TIME Sexual Assault

Miss USA Contestant Addresses Sexual Assault as a ‘Child of Rape’

Valerie Gatto
Miss Pennsylvania USA Valerie Gatto attends the 2014 Miss USA preliminary competition in Baton Rouge, La., on June 4, 2014. Stacy Revere—Getty Images

Miss Pennsylvania, Valerie Gatto, says she's drawing on her personal history to support sexual assault education.

Sexual assault awareness has gained a new and unexpected voice in Valerie Gatto, a Miss USA contestant who describes herself as a “product of rape.”

The 24-year-old marketing consultant told NBC’s TODAY.com the story of her mother, who became pregnant at age 19 after she was raped at knifepoint.

“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. “I believe God put me here for a reason: to inspire people, to encourage them, to give them hope that everything is possible and you can’t let your circumstances define your life.”

Gatto first learned of the assault when she was in the third grade and began to ask about her father. Her mother responded, “Something bad happened to me. A very bad man hurt me but God gave me you.”

Gatto’s message focuses on ways potential victims can reduce their risk of an attack: “I hope to show others how to be proactive, what to do, to be present, to be aware of your surroundings, little things like that,” Gatto told TODAY. The comments put her in the middle of the national debate about how best to prevent sexual assault. Campuses across the country are putting in place buddy systems and other safety measures, but many advocates for sexual assault survivors avoid emphasizing how women can avoid sexual assault because they believe that approach places too much responsibility for an attack on the victim and doesn’t take into account the fact that most know their attacker.

“I’m not sharing this story for publicity. I’m not doing this for any selfish reasons,” says Gatto, who will compete in the Miss USA competition on Sunday. “I truly am doing this to change the world and make a difference.”

(You can read more of TIME’s coverage of the sexual assault debate here.)

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