The Miss USA pageant displayed plenty of fanfare, bathing suits and glitter Sunday night. While the contest is not usually known for its powerful feminist messaging, this year's event broached surprisingly serious topics ranging from body image to college sexual assault.
Perhaps the most compelling narrative came from Miss Pennsylvania, whose personal backstory is raising awareness of an issue rarely broached in the press.
Valerie Gatto, who finished in the top 20 at the event, used her story of being a child of rape to increase awareness about sexual assault and the stigma surrounding children conceived during a rape.
In the run-up to the event, the 24-year-old said she wants to help young women understand there is no shame associated with the often overlooked topic. While sexual assault awareness is becoming more and more a part of the national conversation, what happens after those assaults is far less publicized. Indeed, Felicia H. Stewart and James Trussell estimated in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that there are approximately 25,000 rape-related pregnancies in the United States each year. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that number was closer to 32,000.
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Gatto, a marketing consultant for a periodontal practice, should be commended for revealing this sensitive detail of her life story.
"Being a child of a rape, not knowing who my father is, not knowing if he's ever been found, most people would think it’s such a negative situation," Gatto told TODAY.com last week, noting that her goal is to shatter such perceptions. "I grew up with my mom and my grandparents. They never looked at it as something negative. I have a loving, supportive family who told me I could be the president of the United States."
When she was 6 years old, Gatto began asking questions about her absent father, whom she'd never met. She was initially told that a man hurt her mother really bad, but later learned that her biological father had raped her mother at knifepoint after she left her Pittsburgh office.
This is a common strategy for revealing such traumatic information.
"Most mothers wait until the child is about 12 or 13 before fully disclosing the rape," Slate columnist Brian Palmer noted. "Children at this point become curious about the full details of the incident, and mothers typically feel that the only option is to answer those questions honestly. People involved in these cases say the most important thing is to avoid painting the father as a monster: Even small children worry that they might share some of a rapist father’s traits."
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Though Gatto did not earn the Miss USA crown, her outreach has not gone unnoticed.
Gatto participated in International Men's March to stop rape, sexual assault and gender violence and, hopefully, she won't let the setback of her loss at the pageant stop her from continuing to spread the word on this important issue. For years, the prevailing narrative when it comes to these types of pregnancies has been one of despair and unhappiness. These children are, as TIME's Judith Warner wrote in 2012, "born under the curse of the worst sort of physical and emotional violation."
"If you know me, you know that I have always been vocal about my story and an advocate for sexual assault and rape," Gatto wrote on her Facebook page. "Now, to see everything unfold to the world, it is fulfilling and life changing.
"Being a voice is life-changing, and I just want to keep going."