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DEPARTMENT: Great Escapes
In July 2010, the Washington Post Magazine ran a story about Donna Rice Hughes in its "Whatever Happened To . . ." feature. Completing the title were the words, "the woman on the senator's lap." Even without the accompanying photo of then Donna Rice and former Senator Gary Hart, it's likely that infamous image would have come to mind, despite the fact that it dates back to 1987. Growing up, it's probably the last kind of image Donna Rice would have expected to be known for.
Hughes was raised a Christian, and describes coming to faith on a very personal level at a Cliff Barrows crusade when she was in ninth grade. She was very involved in her church, singing in the choir, being part of the youth group, and going on mission trips. She attended the University of South Carolina, where she excelled, graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. But toward the end of her college career, she began to drift from her faith, a not uncommon experience for teenagers and young adults. As she put it in an interview, "You don't go from A to Z overnight. You just make little, subtle compromises in your life." In retrospect, she believes one pivotal event was when her pastor, along with the youth leader and most of her church's senior staff, left for a church in another state. But other friends of hers were drifting, too.
College graduation was also a critical time for her. "I really didn't know where to go next. I had big expectations, and not a lot of guidance." She entered the Miss South Carolina/World beauty pageant, and won. That meant a trip to New York to compete nationally, a trip that would bring about another turning point— a tragic one—in her life.
She speaks about it openly now, but at the time kept it to herself. "I was date-raped on my way to New York by an older man who was involved with the pageant system, and lost my virginity at that time." It was a devastating experience that had long-lasting consequences for Hughes. "I went from wanting to save myself for marriage to feeling like I was used goods." And she started making what she calls poor choices when it came to dating. She describes the next few years as full of unhealthy relationships with guys, and not having many Christian friends in her life. Still, she says she would often feel a draw back to her faith, although it would be some time before she acted on it.
Scandal, Healing & Return
Then came the scandal that would catapult her to unwanted fame. When the photo of her sitting on the lap of presidential hopeful Gary Hart was publicized, and their relationship came to light, her world changed forever. "It devastated a lot of people, including me and my family. At that point, everything I'd put my confidence and trust in—my reputation, my educational background, my professional credibility—just fell apart." She was headline-making news around the world, which couldn't seem to get enough of the scandal. Within a week, Hart dropped out of the race, and Hughes found herself at a crossroads.
Offers poured in, some exploitive and some credible. She was encouraged to try and restore her reputation and make some money doing it. "On the other hand," she recounts, "God was saying, 'OK, are you going to do it this way or are you going to do it my way?'"
It was the beginning of her return to faith. For seven years she went underground, as she describes it, keeping out of the public eye. "It took that amount of time to heal." She married Jack Hughes, became stepmother to his children, moved to Washington, and started working for the anti-pornography organization Enough Is Enough. She had doubts about being in Washington, and, she says, "I couldn't figure out how God was going to use this in a positive way."
In those days, Enough Is Enough (www.enough.org) was primarily focused on fighting pornography and the sexual exploitation of children. Hughes would later help expand the organization's mission to focus on Internet safety: keeping children safe from exposure to pornography and predators, and educating parents to help in those efforts. "I remember telling my boss that this [the Internet] was going to be the next really big frontier in communications, and that the bad guys—the pornographers and the predators—would be exploiting this technology." She was given the green light to develop an Internet safety program. In so doing, she knew she'd be working with Congress, the media, and the public.
It wasn't easy for Hughes to put herself voluntarily back in the public eye. She recalls sleepless nights and nerve-wracking days. "We had a big launch on Capitol Hill," she recalls, "and I was Donna Rice Hughes. People didn't put it together." Eventually a New York Times reporter figured out who she was, but there was no hue and cry. "This reporter asked the senators I'd been dealing with what it was like working with Donna Rice, and they had no idea what he was talking about!"
Working for Internet Safety
Hughes speaks proudly of the work Enough Is Enough has done over the years, and continues to do. "For many years, Enough Is Enough has really helped shape the way we approach Internet safety by using a three-pronged approach: getting the public involved through education, making sure the technology industry is doing its part, and working with the legal community to enforce the laws." Her workload has just expanded to include fundraising, as EIE becomes a private, non-profit organization without any more government assistance.
The EIE website gives parents age-based guidelines on Internet use, recommendations for filtering and monitoring software, advice on parental controls, and social networking sites for tweens.
Hughes is especially proud of the Internet Safety 101 program, which includes DVDs, workbooks, and other tools for parents, and has just been made available in Spanish. Hughes herself hosts the teaching series on DVD, which includes poignant and painful stories told by both parents and young people.
One is the story of a mother whose four-year-old son tried to insert a play toy into his two-year-old sister while they took a bath together. Naturally horrified, the mother asked what he was doing. The little boy explained that he was just copying what he saw someone do on the Internet.
Another mother recounts discovering that her then 11-year-old son was using pornography. By that time, he had already downloaded hundreds of images. Hughes says the reason she likes sharing this particular story is that the parents—friends of hers—are wonderful, loving parents who thought they were doing everything right. Sadly, their son was drawn into the world of pornography, and became addicted. "He's now in his mid-twenties and is just coming out on the other end. But it completely took over his life for years." Hughes is quick to add that not every child exposed to pornography will become addicted, but it does happen. "Even if it doesn't, once seen, those images are not erased. They start to change attitudes and thoughts about sexuality."
Hughes is passionate about her work, and about the cause of Internet safety. She believes that, to some degree, there's still a "boys will be boys" mentality when it comes to pornography.
First of all, parents need to understand that girls are using pornography as much as boys are. Second, the kind of pornography out there is very hardcore and much of it is deviant. Almost every parent I've talked to whose kid has gotten into pornography is using some very deviant stuff. And you have to understand it's not just graphic sex acts anymore. It's violent, with rape and torture. There's bestiality and excretory porn—stuff many parents have probably never even heard of.
She says that parents need to understand how aggressive the pornographers are and how they go after kids. "I came from the days when Lucy and Desi didn't even sleep in the same bed. Today kids can be exposed to hardcore pornography at the touch of a button on their laptop or smart phone."
Starting Over with God
Looking back on her own life and her drift away from faith, Hughes believes that young people are especially vulnerable at transitional times, like when they start high school or go off to college. And she thinks having strong relationships with mentors can be critical. She also believes that it's important for people to remember that they can always have a clean slate with God, whether they've been involved with sex, drugs, or pornography. "You can always start over with God."
Hughes also thinks God must have a great sense of humor. "He put me back on the horse that threw me, and answered my prayer. I wanted all that pain to count for something bigger than me." •
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