Mariska Hartigay, who plays a detective on NBC’s popular drama about sexual crimes, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, also works on issues of sexual assault when she’s not in front of the camera. She’s currently part of a campaign that’s working to challenge Americans’ preconceived notions about rape, gender, and victim-blaming. Her nonprofit organization, the Joyful Heart Foundation, partnered with NO MORE — a group that leverages nonprofits, corporate leaders, athletes, and advocates to draw widespread attention to the work of sexual assault prevention groups — to spearhead a public awareness campaign around the reality of sexual violence.
The celebrity PSAs (which also feature Hartigay’s Law & Order co-stars) challenge traditional assumptions about victimization, like the ideas that rape victims must have done something to “ask for it,” men are never victims of assault, and it’s easy for women to leave abusive relationships.
The NO MORE campaign launched last year, and was updated this week to include additional ads that are more inclusive to male victims of sexual assault.
“Being part of NO MORE from the beginning has been a great privilege,” Hargitay explained in a statement released on Friday. “Society continues to misplace shame and blame on survivors — both women and men. That has to end. By confronting the myths and excuses we rely on to avoid ending domestic violence and sexual assault, NO MORE fills me with confidence and renewed determination that we will put an end to the violence.”
The messages in NO MORE’s ad campaign echo much of the recent activism surrounding sexual assault prevention. This week, after an op-ed published in TIME Magazine argued that rape culture is a myth, feminists pushed back with a Twitter campaign that reaffirmed the realities of survivors’ experiences. “Rape culture is when you go to friends for support and they ask you what you were wearing,” Zerlina Maxwell, a feminist activist and writer, tweeted to kick off the #RapeCultureIsWhen hashtag — which spread rapidly and ended up flooded with similar stories about the impact of victim-blaming.
This is hardly the only work that Hartigay has done in this space. Ten years ago, she founded her nonprofit specifically to advocate for policies to address domestic violence and sexual assault. Much of that activism has focused on ending the nation’s rape kit backlog. She recently partnered with law enforcement officials in Detroit to process over 1,000 previously untested rape kits, an effort that helped identify 100 serial rapists.
It’s worth noting that while Hartigay’s real-life activism around the issue of sexual assault is attempting to make a real positive impact, the television show she works for doesn’t always have the same end result. Law & Order: SVU has been accused of furthering some damaging rape myths of its own — namely, the notions that perpetrators of sexual assault are usually strangers who jump out of the bushes, and that rape victims always bear physical markers like cuts and bruises. The show also depicts disproportionately high numbers of false rape cases and rape convictions, compared to a reality where only about two to eight percent of rape reports are fabricated and just three percent of rapists see the inside of a jail cell.
“The way Law & Order: SVU portrays the nature of sexual assault and the occurrence of false reporting feeds the lifeblood of rape culture by making rape out to be something rare and something that victims lie about it in the first place,” activist Sara Alcid wrote in Everyday Feminism last fall.
It’s certainly great to tell survivors’ stories through print ads, but unfortunately, they shouldn’t necessarily expect the same reflection of their experiences on the small screen.