Thursday, November 10, 2022

ATSA conference 2022: Live again!

By Kieran McCartan, David Prescott, & Kasia Uzieblo

The annual ATSA conference has long been a time to come together, reconnect, establish new connections, partnerships, and develop new ideas and plans. This year’s conference was no different; except for the fact that it was. This was the first in-person conference that ATSA has held since 2019 in Atlanta, which meant that the reconnection was more powerful and relevant. Although the conference was online for the previous two years there is nothing like seeing people in person, attending sessions live, debating, discussing, catching up, and planning. The conference this year had excellence attendance with over 1,200 attending over four days (including the pre-conference workshops). Participants came from a range of countries including, but not limited to, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK, France, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium to name a few. We will now look at each of our reflections on the conference and standout moments.

For Kieran the standout moment of the conference was the ability to reconnect with ATSA colleagues. This stood out more than most of the sessions and papers that he attended. The conference reignited the importance of collaboration, especially international collaboration, and the opportunity for people to come together and forge new paths. Additionally, the Keynotes by Apryl Alexander and Kelly Socia where standout performances. Their deliveries were powerful and commanding and their content powerful. Both focused on the power of truth at the individual and societal levels, as well as the need to engage, question, and step up. The conference had a range of posters, presentations, seminars, and workshops that covered everything from prevention, risk assessment, treatment, and desistance; it focused on the individual differences of many of the service users that we treat as well as support. The conference highlighted that sexual abuse is a global issue that needs global thought and collaboration that results in a nuance, globally informed response.

For David the standout moments of the conference included Drew Kingston and Liam Marshall provided an excellent pre-conference title on Compulsive Sexual Behavior Disorder. It is one agreed-upon term signaling a condition that has gone by many names over the years. Drew Kingston offered an excellent historical overview of the research and Liam Marshall offered ideas on treatment. As is often the case, what made it an excellent workshop was what was not said: All too often, presentations on this topic can become mired in the personal beliefs and moral judgments of the presenter. While no one is unbiased, especially when it comes to sexuality, Dr.’s Kingston and Marshall provided a refreshingly balanced overview of the issues at stake.

Dr. Alissa Ackerman gave an unforgettable talk on involving the “authors of sexual harm” – those who have sexually abused others – in restorative justice efforts. After providing an overview of restorative justice and how she has worked within it, she discussed topics such as processes for how these authors can make amends. As she often does, Dr. Ackerman shared how her own history of victimization led her to share her experiences with others, including in treatment groups for individuals who have abused others. As one might imagine, these can be powerful experiences that leave virtually no one unmoved. Dr. Ackerman’s work and charismatic style are a reminder that practicing restorative justice, and the accountability processes within it, can be very difficult work indeed.

For Kasia the standout moments of the conference included: The conference experience was again wonderfully diverse. As every year, it is enormously difficult to choose only a few items from the conference program. But what has stayed with me most of all is that feeling that we are more committed than ever to sexual abuse prevention. In doing so, new paths are being explored and we are clearly also taking the time to critically reflect on our current knowledge, on where things need to be improved, and on what we do not yet know.

Take risk assessment, for example. A topic that has dominated our field in recent years. Although several sessions focused on the important topic of accuracy, the gaps in our knowledge regarding risk assessment as well as the implementation of the tools were also extensively discussed. For instance, Maaike Helmus, Seung Chan Lee, and others raised the importance of cross-cultural comparisons regarding – for example – the accuracy of risk assessment tools. Differences are indeed found that may have negative implications for – for instance - already generally disadvantages minorities. A thoughtless application and interpretation of risk assessment outcomes within specific ethnic groups (among others) is clearly inappropriate and potentially harmful. However, more research is needed to assess how to deal with these differences in practice.

What I also strongly appreciated was the attention given to the person exhibiting deviant sexual interests and/or behaviors as such. This included extensive consideration of the psychosocial well-being of this group and the impact of social and self-stigma by Sara Jahnke, Nick Blagden, Maggie Ingram, and several others. In addition, several speakers (e.g., Caoilte O Ciardha and Gaye Ildeniz) delved into the help-seeking behaviour of this group, examining what factors facilitate or hinder this behavior. These sessions provided insights that are crucial for all professionals working on prevention, but certainly also for preventive projects such as Stop it Now! and Circles of Support and Accountability, which were also highlighted extensively during the conference. Various sessions also herald an exciting time in terms of the treatment of people who have committed sexual offences and/or are struggling with deviant sexual interests. For example, Eveline Schippers explored a crucial question of how sexual deviance develops and how we can use this knowledge in treatment. Wineke Smid, Ross Bartels, and Nina ten Hoor explored the implementation of EMDR treatment in these groups. Franca Cortoni, Michael Miner, and Ian McPhail described how they aim to unravel the black box for us by finding better ways to identify what changes are elicited by our treatment programs and whether these changes are indeed related to a reduced recidivism risk. I am already extremely curious to see what new insights all these research projects will bring at the next ATSA conference.

Despite all this enthusiasm from researchers and professionals that I was able to experience once again, my spirits did sink a little at the end when Allyn Walker took the stage. Walker described the horror they had to endure when their research got media coverage. Their story once again made one realize that what we do within ATSA and beyond should not be taken for granted, that still many are opposed to what we do. But Walker’s story and the public’s reactions also spoke of hope: it showed how we can support each other in the prevention of sexual abuse and how important is that we bring solace to each other. 

ATSA 2022 was also a time of change, we said goodbye to our long-standing Executive Director Maia Christopher and welcomed in our new Executive Director Amber Schroeder, in doing so we opened a new chapter in our organization. The annual conference has always been the hear and soul of ATSA, and the passing of the baton from one Executive Director to another was the ideal place to do it, the way that we have passed the baton from one president to another as well as from one board member to another. It solidifies the importance of ATSA and ATSA as almost everyone has noticed, the primary feature of this year’s conference was the enormous sense of homecoming. Friends who hadn’t seen each other in all that time were reunited, if only briefly. And the nature of the conference meant that we weren’t as affected by the (in)famous Los Angeles traffic nearly as much as we feared!

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