In 2017, 16-year-old high school student Abrianna Morales formed the Sexual Assault Youth Support Network. What started as a small, independent project has since become a place for victims of sexual violence to find stories like theirs and share a safe space after traumatizing experiences.
Morales, now a senior at the University of New Mexico, started SAYSN following an experience with sexual violence. While it started small, 2019 marked the year the network was fully incorporated, having registered as a nonprofit with tax exemption status and taking a step toward becoming a larger project, according to Morales.
“It was pretty informal; I had a couple of friends in high school that I worked with on it and, really, it was an independent endeavor for a few years. Just in 2019 was when we formally incorporated,” Morales said.
Morales said the idea for the organization first started because there weren’t any spaces with that purpose after her own experience.
“I felt incredibly unsupported, and I felt like I had nobody my age to talk to about what was going on. So I turned to the internet … and couldn’t find anyone like myself that I could relate to,” Morales said. “All the resources out there for kids felt very ‘Disney Channel’ ‘kid-ified’ and didn’t feel like they were acknowledging the things that I needed to see in the resources out there.”
One of SAYSN’s largest ongoing projects is the “I Am” series, first started by Morales in 2017. It consists of a series of photos of survivors of sexual violence holding whiteboards with the words, “I am a sexual assault survivor and I am,” followed by each individual’s description of themselves. The project is intended to distance the idea of victimhood or survival from a participant’s personhood, according to Morales.
“(It) shows that victimization doesn’t define them. Their face is also in the photo if they want it to be, which shows the intersectionality of all the people that experience sexual violence,” Morales said.
Another of SAYSN’s current endeavors is their advocacy for SB 82. This bill would lift the statute of limitations for criminal sexual penetration of a minor and expand the statute of limitations to 15 years for criminal sexual penetration in the second degree. The current statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse is either by the time the survivor turns 24 or three years after learning of the abuse, according to New Mexico law.
“What this bill does is it allows survivors the amount of time that they need to heal before they come forward with the case,” Morales said.
The goal of SAYSN is to destigmatize the healing process for people who have suffered sexual trauma, allowing that process to take as much time as it needs. The statute of limitations sets a deadline for survivors to have appropriately dealt with their trauma and be prepared to seek legal justice, a deadline that is both artificial and arbitrary, according to Morales.
“Opening up these legal extensions, removing the statute of limitations to allow for more time just makes it so that we can remove those arbitrary narratives and constructs around what it means to be a survivor and what it means to come forward and pursue justice,” Morales said.
SAYSN often works in conjunction with the Women's Resource Center, which helps provide the necessary resources for students to advocate for themselves. Earlier in February, SAYSN hosted a calling party with the WRC, at which attendees called local senators to discuss SB 82, according to Morales.
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“Just calling your senators, calling the legislators that are set to be hearing (a) bill and just advocating for it and saying that you care about it is one of the easier things to do,” Morales said.
You can keep up with SAYSN via their website or on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @saysnofficial. Students are invited to participate in an upcoming “I Am” photoshoot on UNM Campus at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 4 at the WRC, and to send in submissions of essays or creative nonfiction to SAYSN’s blog “render,” which can also be found on their website.
Detroit Kallunki is a freelance reporter with the Daily Lobo. They can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @DailyLobo.