Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star Mariska Hargitay says the long-running NBC series helped change the way the country views rape and sexual assault.
“I knew very early it wasn’t just a TV show. I knew very early that this was the beginning of a cultural shift and a way to get people to talk more about [rape],” Hargitay said this week during a panel discussion at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.
The actress, who also serves as an executive producer on the series, was joined by SVU creator Dick Wolf and Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, on Monday, June 4.
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Greenblatt asked Wolf and Hargitay if they thought the series had made a difference for rape survivors.
“It did change and it did give people the courage to come forward and realizing, guess what, you’re not alone,” Hargitay said.
She added that early on, when she walked down the street, survivors “would disclose their stories of abuse.”
The series, which debuted in 1999 and was recently renewed for a 20th season, centers on a special unit in the NYPD that investigates sexually related crimes.
It currently co-stars Ice-T, Kelli Giddish, Peter Scanavino and Philip Winchester. Over the years, there have been several high profile departures including Chris Meloni, Raúl Esparza, Dann Florek, Stephanie March, Danny Pino and Richard Belzer, yet fans remain devoted to the show.
Thanks to repeat airings in syndication, the series has been introduced to a new audience.
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Hargitay said SVU is changing the way those new fans view sex crimes.
“I feel like we got to, on this beautiful platform, take the onus from the survivor and put it where it belonged on the perpetrator,” she said.
To prepare for the role Hargitay said she studied to become a rape crisis counselor, and eventually learned that one in three or four women and one in six men are victims of sexual assault.
Wolf said he’s been told by police officers across the U.S. that thanks to the show, a growing number of victims are reporting sexual assaults.
“One of the early, huge effects of the show, was cops and especially detectives… that would tell me since the show went on, their reports of sexual assault had gone up 35 percent,” Wolf explained. “It opened up doors for an enormous amount of people, and I think ultimately, that is the thing that’s the most satisfying.”