Thursday, September 5, 2019

Crossing the Social Ecological Pond at the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference

By Deirdre D’Orazio, PhD

I find myself feeling inspired this Monday morning.  Typically, Mondays are a bit overwhelming when I look at the work week’s “to do” list for my state and private practice jobs in sexual abuse intervention. My inspiration comes from having “crossed the pond” last week, over to the National Sexual Assault Conference.   “What pond is she talking about?” you ask.   The pond I speak of is a metaphor for a few valuable things.

First, on an individual level, I “crossed the pond” from where I live in California to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was born and raised right outside of Philly and since my parents are the first generations from their families to live in America (from Italy and Poland), there was a sense of homecoming. 

Philadelphia is considered a symbol of freedom and American values, because it is the birthplace of the United States of America, where the Liberty Bell rang and the Declaration of Independence was signed after America won its freedom from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War in the 1700s.  Not too long after, Pennsylvania and the other Union states played an important role in the American Civil War opposing slavery and the secession of the southern states. In the early 1900s huge waves of immigrants settled in Philadelphia, along with a Great Migration of African Americans. Philadelphia was known as a melting pot where many ethnicities assimilated into a new America.  Despite this inspiring legacy, a shadow side of Philadelphia as the archetype of freedom is clearly evident in its subsequent long history of racial injustice, and earlier history of having been taken from its first residents, the Native American Lenape tribe.  Likewise, the milieu of the National Sexual Assault Conference seemed to embody both a zealous actualization of sexual abuse’s demise and also a wounded awareness of complex layers of collective, cultural, and personal trauma affecting this public health problem.

A second “pond” is a crossing over from the familiar land of treating sexual abusive individuals to that of a conference hosted an organization that focuses on abuse recipients. There is a valuable relationship to be further strengthened between we “ATSA types” and our allies in fighting sexual abuse that come from victim service organizations.   The conference theme, “Beyond the Breakthrough” was impressively apparent in workshop programming right at the growing edge of sexual abuse prevention. This was not a conference singularly focused on victims/survivors of sexual abuse. This conference was about acknowledging advancements over the past year exemplified with the “#me too” movement, celebrities accused and/or convicted of a sexual offense AND using that momentum to break through new prevention territory.

Workshops were inspiring and deeply thought-provoking. For example, Alan Heisterkamp and Michael Fleming’s session on Men’s Accountability Around #Me Too; Captain Noah Coakley and Sergeant Jessica Whitestone’s session on Sexual Assault and Direct Victim Services in the Air Force; Lisa Winchell-Caldwell’s session United in Mission:  Coordinating Intervention and Prevention Efforts. The conference also hosted an ATSA track where Maia Christopher, Kieran McCartan and I provided sessions that discussed what is known about sexually abusive individuals, their treatment and how we can work toward developing collaborative partnerships to progress our shared goal of ending sexual abuse. 

A third “pond” crosses time. It has to do with taking a step beyond a typical ATSA perspective to what is going on now in our communities and society.  This is a lens of social justice and it rewinds to the point in time before abuse happens in the first place.  Workshops tied together with the best from numerous intersecting fields to talk seriously about small and large changes that can have a big impact on preventing sexual abuse.  For example, Nwando Ofokansi’s session on The Other Birds and Bees:  Discussing Healthy Sexuality with Kids; Rolanda McCall’s The Sexuality of Black Women:  From Traumatized to Empowered, and Social Justice as Our Prevention Framework by Nubia Pena.

With our own children, do we model consent, respect boundaries, teach healthy sex, and disavowal coercion?  Examples are: asking kids’ consent to be hugged; retiring the common parenting tactic, “because I told you so” and getting that discussion about sex started before the hormonal flood of puberty.  As community members, are we showing our commitment to ending sexual abuse?  Intervening instead of being a passive bystander when abuse is happening; initiating, instead of avoiding, conversations about “what I do for a living” to get thoughtful dialogue going about the kinds of things everyday people can do on an everyday basis to prevent abuse; volunteering to do a talk for a local group; listening thoughtfully and openly to all perspectives.  

Workshops also addressed deep societal and cultural realities that support abuse and its root cause, - oppression.  For example, how the media and entertainment industries promote the sexualization of children and “rape culture”; the ongoing effects of slavery and racism on the high prevalence and low prosecution rates of sex crimes against black women; the lost boys of sexual abuse, the males that are recipients (and often future perpetrators) of sexual abuse; and the impact of verbiage such as “predator” on outcomes and expectations.  For example, Elizabeth Stahler and Alexandra Lenzen’s session Missing Nuance:  How Dehumanizing Perpetrators Can Cause More Harm than Good.

There has been increasing talk lately about how ATSA members can improve our efforts to prevent sexual abuse.   Attending the National Sexual Assault Conference proved a valuable journey across the social-ecological pond. There are exciting opportunities at individual, relationship, community, and social levels. Actualizing our goal of preventing sexual abuse starts with ourselves as individuals and how our behaviors align with our “no more abuse” goal. It includes promoting equanimity in how we relate to others and finding ways to collaborate in our communities and “across the pond.”  Small changes now can help evoke the social change we envision.

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