Internet Safety Expert
Raised in a traditional southern family, catapulted overnight into the national spotlight, Donna Rice Hughes went from career-minded college graduate to become the center of a political scandal that contributed to the end of a presidential campaign.
Today, she is CEO of Enough Is Enough, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to make the internet safer for families and children.
How many places did you live as a child?
My father worked for the Federal Highway Administration, so we usually lived in capital cities. I was born in New Orleans and lived there for three months. Next, we lived in Tallahassee, Florida for eight years, Atlanta for nine months, and then Columbia, South Carolina until I graduated from the University of South Carolina. My mother worked for the State Forestry Commission.
You had a dual degree, were Phi Beta Kappa and a university cheerleader?
I had a biology pre-med degree with a minor in business. I didn’t know what Phi Beta Kappa was when I received the invitation. It was a real honor to be asked to join Phi Beta Kappa my junior year. I served on the Mortar Board and Honor Society and yes, somehow managed to be a cheerleader. It was a busy college career, and I loved it. Four of the best years of my life.
You entered into the pageantry world as well. How old were you when you started doing pageants?
Well, my mother thought I was an awkward tween. We didn’t use that word back then, but I had braces and not great skin, wiry hair. This is before blow dryers and curlers. She sent me to a modeling school, so I could learn how to wear makeup and walk. I started modeling and did my first commercial in the ninth grade for Pizza Hut. Before I knew it, I was being asked to do some pageants. I only did a few.
But you were Miss South Carolina?
I was Miss South Carolina in the Miss World Pageant. There are three signature pageants: America, Universe and World. I won World, which is bigger overseas. It really wasn’t a big deal.
You are tiny. What is your height?
My height is 5’6”, and I’m not as tiny as I used to be. Unfortunately, sitting in front of a computer for 25 years and not being that active has resulted in being a good 20 pounds over what I was in school. I was the smallest cheerleader on the squad. I was the one at the top, and I was fearless.
In your 20s, you became known as the beautiful, “It Girl” from South Carolina. Tell me about that.
Wow. Well, I’ve never heard that before. My family and my faith were very important to me. I was committed to make a difference. I believed in excellence in everything that I did. I was just really blessed to have good people around me; great friends and a lot of opportunities came to me. I didn’t realize that I had any leadership ability until I went out for cheerleading at Carolina. I honestly did it because I was trying to keep a 4.0 GPA. I had a physiology test and a high-level accounting test on the same day. I had not studied for the accounting test, and somebody said, “If you go out for cheerleading, you could get an excuse to get out of the test.” So, I went out, and I was chosen for one of the two remaining spots on a six-girl varsity squad. I just loved it. I really did. I learned that I had some leadership skills, and we actually got a lot of things in motion at Carolina including the Gamecock cheer.
What is your greatest accomplishment to date?
We have accomplished significant things at Enough Is Enough. I would say having the perception, in 1993, ‘94, to see how the internet was going to be impacted by the criminal element, the pornographers and the sexual predators. We helped to start the internet safety
movement in this country by pioneering that initiative with a whole team and having the vision and the fortitude to get out there and say, “We need to do something about this!” That is an accomplishment I am most proud of.
What was a childhood dream that you realized?
A dream of mine was to use my gifts and my talents to fulfill my destiny and my purpose. That is an odd thing to say, but I wrote that on my first resume when I graduated from college. They said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I’m not sure exactly, but I want to be used to the fullest of my potential to fulfill my God-given destiny that I am here on this Earth to do.”
What is God’s Will for you?
I think finding God’s Will is an interesting challenge. I didn’t start out knowing His Will. In my “prodigal twenties,” I bounced around a bit and lived a gypsy-like life. I put my confidence in people and made some wrong choices. I wanted everything that I was going through right then (1987) to count for something bigger than me. There was a lot of personal pain involved with my family and other people too. Seven years later, I met the lady that started Enough Is Enough. The organization was founded by a group of women; Dee Jepsen, who was the president, Tipper Gore and Susan Baker. They saw the problem of pornography in print and broadcast, especially hardcore material. Enough Is Enough was started in 1992, and I started with the organization in ‘94 as their communications director. Dee Jepsen explained that pornography promotes many myths. One of them is that when a woman says ‘no,’ she really means ‘yes’ and wants to be violated. I heard those exact same words when I was 22 and lost my virginity against my will. At the time, we did not have a name for it. Today, it is called date rape. Her words seemed to give me a green light to get involved in this issue. We had no way of knowing what was coming down the line with the internet. Two weeks into it, we saw the beginnings of what would happen. This was an issue that had not seen the light of day. I knew that I was being called to this line of work because I already had an international media platform. We used the opportunity to bring these issues before the national media, Congress and thought leaders. Our message was simple: sexual predators and pornographers have easy access to our kids. The internet safety movement was started in 1995 in an effort to get out in front of this problem.
What happened at age 22?
I actually dated really great guys through high school and college, Christian guys that respected my boundaries. I began to compromise over time. I always say you don’t go from A to Z overnight. You make these little left turns, and that’s what happened to me. I started dating some guys who did not share my faith and did not respect my boundaries, and one of them took advantage of that.
Were you here in Washington at the time?
I was in Columbia, South Carolina where I grew up, and I was on my way to New York as Miss South Carolina. I didn’t tell anybody because I was ashamed. I thought it was my fault. This happens a lot with women. We are seeing that in the #MeToo movement where you hear women saying, “I thought it was just me.” Unfortunately, this attitude has silenced sexually abused young women and girls, and even young boys, for a long time. Shame keeps us in the dark. I stayed in the dark, and I didn’t share that with anybody for many years.
Did you ever think about prosecuting that person or exposing the man who violated you?
I did not, and I’ll tell you why. The next day he called me and apologized. The experience led me to this line of work. He said, “I didn’t realize that you really meant ‘no.’ I thought you were playing a game and that you meant ‘yes.’” I thought that was very odd at the time. Fast forward many, many years later, when my boss, Dee, was hiring me for Enough Is Enough. She said that one of the myths of porn messaging is that women really want to be taken advantage of. Violent content, where women are objectified, sends a message in this man’s world that those kinds of sex games are permissible. That certainly wasn’t my case and my story. I really meant no.
Do you remember the first person you told what had happened?
I’m not sure that I remember. I believe I told a couple of friends along the way. It was years later that I spoke out and even then, I minimized it.
When you see women coming forward now with a similar story, what do you think?
I say, “Good for them for bringing it into the light.” What is most important in healing is to be able to talk about something and to realize that you’re not alone. I had worked through so much, especially once I began this work, that I didn’t have any of the pent-up anger or animosity that we see in many women; it’s normal, and it’s good to get it out and start talking about it. We live in a culture that has been saturated with hardcore internet pornography for the past two decades. At Enough Is Enough, we’ve been fighting that to get stronger laws passed and the laws we have on the books aggressively enforced. America is still the number one producer and exporter of hardcore material that is not protected speech. Young people are growing up with a steady diet of very extreme material.
At 22, you were taken advantage of. How did that affect you?
As a young Christian girl, I was taught and believed that I wanted to save myself—my virtue—for marriage. When that was taken from me, I didn’t understand that I could choose to enter into a second virginity. You can say, “I went this direction, but I want to have a life of sexual integrity and purity before I get married.” Well, you can go back to that. Regardless of how or why that innocence has been shattered, that doesn’t mean that you need to continue in that direction. I just continued to make a series of not very good choices when it came to the people that I dated and went out with.
You were in Florida, and you met Gary Hart. Did you know who he was?
I did not know who Gary Hart was when I first met him. Interestingly enough, he had invited me to dinner. At that time, he had not entered the presidential race. His name had not been in the public eye for maybe four years. Not being a political animal, I called my parents, and I said, “I know this man is in politics, but I’m not sure what he does. I am embarrassed, and I don’t want to seem ignorant.” My dad said, “Well, he’s definitely been in politics. I’m not sure what he’s doing now. I’ll check it out.” And my mother, being about as apolitical as I was, said, “I think he’s got a TV show.” I said, “Mama, that’s Gary Collins.” Wrong Gary. So, I went out on the date and the Bimini trip. I did find out that he was married because I asked.
You found out before or after the trip?
During the trip, I found out.
Did you know what was even close to bubbling up?
I had absolutely no idea what was about to happen. I did not know that he was going to run for the President of the United States. He announced it two weeks later. That was when a lot of information about him and his womanizing surfaced in the media. I saw him one more time when I went to Washington, D.C. Two girls that I thought were friends tipped off the Miami Herald and reporters began following me. The result of that visit was a huge story and the scandal that followed changed my life forever.
I have not spoken to the woman who called the Herald. In fact, I didn’t even know who it was. I didn’t understand what had happened or why it had happened until many weeks later when the National Enquirer bought the picture of what is described as “the lap shot” from one of the girls who had a copy of that photograph. I had talked with one of the girls until that point.
Were you set-up?
Yes. I’m not sure exactly how it happened because I, obviously, didn’t know. From the media reports that have been done since, many of which were not accurate, and books written, my understanding is that these two girls called the Miami Herald and told them that I was planning to see the Senator. They made the decision to follow me and staked out his house. I was really taken by surprise, as was everybody except those involved in the set-up.
What a betrayal from those women.
Yes, and there was a lot to this. In fact, finally, I’m planning on writing my own book. There have been so many books written over the years and even a movie based on one of these books. But I will tell you, this particular story, this scandal, was a watershed event. I was thrown into the shark-infested waters of a mainstream media that had gone tabloid. It had never happened before, so nobody knew how to handle it. The Hart Campaign didn’t know what to do, and my name was released to the media. I was forced to face the press. You can only imagine. Just that one-week has been turned into books. My life changed forever. Every day was survival and fighting false media stories. People think fake news started now? There was fake news back then. I didn’t have a publicist and attorneys. No one was there to make sure that the record was always straight. This wide-eyed southern girl that wanted to make a difference in the world, that had graduated Phi Beta Kappa, found herself in the middle of a sex scandal. It was about the worst nightmare I could ever imagine, for my family and me. My determination is what brought me back to my faith. My mother and my grandmother kept saying, “Donna don’t make any choices.” I was offered millions and millions of dollars to tell what had happened. I wanted to tell the truth, to redeem my reputation. One media reporter referred to me as the “Media’s Favorite Punching Bag” until Dan Quayle came along. When I met Vice President Quayle, I shook his hand. I said, “Thank you so much.” He said, “What?” I said, “Well, you probably haven’t heard, but, before you came along, I was considered to be the ‘Media’s Favorite Punching Bag.’ So, you’ve taken all the pressure off of me.” He and Marilyn, his wife, were both hysterically laughing. It was a year-and-a half of nonstop media focus, one story after another. But I came back to my faith. My grandmothers and my mom said, “Get your life straight with God.” Nobody knew what to do or how to respond. They kept thinking 15 minutes of fame, and it will be over. It wasn’t over. I became front and center after Gary Hart dropped out of the race, which was actually not a result of me because I didn’t say anything about what had happened.
How did you not become angry?
I was angry. I was mostly angry that in the United States of America, I had no rights to privacy. I had no rights to the truth of what had happened. I was being exploited on a regular basis by the media. I had been a model and a TV actress, and all these pictures of me were surfacing. People were selling pictures for tons of money because I wasn’t releasing anything. My only media interview was with Barbara Walters. My silence fed what I call the ‘media’s telephone game.’ They did not fact check. Once one story that was inaccurate or had false information ran, it would be repeated and then expanded on. Before you knew it, it didn’t bear any resemblance to the truth. I was angry with the girls that betrayed me. I was angry at the Hart Campaign. I was absolutely devastated. My hair started falling out, and it went gray. I don’t think I ate for a week. But the bottom line is I came back to my faith in the Lord. I said, “God, I don’t know how you are going to do this, but you have got me. I fell really hard, really fast, and you’re the only one that can pick up the pieces and make something beautiful out of a destroyed international reputation.” And he did.
What life lesson can you share with a grandchild or young person, Donna?
Well, there’s a lot wrapped up in what I would say to a grandchild or any young person. I would say, “Stay true to yourself.” With every choice along the way, and we have to make choices every day, ask the question, “What is the wise thing to do?” not the most expedient choice or what will feel good now. Recognize that every choice you make has consequences. If you make wise choices, the story of your life will reflect those choices in successful and regret- free living. I think that is so important. The other is to choose your friends very carefully because your friends can impact a lot of your choices. There is a reason that our parents told us, “This group of friends is not a good influence, and this group is.” In the Bible, we are told that bad friends can corrupt good behavior. So, pick your friends wisely because your good friends will be with you for life. Those who are a bad influence will be here today and gone tomorrow. Every single choice matters.