You are not Defined by Your Trauma: An Interview with Abrianna Morales
Abrianna Morales is a sexual assault survivor, activist, and advocate for victims’ rights and empowerment for survivors of sexual assault. Following her experiences as a sexual assault survivor she felt compelled to create a resource for young sexual assault survivors that focused on emotional, social, and legal support, as well as empowerment: the Sexual Assault Youth Support Network (SAYSN). I met Abrianna at the 2017 TEDxABQWomen event where she told her story to a live audience of more than 500 people. Abrianna's story is powerful, inspiring, and humbling, and I knew I wanted to share it with the Cushy community.
What is SAYSN and how did it come to be?
Sexual Assault Youth Support Network (SAYSN), is a resource specifically made by and for youth survivors of sexual assault and those who support them. From articles, creative writing, essays, etc. to informational guides on reporting and coping with trauma, SAYSN aims to change the way we approach sexual assault as a society, based on principles of support, empowerment, and connection for youth survivors.
The founding of SAYSN was heavily inspired by my own experiences as a youth sexual assault survivor. When I was 15 I was sexually assaulted, and when faced with trauma and social ostracism, I noticed a clear deficit in resources for youth survivors of sexual assault, specifically. Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted, and every eight minutes, that American is a child. Youth sexual assault survivors are a large, relatively neglected demographic. I know what it’s like to cope with sexual assault and the emotional aftermath. I felt alone and I know other survivors feel the same way. I wanted to create the resource I needed when first dealing with sexual assault. I want to support, empower, and connect other survivors—to help them make their voices heard.
Tell us about the "I Am" Series. What was your goal with this project?
The “I Am” Series is our first and primary public awareness project. It’s a photo series that aims to illustrate the diversity of those impacted by sexual assault, display an existing support network, and shatter stereotypes about the “kind of people” that are sexual assault survivors. The premise of the project is to photograph survivors holding a sign that says, “I am a sexual assault survivor, and I am _____” They write in their own adjectives or words to complete the sentence, to show they’re not defined by their trauma, and that they’re so much more than “just” sexual assault survivors. They’re strong, intelligent, beautiful, and more.
The "I Am: Series
A photo series that aims to illustrate the diversity of those impacted by sexual assault, display an existing support network, and shatter stereotypes about the “kind of people” that are sexual assault survivors.
What’s the biggest challenge you have overcome?
Overcoming and recovering from being sexually assaulted was definitely a huge challenge—mentally and emotionally. There’s a lot that comes with it, and it’s ongoing—recovery is a continuous process and it’s not always pretty. I have my good days and my bad days, I cope with PTSD, I’ve been ostracized by my peers, I’ve dealt with victim-blaming, and more.
Immediately after I was sexually assaulted I felt like a shell of the girl I once was—like I could never be that girl again. But I eventually found my voice: I founded SAYSN and I continue to advocate for youth survivors, to empower them to use their voices as well. For me, it didn’t come easily, and even now, it’s not always easy. It’s a challenge I still face and continue to overcome.
If you could give one piece of advice to a sexual assault survivor what would it be?
I’d say never forget that you aren’t defined by your trauma, but by the actions you take to overcome it. You aren’t “just” a sexual assault survivor. You’re strong, you have a voice. You survived, and you will thrive; recovery will not be easy, but it will be worth it. In short, don’t give up.
How can those close to a sexual assault survivor offer support?
Believing them is one of the most supportive things a person can do. “I believe you” can be an incredibly comforting thing to hear as a survivor that is coming forward. If a survivor is coming forward to you and sharing their story, they trust you—return their trust. Believe them, reassure them that it wasn’t their fault, and ask what kind of support they need from you—whether it be assisting them in filing a police report or just being a supportive peer, you help sexual assault survivors through believing and understanding them.
What are your thoughts on the #metoo movement?
I think the #MeToo movement is really wonderful. SAYSN was founded a few months prior, and to have grown as an organization with such a strong and important social movement is incredibly gratifying. This movement is igniting important societal discussions about sexual assault and harassment; perspectives are changing, people are coming forward, and it’s empowering for so many. It’s very reminiscent of the anti-rape movement of the 1970s and I am honored to say that SAYSN is a part of this new revolution—we’re part of the conversation, and we’re going to keep the conversation going. Though we still have a long way to go as a society when it comes to sexual assault, the #MeToo movement is a wonderful step in the right direction.
SAYSN and #MeToo
We’re part of the conversation, and we’re going to keep the conversation going.
What are you most excited about right now?
I’m really excited about SAYSN’s next event for April—Sexual Assault Awareness Month! I’ve been planning another photoshoot for the “I Am” series, to allow more survivors to get involved and keep the project going. We’re planning for April 8th on the New Mexico State University campus (in Las Cruces, NM) to spark more student involvement, and I’m super excited to meet other survivors and add to the “I Am” Series.
What inspires you?
The ability to help other survivors has been the most inspiring and gratifying aspect of founding SAYSN. When I first launched the organization, I remember being flooded with emails and messages from survivors sharing their stories and wanting to get involved. Knowing that SAYSN can help survivors use their voices to speak out is a large motivator for what I do with the organization. It’s a lot of work, but to me, it’s more than worth it.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. It’s a biography about Chris McCandless, a young man that tragically died in the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1990s. The biography examines his life, told by those who knew and met him leading up to his death. I’ve always enjoyed non-fiction, and while this book is a bit melancholy, it provides some philosophical insight about life and how it can best be lived.
How do you take care of yourself? Do you have a self-care routine?
I definitely try to make self-care a priority. Unfortunately, it tends to fall by the wayside, most of the time—I’m a full-time high school student with extracurriculars and I run SAYSN. I definitely keep myself busy. When I have time, though, I like to take care of myself by temporarily disconnecting from social media and work—I’ll read, write poetry, put on a face mask, listen to music, or otherwise relax, independently.