Aiming to raise awareness of the commercial sexual exploitation of children, “More Than a Survivor: More Than a Story” — a photo project featuring the portraits of 22 women who are survivor leaders from across the country — opened to the public Monday in the Willard Straight Hall Art Gallery.
The exhibit has taken more than a year of effort from Cornell organization Students Against the Sexual Solicitation of Youth — also known as SASSY — and is a traveling photo project that offers an alternative narrative for victims of commercial sexual exploitation or domestic trafficking.
At the opening reception for the exhibit, SASSY co-president Shiwani Bisht ’16 explained in her speech that the exhibit was based on “Survivor Leader Transition” or the the concept that survivors of sexual exploitation are more than their traumas.
“The women in the photographs around us are beautiful, empowered and successful people who are more than a collection of traumatic events,” Bisht said. “They have become leaders by telling their stories, sharing their growth and combating commercial sexual exploitation in their own distinct way.”
Bisht then cited several examples of how the women in the photographs had overcome their traumas to become leaders in the arts, in science, in politics and even by fighting and protecting other victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
In addition to celebrating the diversity, strength and accomplishments of the featured survivors, the exhibit also aims to “inspire a tangible sense of hope and future” for other sexually exploited or trafficked women, according to a press release.
The “More Than a Survivor: More Than a Story” exhibit is part of a larger campaign by the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services — a New York State organization serving women who have been sexually exploited or domestically trafficked — and their Survivor Leadership Institute and Resource Center, which provides survivors with leadership training, a chance to connect with other survivors and the opportunity work toward ending commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking.
SASSY, which has been working since the fall of 2014 to bring the exhibit to campus, was founded in 2009 after several Cornell students attended an Alternative Spring Break trip working with Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. After returning, the students formed SASSY. and worked to further the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services’ mission on Cornell’s campus.
In particular, SASSY has focused on educating Cornellians about and fighting negative stereotypes surrounding the “commercial sexual exploitation of children,” which Bisht defined as a form of violence involving “any sexual activity involving a child in exchange for something of value to the child or another person or persons.”
Elaborating on the importance of the exhibit and the work that SASSY does, Bisht added in her speech that between 100,000 to 300,000 children, who have previously had a history of sexual abuse, are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation a year.
“[Commercial exploitation of children] impacts all of us. It may not be easily visible in a community, but it’s prevalent everywhere,” Bisht said. “Many think this is an international issue, but in reality it happens in the United States as well. You may not be aware that someone you are connected with is also a survivor of [commercial exploitation of children].”
Andrew Lee contributed reporting.