Dawn E. Hawkins serves as executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCSE), where she has developed a national strategy uniting conservative, women’s rights, child advocacy and religious groups, as well as bipartisan political leadership, to work together to raise awareness about the harmful effects of pornography.
Mrs. Hawkins’s initiatives have led to changes in exploitative policies at Google, Verizon and the Department of Defense. She has appeared on various local and national television programs, including Fox & Friends, CNN and Good Morning America. She writes and speaks around the country about the harms of pornography and all forms of sexual exploitation, developing responses to the growing public health crisis resulting from pornography.
Mrs. Hawkins is a practicing Mormon and graduate of Tufts University who currently lives with her husband Michael in Arlington, Va. On July 14, she helped lead a symposium in the U.S. Capitol building on the public health crisis of pornography, sponsored by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.
On July 21, I interviewed Mrs. Hawkins by email about the recent conference and her work.
How did your July 14 symposium at the U.S. Capitol go?
The Capitol Symposium on the public health crisis of pornography was a significant step forward for the movement to end exploitation. Hosting the event in the U.S. Capitol building was a strategic decision made to not only urge that our lawmakers take action, but also to publicly emphasize the urgency and importance of addressing these issues. The room was filled to maximum capacity with personnel from Congressional offices and members of the press and public, who all crowded in to hear the latest social and medical research on the harms of pornography.
Your group seeks to expose and eradicate sexual exploitation, including pornography. How is pornography sexual exploitation?
Pornography encourages viewers to view their sexual partners in a dehumanized way, and it increases the acceptance and enjoyment of sexual violence and harmful beliefs about women, sex, and rape. In addition to these facts, many women and children used in pornography are actually sex trafficking victims, and pornography burgeons the demand for sex trafficking and for child pornography.
What are some other forms of sexual exploitation you address in your work?
We address sex trafficking of adults and children, sexual assault and violence, child pornography, prostitution, violence against women, sexual addictions and coercion, and more.
Your work includes overseeing a website called “Porn Harms.” Who does pornography harm?
Everyone. Those who are involved in making the pornography, those who view it, the families and loved ones of those using it, children growing up in a now hyper-sexualized culture, men and women now affected by the social beliefs that accompany the normalization of sex as a commodity and impersonal act.
How does pornography harm people?
Often, the adults in pornography are not truly consenting and sex traffickers regularly use their victims in porn in addition to prostituting and abusing them. Even among “consenting” performers, when engaging in pornography they suffer regular violence and coercion and are often forced to continue against their will and wishes. Further, nearly all female performers in pornography experienced rape, childhood sexual abuse and extreme violence before being drawn into porn, which makes their capability of making a clear and healthy decision to get involved in pornography questionable at best.
In addition to this, pornography harms those who view it. Fifty-six percent of divorces cite Internet pornography as a major factor in the breakup of the marriage, which is just one indicator about the way pornography harms interpersonal relationships. Pornography can become an addiction, and it has negative effects on the brain as well. Like a drug, it creates the need for a more extreme “fix” after regular exposure, which leads individuals into looking and material that is more hardcore and deviant.
How do you define pornography?
The term “pornography” is a generic, not a legal term. The word now means a depiction (as in a writing or painting) of licentiousness or lewdness: a portrayal of erotic behavior designed to cause sexual excitement.
What do you say to people who call you prudish for being “anti-porn” in a nation where it is legal?
Working to end the pandemic of porn is about protecting human dignity and welfare from the dangerous harms created by it.
Also, pornography is forced on people today because it is everywhere. We have a right to share the research and truth that pornography harms. We also have a right to urge that pornography be regulated so that children and adults alike do not have to be exposed to it against their will.
Also, there is a common misunderstanding about the legality of hardcore pornography in America. The Supreme Court, ever since United States vs. Miller, has ruled that obscene materials—such as hardcore pornography—do not receive First Amendment protection, and therefore can be prohibited. Even softcore pornography can be regulated and prohibited from public display.
What have been some high points for you in this work?
Just recently I received a call from a young man who was calling to apologize. He had been avidly opposing our efforts for the past few years and has been using pornography regularly since he was nine years old—he said he joined our social media groups and our email list to keep tabs on our “crazy efforts” and then to harass others who spoke out on our pages. He said he started to think twice about the impact pornography has on the individual as he read our messages about the harms, science, other stories, etc. While he was dedicated to disproving everything we said, he started to notice the negative impact pornography had in his life—he couldn’t not use it, he had terrible relationships with women, he was depressed. He found a church and started going and has since stopped using pornography and is now one of our best supporters, joining the conversation in our social media groups now about the harms of pornography. When I hear stories like this, I feel so fulfilled and like this work truly is meaningful and needed.
Other highs have been victories we have had in getting policies changed that foster sexual exploitation. Examples include getting Google to stop allowing pornography in Google Play and on their advertising platform. Getting the U.S. Air Force and Army to stop selling pornography in military exchanges. Recently hearing from Hilton Hotels that they are in the midst of changing their cable offerings to no longer include the pornography channels.
What have been some challenges for you?
Daily, we hear from men, women and children who are hurting because of pornography. It is hard especially to hear from the wives who are hurting because of their husband’s porn use or the women who are exploited for the production of porn.
We receive lots of opposition. I have been the target of many threats and much harassment. It gets scary and is troubling at times—but I’m grateful that I can stand up for those who don’t have a voice and that we can help warn youth about the consequences of being involved in pornography.
What led you to this work?
Well, I never imagined this is what I would be doing. I was serving a mission for my church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in Hungary and saw how devastating pornography was to the people and culture there. It seemed to be a root cause for the broken spiritual lives of so many. I saw many broken families and the young girls struggled to feel any kind of dignity all as a result of the rampant porn culture. When I got home to America, I felt strongly that I should volunteer to help expose the realities of pornography in the hopes that maybe America wouldn’t suffer as much. It was all inspiration and a calling from God to get involved. I thought I would just volunteer and dabble in helping the others do this work—but He had other plans. As I learned more about the harms of pornography, its connections to all other forms of exploitation, and met people who were deeply hurting as a result, I knew I couldn’t ignore the issue. Here I am!
How does your faith influence your approach to this issue?
The only reason I am still here is because I know that it is what God wants me to be doing. I have a deep testimony that I am a daughter of God and that he loves and values me. I keep fighting to help others see that they have this value too. Pornography takes this knowledge away.
Our staff comes from different faith backgrounds. Those who are Catholic attend Mass everyday. We open our meetings with prayer and regularly pray and fast together to know what direction we should go in this work. We individually study the Scriptures for guidance.
Is pornography an issue that only religious people care about?
Not at all! The National Center on Sexual Exploitation leads a coalition of more than 300 diverse organizations opposing pornography. Many of these organizations come from a secular point of view, and several come from radical feminist perspectives.
What do you hope people will take away from your work?
I want to make pornography intolerable. I hope that we can help people see that there is a public health crisis from pornography and that we cannot ignore it. I hope that they can then see that all people are worth more than the sum of their parts and we must value everyone.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.