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'More than a Survivor' challenges stereotypes around sex-trafficking victims

“Sex trafficking is real, and it’s here,” says Rebecca Bender. “Every week, there are about 40 girls for sale here in Southern Oregon.”

Bender, a Grants Pass-based advocate for domestic and international victims of human trafficking, was one of those girls once upon a time.

Today, she is a wife, a mother of four, a CEO, author, mentor and survivor.

Bender is one of 22 survivors of sex trafficking featured in “More than a Survivor, More than a Story,” a national traveling exhibit that arrived in the Rogue Valley Monday.

As part of a month-long spotlight on sex trafficking in rural communities, Bender will speak at “Walk in Her Shoes,” a conference set for 6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16, in the Stevenson Union on the Southern Oregon University campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland.

The event is free and open to the public.

Bender, a Grants Pass High School graduate who met her trafficker on the University of Oregon campus, will share how she survived her six-year ordeal. Her presentation shows what modern-day sex slavery looks like and how to protect young people from becoming victims. She also brings a message of hope and inspiration in her testimony of triumph over trauma and trial.

“More Than a Survivor” opened Monday in the Stevenson Union Art Gallery at SOU. Visitors may view stunning photographs and compelling stories of the 22 survivors daily through Jan. 17.

Like Bender, the survivors portrayed in the exhibit have gone on to succeed in a variety of venues, including the arts, science, politics and medicine.

The exhibit moves Jan. 18 to the Rogue Valley Mall in Medford. It will be on display there until Jan. 31.

On Feb. 1, Grants Pass residents can view the exhibit at Rogue Roasters at the corner of Sixth and K streets.

“More Than a Survivor" not only spotlights the campaign to end trafficking, it also celebrates the survivors who have not let their stories of sexploitation define them.

According to a press release, the exhibit is intended to be an “antidote to the stereotypes of commercially sexually exploited and trafficked victims perpetually broken and forever limited by their trauma.”

“(The exhibit) brings to the forefront survivors’ leadership in their communities and celebrates their life, talent, skills and abilities,” says Caleb LaPlante, a member of the Greater Grants Pass Rotary Club, one of four Rotary clubs responsible for bringing the exhibit to Southern Oregon.

“It frames their lives in a positive light,” he adds. “There are great triumphs over tragedy and trauma. The survivors are more than their past.”

LaPlante became involved in the campaign to eradicate trafficking as a member of Abolish Child Trafficking in 2011. About two years ago, he and Bender became aware of the "More Than a Survivor" exhibit and have worked since to bring it here. Produced by GEMS in New York, the exhibit has traveled to large cities around the country. Southern Oregon is the first rural community to feature the exhibit.

In addition to the Greater Grants Pass Rotary, the Ashland Lithia Springs, Central Point and the Medford After 5 Rotary clubs are participating as part of the Rotarians Against Child Slavery initiative. The Asante Foundation, KOBI Channel 5, United Way and All Care are among the major underwriters of the project.

Sex trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the United States, with between 14,000 and 17,000 individuals — female and male — trafficked each year.

The exhibit is “an incredible opportunity,” LaPlante says, for the general public “to begin to understand what commercial sexual exploitation looks like … we need to discard common perceptions.”

Both Bender and LaPlante are quick to point out that trafficking in the United States is not the “picture of some girl in a Third World country handcuffed to a bed.”

“As a survivor of sex trafficking in America, I can’t begin to tell you how often victims are misidentified,” Bender writes on her website. “We are not in a Third World country, so trafficking is going to look very different today in our modern, developed society.”

Bender, who was a varsity athlete and honor-roll student at GPHS, admits that her trafficker “used all my hopes, fears and dreams to exploit me.”

Since her “road to redemption” (also the title of her book), she has used her experience to mentor and counsel hundreds of young women domestically and internationally. She also has written prevention-themed curriculum for middle-school and high-school students and trains law enforcement and emergency room personnel to identify victims.

“Learning the signs is crucial to help victims get out of sexual exploitation,” she says.

Bender also advocates for laws to prosecute the trafficker, not the trafficked.

Bender will appear at several locations alongside the exhibit. She will be at Rogue Valley Mall from 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 22 and from 1 to 4 p.m. Jan. 30. She also will visit Rogue Roasters from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 5.

For more information about the exhibit and local presentations, see http://mtas-roguevalley.com/.