with those closest to me," she wrote. "They were the first ones to call it what it was. They were gentle and kind and careful, but their naming it was important."

"Now I’m able to see clearly what was done to me," she continued in the People essay.

As for justice, Hargitay acknowledged it may look different for each survivor, but she wanted an acknowledgment and an apology. "It won’t undo what happened, but I know it plays a role in how I will work through this," she wrote.

Hargitay previously spoke about her experience in the Sept. 9, 2022, episode of the "Gutsy" docuseries with Chelsea and Hillary Clinton.

"I just recently started sharing with people that I was raped. And I feel so grateful of being able to say that, although it was a long journey for me, even me to be able to say it," she shared at the time. "But now I go, that thing that happened to me doesn't define me, right? If anything, look at me now."

Hargitay also opened up in her TODAY interview about how sharing her own experience of rape has helped her healing process. 

“I think it’s a matter of physics, right? If we hold a weight, it’s very heavy. But if it’s sand and we all hold a piece of it and we carry it for each other in our society, it’s not as heavy,” she said. “And so for me, naming it was really powerful, and I feel lighter, and it was time not to carry that.

“It took a certain maturity and compassion, and I was listened to, and most importantly, I listened to myself. And that’s what I urge people to do, is honor and listen, really listen, to that little inner voice that we all carry. And she’ll guide you.”