Standing up in the fight against sexual exploitation

From Congressional briefings, to corporate offices and even on the airplane, Dawn Hawkins is raising her voice on behalf of human dignity

Dawn Hawkins was on a train in Hungary when she spotted an elderly woman across the aisle, buried in a newspaper with an ad on the cover displaying a bunch of naked women. Right across from her, looking at that cover, was a teenage girl. A feeling of hopelessness enveloped Hawkins, who was serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time.

“I thought — what hope does this girl have if this is the culture she has to grow up in, accept and fit into?” She became emotional and turned toward the window as Hungarian towns flashed by.

But Hawkins’ companion wasn’t going to sit still.

Usually a timid person of few words, she rose up and in front of the entire car condemned the smut, and launched into a speech in broken Hungarian about the value of human dignity and respect for women. Hawkins watched her companion in awe. In the days that followed, she wrestled with the feelings of guilt for not standing up alongside her companion. “I thought if I ever have the opportunity to raise my voice again about the importance of human dignity, then I will,” Hawkins said.

She decided to devote her life to combating sexual exploitation and abuse.

Today, Hawkins is the CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a nonprofit dedicated to combating all forms of sexual exploitation, from pornography and prostitution to abuse and human trafficking. When we speak, Hawkins’ 8-year-old son, who she brought to work that day, is playing in the room next to her so she can be candid in our interview. “These issues are complicated,” she says.  

Hawkins has been in this fight since the beginning of her career, she explains. After returning from her church mission, she moved straight to Washington, D.C., and emailed Patrick Treuman, the former chief at the U.S. Department of Justice of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section under former presidents Reagan and Bush. She asked if there was a project on which she could volunteer.

“I cared about the law and advocacy side of things,” Hawkins tells me. “I thought, we have to stop this problem and pull back how normalized exploitation has become.” As a volunteer, alongside Treuman, she helped build the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation, a network of advocates and nongovernmental organizations pushing back against a culture that too often objectifies, exploits and abuses women.

The coalition eventually joined forces with Morality in Media, a faith-based anti-pornography organization, and Hawkins became the executive director. Over time, however, it became clear to Hawkins that the internet and mobile devices had shifted the context of sexual abuse and exploitation and her organization needed to evolve.

In 2015, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation was born with a more expansive vision, exposing the interconnected links behind sexual exploitation. “It really can’t just be about pornography,” she says. “We believe that all of the exploitation issues overlap and reinforce one another.” In an age of bespoke internet pornography, she explains, content showing up on online can be tied to child sex abuse, prostitution, trafficking or all three. “You can’t solve one of these by ignoring the other.”

Over the course of a decade, in countless places, Hawkins has kept her vow to raise her voice on behalf of human dignity: in Congressional briefings, in corporate offices, before parliaments and foreign governments, at the United Nations, and even on an airplane after a man pulled up explicit images on his iPad. Her efforts, big and small, have begun bending the narrative arc in America’s fight against sexual exploitation.

Hawkins grew up in Colorado in a blended household as the oldest of seven kids. As a child, she witnessed a wrenching divorce and frequent incidents of domestic violence. She is a survivor of child sexual abuse, as are many of her siblings. In high school she was assaulted on homecoming night. “A lot of the issues that I fight have touched my family growing up and continue to touch my extended family, which is part of why I’m so passionate,” she says. The traumatic events of her youth have also shaped her into a listener who could empathize with survivors of abuse, and who was determined to do something about the problem.     

In early 2019, Hawkins was meeting with Sen. Richard Blumenthal as a follow-up to passing FOSTA-SESTA, a bipartisan bill aimed at curbing online sex trafficking on websites like Backpage and Craigslist (they were previously protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act). She thanked him for passing the groundbreaking legislation. 

She decided to devote her life to combating sexual exploitation and abuse in any form.

But after that meeting, Hawkins was confronted by a group of teenagers who had been trafficked on the internet. The new bill, they told her, wouldn’t eliminate their problems. “They told me they were sold on Instagram and Snapchat,” not Backpage. Weeks later, she sat with other young teenagers at the drop-in center in Washington, D.C. — the oldest was 14 — and listened to their own stories of being trafficked online. They showed Hawkins long message threads on Instagram in which predators first groomed them, then “sextorted” images and videos that they threatened to distribute to friends and family.  “It was life-changing to me to see this and how prevalent it was,” she notes. 

To experience for herself the nature of these exchanges, she created fake accounts on Instagram and Snapchat, impersonating a 13-year-old. “All of my accounts were immediately bombarded with messages,” she says. If she engaged in conversations — nude pictures and harassment followed. “It’s like a wallpaper of their life and they’ve just come to deal with it themselves.” So in partnership with the young women she’d met with, she took the matter to Instagram and other direct service providers.

Just recently, Instagram made a new change to the platform. Adults can no longer send private messages to children unless they’re already connected. “This is key, because these platforms are the main way that predators are targeting kids,” said Hawkins. In the U.S., about 40% of all trafficking victims are recruited online, according to the U.N. and over 80% of the sex trafficking prosecutions by the Justice Department involved online advertising, according to a U.N. report.

Hawkins tells me she feels tired. She’s expecting her fifth child, but she’s been reluctant to share the news with people. Hawkins says she constantly attracts criticism from all sides for her mutual embrace of family and work. It takes a toll on her. “My family is my priority, but I can still be here,” she tells me. Hawkins and her husband home-school their children. They also have an au-pair. “I have an amazingly supportive husband who frankly has put my work before his,” Hawkins says, explaining that her husband Michael, who is an analyst, has a flexible, work-from-home schedule that allows him to do well professionally while also helping to home-school their children.

Hawkins’ colleagues say she often has a baby in her arms at a conference, her husband and other kids usually roaming in the vicinity. “She’s a kind and personable mother, but when she takes the stage, she transforms into an amazing, dynamic leader in the fight against exploitation of all kinds,” says Ron DeHaas, the founder of Covenant Eyes, a screen accountability app that helps people with pornography addiction. DeHaas also serves as National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s chairman. “Hands down, Dawn is the leader of a movement against sexual exploitation.” 

Hawkins’ core conviction is quite simple: selling sexual acts for money is exploitative, and corporations should bear the responsibility for enabling sexually explicit content and profiting from it.  

A lot of Hawkins’ advocacy consists of urging big tech companies to remove ubiquitous illegal sexual content, take measures against online trafficking, and make devices and various platforms safe for kids. Every year, the national center picks 12 companies (the “Dirty Dozen list,”) to call out for enabling sexual exploitation and profiting from it. Putting consistent pressure on companies has proven successful, Hawkins says. Over the past decade, there have been about 120 policy changes in mainstream corporations, from Delta Airlines to Amazon and Verizon.

Dawn Hawkins, chief executive officer of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, poses for a portrait in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. | Joshua Roberts, for the Deseret News

After years of regular meetings at Google, where Hawkins asked company representatives to put built-in protective software on Chromebooks used by K-12 students, she’s finally celebrating a victory. And those parental controls on your child’s Netflix account? That too, she says, was in part the result of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s advocacy efforts. Netflix now has some of the strongest parental controls on streaming platforms. But she’s frustrated at how slow and incremental change sometimes can be. “Asking Google to make that common sense change … shouldn’t have taken years and so much grassroots organizing,” she says. “To be blunt — it’s too slow.”  

For Hawkins, behind each lawsuit and advocacy push are heartbreaking human stories that fuel her fight. One social media website refused to take down explicit footage of two teenage boys. The footage had been posted without their permission and they were harassed at school as the footage collected views and retweets. A woman begged PornHub to take down videos that her husband had secretly recorded of her.

Hawkins grew visibly indignant recalling a recent meeting with one of the world’s largest tech firms. While the executives denounced child abuse content, they tried to justify that it’s “just pictures and videos.” This line of thinking — that somehow being trafficked online through photos and videos is less harmful than in-person prostitution — is appalling to Hawkins. “I was like, what? I’m sitting with victims and their parents who cannot move on with life because these images keep being uploaded endlessly,” she said. “They’re facing lifelong trauma that will take an immense amount of work to heal from.” 

In a more aggressive effort to speed up change, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation started a law center to sue companies that facilitate exploitation and refuse to take down exploitation content. In the last two years, the organization filed nine lawsuits as co-counsel and helped file a dozen others — among them are class action lawsuits against PornHub and XVideos. A lawsuit against Twitter, too, has been moving through the courts. 

In her fight against pornography, she’s focused on dismantling the industry’s infrastructure — the distributors, advertisers, tech support, consumer services, and most importantly, sex buyers. Existing efforts have neglected those consuming the content, allowing the demand to push more victims into the industry. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation’s advocacy led MasterCard, Visa, and Discover to stop processing payments for PornHub. In the last year, six states — Utah most recently — passed laws that increase accountability for buyers through jail time or fines. “The only way to solve the problem of sex trafficking is to stop sex buying,” she said. “Without sex buyers, there would be no industry.”

For Hawkins, behind each lawsuit and advocacy push are heartbreaking human stories that fuel her fight.

With the rising movement to decriminalize prostitution and protect sex workers’ rights, Hawkins is the rare voice that remains unequivocal about the harms of exchanging sexual conduct for money under any circumstances. Viewing sex work as a legitimate career choice is problematic, Hawkins says, because any trade of sex for money involves coercion, risk of sexual assault and rape, and other degrading attitudes — all of which violate respect for human rights and dignity. The national center has taken a stance against full decriminalization of prostitution, which, according to sex work activists, would endanger sex workers.

The voices who claim empowerment through sex work, Hawkins says, comprise a small percentage amid the majority who are exploited, harmed or traumatized. “I talk to hundreds of survivors of prostitution, trafficking and pornography, and they’re not empowered,” she says. “They didn’t feel like they had a choice.” 

On a recent sunny afternoon, Hawkins took her kids on a walk before she dashed off to the airport. She had been invited to speak before the Hungarian parliament and legislators from Europe and South America about policy solutions and legislation models to curb sexual exploitation. Days later, behind a hefty wooden podium, donning a blue dress and white blazer, she spoke to a hall full of dignitaries from all over the world.

She no longer had a name tag, but she was still on a mission. Coming full circle in her life’s journey, she told the audience that “It was here in Hungary that I felt a calling from God to defend human dignity.”

She proposed a slew of solutions to keep big tech accountable through government regulations and to protect her family and children the world over. “No matter what I do, I can’t protect them from the pernicious evils online,” she said. “And this needs to change.”  

Dawn Hawkins, chief executive officer of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, poses for a portrait in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, June 8, 2022. | Joshua Roberts, for the Deseret News