The Candidate Who Boldly Talked About Being A Sexual Assault Survivor — In A Televised Debate

Photo: Hawks for U.S. House
South Dakota state Rep. Paula Hawks’ problem with Donald Trump isn’t just political. As a sexual assault survivor, her opposition to him is also deeply, deeply personal. Hawks, who is running for the U.S. House of Representatives, recently publicly revealed that she is a survivor of sexual assault during a televised debate exchange with her opponent, incumbent U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, regarding the GOP presidential nominee. “As a sexual assault survivor, I know what effect that person now has,” Hawks said in the debate. “Donald Trump has gotten on national television and bragged about being a sexual assault perpetrator.” Since then, the Democratic lawmaker has penned a public essay in which she discussed the visceral reaction she had to the videotape in which Trump was caught on a hot mic discussing sexually exploitative behavior. “Never in a million years did I think I would feel comfortable talking about this publicly,” she wrote. “But then, I didn’t think we’d ever have a presidential candidate bragging about sexual assault. Nor did I expect to witness the number of people ready and willing to excuse his behavior.” Hawks told Refinery29 that she hopes sharing her story will help other survivors to know that they are valued. “If by speaking out in a position of power and leadership, I can convince somebody that it’s okay, that they have support and they have people who care about them, and people who will help them, then it has been worth it,” she said by phone. Below, Hawks reflects on her decision and shares what she would say to Donald Trump.

Did you plan on sharing that personal history at that moment, in the debate, or was it a spur-of-the-moment decision?
"Not up until that day. Frankly, it had gotten to a point where everything that we were hearing in the news, and everything that I was seeing online just took me to a point where I was like, You know what, I can’t be silent about this anymore. And I have to voice what is going on in my head."

It’s time for society in general to say, ‘Enough. This is it. We are not going to tolerate this anymore.'

Why did you choose to speak out? Did the Trump Tapes influence you?
"I have been pretty careful about what I look at through this campaign. I happened to be watching TV, and that particular news story came on, and I was literally, physically ill. "Listening to him talk about what he can and cannot do, and what he’s allowed to do simply because he is wealthy and a star, and how he’s entitled to do that because [he’s a star]. I just was disgusted, because this is a person who is asking people to elect him to the highest office in the land, and this is a person who claims that he wants to be the leader and speak for all of us. I will tell you right now, that man doesn’t ever speak for me. "At that point, I just decided I’d had enough, and that it was time for me to speak up and say, 'This is what happened to me, and if this is something that affects your life, you have to be strong enough to realize that you’re not alone, and that we don’t have to accept this as okay.'"

What do you want young women to take away from you speaking out about your story?
"I have a 16-year-old daughter. I had to explain to her what happened to me, and I had to explain to her why I was going to make it public. And her response to me was, ‘Mom, of course you have to make that public. Girls like me need to understand that that kind of thing happens.’ "Girls need to be aware so that they can remember that they are strong and they can fight back against this. If they come together and fight against it, they’re stronger together than they are trying to fight it themselves."

I expect my leaders to be role models, and I expect them to be good role models.

Why is it important for women, particularly those in positions of power and influence, to speak out and share their stories?
"It’s incredibly important for women who are in a position of power or a position of leadership to have the strength to say, 'You know what? At some point in my life, I was not strong. And this is something terrible that happened to me, and it made me feel weak. And it made me feel vulnerable, and it made me feel like I was all alone. But I got through it, and I found a way to take that moment of terror and turn it into strength within myself.'
"If women who are in a position to make that statement can, and do it in such a way that other women are empowered by it, then they can come out of that shell of shame and fear and make it a part of them that is no longer controlling them, but that they are empowered by, then we have to do it. "It’s a responsibility that we have, not just to ourselves, but to other women and men and children who are experiencing these terrible sexual assaults at the hands of somebody who thinks they are entitled to it. It’s time for society in general to say, ‘Enough. This is it. We are not going to tolerate this anymore.’”

What would you want to say to Donald Trump?
"We’re not going to allow him to take advantage of his power and his stardom to victimize women across the country by putting him in a position of even greater authority and leadership, in a place where the entire world looks to him for leadership. That’s not somebody that I would ever want representing me, and it’s certainly not a face that I want to look at every time I have to acknowledge the office of president."

What do you most want to tell America?
"It’s really important that we as a country, as members of a large community, recognize the importance of making a statement about what we hold as basic human dignity, what we hold as basic standards of decency. And what we expect our leaders to do and be. I expect my leaders to be role models, and I expect them to be good role models. "I want my children, my daughters and my son, to be able to look at a person in a position of authority and be able to say, 'That is a good person who has a good character, somebody that I can emulate.' And that is not Donald Trump."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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