Dawn Hawkins describes her childhood life growing up in Colorado as rough. Not only did she grow up in a home with domestic violence and a terrible divorce, but she’s also a survivor of sexual abuse. And being a survivor has given her a passion for standing up for human dignity around the world.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. And because of that, I wanted to bring on a guest that is closely connected with and very knowledgeable about sexual exploitation. So this week on Overcome With Auntie Anne, I’m talking with Dawn Hawkins about sexual exploitation -- her experience of it, her fight against it, and what we all can do to see it end.
I hope that this conversation encourages and inspires you, so listen to the podcast to hear the entire interview or keep reading below for the highlights.
A background of abuse
Dawn is the CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. She has a passion for building a world free from sexual violence, with freedom and human dignity for all. She’s influential in politics and business -- in a world where there’s so much power -- and her work has sparked change at Google, Hilton Worldwide, Comcast, Walmart, the Department of Defense, and Instagram.
Dawn regularly authors articles and speaks around the country addressing the public health harms of pornography and protecting children and families in our digital world. And she’s a mom of four little kids, which is an important part of why she does the work she does. I have to admit; her work truly inspires me.
But Dawn is also a survivor of sexual abuse, which is how she got into her work.
As I said above, Dawn’s upbringing was rough. She lived in a blended family and is the oldest of seven kids. And although all of the kids are close and have stayed friends, she says, “There was domestic violence regularly in our home, [a] really awful divorce, [a] couple marriages actually between my parents, [a] couple of divorces, and I experienced sexual abuse when I was just a really young child at the hands of another child.”
From a young age, she became passionate about the treatment of women. She remembers being nine years old and seeing pornography at her grandfather’s house for the first time. “And it just made me feel so yucky and like suddenly different from all of the boys in my class.”
Even though her father gave her and her sisters “protective knowledge” and tried to instill in them self-worth, they were all abused as kids at some point.
And not only was Dawn sexually abused as a young girl but she was also assaulted in high school on homecoming night as the homecoming queen. But for Dawn, that moment was life-changing. “It set me on this path,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine it then that I would be so vocal and such a public advocate on these issues. But that’s where the fire in my belly came from.”
The Biggest Challenge
The work that Dawn does gives her joy and a sense of fulfillment. That being said, Dawn says that her biggest challenge has been accepting this work as God’s call on her life.
Her path into it started while she was in Hungary for 18 months on a mission with her church. While she wasn’t directly involved in sexual exploitation work while there, she saw it everywhere. “I taught English to young girls and boys, but it felt like almost all of the young girls were survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution. And pornography was on billboards, and men would cat call and throw stuff at us when we walked by. It was just so pervasive.”
Dawn felt like this was the beginning of her calling into this type of work. She remembers having thoughts that she would do something about pornography and prostitution. But at the same time, she would write in her journal, “What can even be done?”
After returning to the states and moving to Washington D.C., Dawn got her dream job in politics and began volunteering for an organization, now the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. But it was just volunteering, and she never thought it would go beyond that.
Once she got married, Dawn felt that she’d done her time helping with pornography and exploitation and decided to hang up her hat. But when she called to say she was done, the now President of the organization, Patrick Truman, offered her the position of Executive Director.
However, she had just been offered two other positions for jobs she says were dream jobs, so she declined the Executive Director position. But Patrick wouldn’t accept ‘no’ right away and told her to go home and pray about it.
So she did. And when Dawn and her then fiance, Michael, prayed, Dawn says, “Immediately, it was so clear. I still didn’t want to say ‘yes’. But Michael said, ‘This is right for you and for us.’ And so I accepted the position of being executive director.”
The clarity of that moment allows Dawn to go back often and remember that she’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing. As she says, “I just believe God wants us to stand up for human dignity whenever and wherever we can.”
Stories of her work
As I said before, Dawn’s work is truly inspiring, and her life has become about standing up for human dignity. So I’d like to share a few of her stories to hopefully inspire you to stand up for human dignity even in your everyday settings.
The first story happened while Dawn was flying on an airplane. While everyone was boarding, the man in front of her was watching pornography on his iPad. “It was violent, and it looked like very young girls,” Dawn says, “and it was with impunity, just watching it.”
Dawn couldn’t just keep her mouth shut; she had to say something, so she did. But, as expected, the man denied it. And Dawn was told by the flight attendant to stop talking about it and to sit down. But that didn’t stop her.
She made a Youtube video about her experience for her small network of people, and it went viral. And because of that viral video, she was mocked, received threats, and even had people show up at her parent’s and sister’s homes.
But also because of that video, every airline, except American, “changed their policies to no longer allow pornography viewing on their platform and instituted training for their flight attendants on how to do that.”
Dawn also tells a story about when she was at a Barnes and Noble bookstore. She saw “a compilation of a bunch of Playboy magazines right next to the children’s books.” All she did was go and talk to the manager, and the manager took care of it. But even a small little thing like that can make a big difference if we’re willing to step up when we see something.
At the National Center for Sexual Exploitation (NCSE), where Dawn moved from being the Executive Director to CEO, they work to pass laws and policies that corporations must adhere to in order to stand up for human dignity and combat exploitation. They even have their law center now to assist in this.
They recently filed a lawsuit against Twitter. Two young boys were being trafficked, and the child pornography associated with the trafficking was still on the platform. Through the lawsuit, NCSE won a favorable ruling.
They also sued Pornhub, “the largest pornography website for hosting child sexual abuse material.” And they recently received a favorable ruling in that lawsuit as well.
But sometimes, the work towards change is a long game. For instance, NCSE has spent five years asking Google to make a change. The Google Chromebooks that grades K-12 use don’t come with the safety features automatically turned on. It’s something that has to be done by school administrators or parents, and often “it was too much of a burden to figure that out.”
So they asked Google for the Chromebooks to come with the safety features already turned on. And for five years, Google didn’t do it. But then many parents got in on the action too and joined NCSE in asking Google to make the change, and last September 1st, they did. As a result, all Chromebooks now come with the safety controls turned on.
There have been other changes as well. Netflix now has parental controls to help parents protect their kids. And just last year, Instagram “stopped adults from sending direct messages [to] kids, which was the main way that predators were targeting kids.” Dawn says that “90% of teens have seen explicit material on social media.” This is why changes like these are so important.
It’s stories like this that give Dawn hope. “Now people are understanding that there are public health harms. There’s so many impacts of pornography, for example, on the individual, their family, and the community There are many companies,” Dawn says,” who are finally taking responsibility.”
Join the fight
And at NCSE, their work isn’t just about the big changes but about educating people like you and me on how to be advocates. “Mostly,” Dawn says, “we try to help everyone else participate in opposing exploitation by making it easy for you to speak up.”
They provide training and talking points, emails and flyers so everyone can participate in this work of making a difference and overcoming sexual exploitation in our world. Dawn stresses that it’s global, and we all need to work together.
So I invite you all to go to endsexualexploitation.org and sign up to receive the once-a-week action items that Dawn sends out. Or sign up for other things like additional training.
And they host a global summit every year, something I spoke at a couple of years back. As Dawn says, “For any of you looking for more resources or really feeling called to be involved in this work too somehow, it’s the place for you.” So be sure and check that out.
Ending sexual exploitation will involve all of us. We can raise awareness, educate ourselves and others, and call it out.