In an interview with Bloomberg News, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said that she was raped while in college, making her one of the highest-profile women in Congress to share an experience with sexual assault.
“I was embarrassed,” she said of her decision not to tell. “I didn’t know how to explain it. I was so humiliated. And I’m a private person, when it comes to those things.”
Only 1 in 4 sexual assaults are reported to the police, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). And 20 percent of female students report assaults to the police, RAINN says.
The senator, who was elected in 2014 after running on a staunchly conservative platform, adds a Republican voice to the national conversation about sexual assault, also known as #MeToo. Ernst’s office declined an interview request from The Washington Post.
“I didn’t want to share it with anybody, and in the era of hashtag-MeToo survivors, I always believed that every person is different and they will confront their demons when they’re ready. And I was not ready,” Ernst said.
But this week, court documents from her divorce became public, alleging physical and emotional abuse by her ex-husband, Gail Ernst, putting her private life in the spotlight. The documents were quickly sealed after initially being made public. The Post requested them Tuesday, but another order was filed that prevented access.
The Post attempted to contact Gail Ernst’s lawyer, Ivan Miller, but his law office declined the request.
While the documents’ revelation that she had turned down a chance at being Donald Trump’s running mate in 2016 made headlines, they also paint a portrait of a long-troubled marriage. They had married in 1992.
“He hated any successes I had and would belittle me and get angry any time I achieved a goal,” Ernst, 48, who is vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and the only woman in Senate Republican leadership, said in an affidavit obtained by the Guardian.
Gail Ernst, writing in his own affidavit, insisted, “I gave up all my aspirations and goals to be a good dad and husband so Joni could pursue her dreams.”
“He began hanging out at the babysitter’s house, even when [their daughter] wasn’t there,” Ernst wrote in the affidavit, as reported by CityView. “I confronted him about the situation, and we went through a very dark and troubling time in our marriage. I very nearly filed for divorce after a night that we argued, and it became physical. I fled the house [with their daughter] and went to my mother’s house in the middle of the night.”
She alleged other affairs, while Gail Ernst claimed that she’d “dated other men while in D.C.,” something the senator denies.
“What I want people to understand is that I was the same person I was last week,” Ernst told the Des Moines Register after her divorce papers were made public. She continued, “You just know more about what’s inside of me now.”
Women across the political spectrum voiced their support for Ernst. “It makes me want to cry,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told CNN on Thursday. Dingell has said she experienced sexual harassment in Washington, and vowed, "I will be with Joni Ernst wherever she is trying to stick up for sexual assault survivors and domestic violence survivors. Because you do survive. You can go on. It doesn’t define you but it never stops hurting.”
Congress has dealt with sexual misconduct allegations and investigations since the #MeToo movement began in 2017. Several male legislators resigned as a result of accusations.
In late 2017, two high-profile controversies hit the Senate, and Ernst spoke out about both. After The Post revealed that Roy Moore, a Republican Senate candidate from Alabama, had allegedly dated underage girls, per her staff, Ernst said, “If the allegations are true, he needs to step aside."
"There is no place for sexual assault or harassment in our society,” Ernst said in 2017, when Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was accused of misconduct by multiple women. He later resigned because of pressure within his party.
At the same time, Ernst has been a staunch supporter of President Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by several women.
She also voted to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court after he had been accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford. Ford alleged that Kavanaugh and a friend had assaulted her at a party when they were in high school, and the two gave emotional testimony during the Senate confirmation process.
Ernst told Bloomberg that her political positions did not contradict her status as a survivor. “I do believe [Ford] experienced trauma, but the evidence and witnesses presented by her contradicted her story,” she said.
Ernst is not the first Republican senator to share that she had been sexually abused. During her Senate campaign last year, Martha McSally (Ariz.) told the Wall Street Journal that she had been sexually abused by a high school coach. “The adversity strengthened me so that I could be in a position to make a difference today,” she later told The Post, referring to her decision to speak up.
McSally lost her Senate race but was later appointed to fill the seat of the late John McCain (R), and she now serves alongside Ernst.
Alice Li contributed to this report.