Friday, October 6, 2023

A New Era: The 2023 ATSA Conference

 By Kieran McCartan, PhD, and David Prescott, LICSW

Last week, newcomers to the field and seasoned professionals came together once again for the ATSA conference, which took place in Aurora, Colorado (near Denver). As it has been since the 1980s, it was a time to reconnect with like-minded professionals, learn, discuss the current status of the field, and upskill. ATSA is always one of the highlights of the conference season, not only for North American delegates but for those from overseas.

The first thing to say about the conference was a change to the traditional schedule with some events being dropped and others added (a closing reception) and others being adapted (moving the Next Generation reception to a luncheon, turning the welcome evening into a pre-conference welcome and networking event). The other big change was that the pre-con sessions where on the same day as the opening keynote. This is the first time that ATSA opened on the evening of the pre-con day. These changes where good to see as the structure and function of the ATSA conference has not changed in the 15 years that Kieran has been going (his first one was in Atlanta 2008, when David was ATSA President!!). It will be interesting to hear attendees' feedback and see what sticks for next year.

All things considered, it was an excellent experience. The ATSA Office staff and Executive Director Amber Schroeder, along with Conference Co-Chairs Apryl Alexander and Tom Leversee, had clearly thought out every angle of the experience, down to the background colors of the main stage. They are to be commended for their efforts. While no conference goes without minor hiccups (a missing room number here, a noticeable typo in the program there), the classic “ATSA conference vibe” was in full swing by the end of the first day, with people from around the world connecting with one another.

The plenary addresses this year set the tone for the conference and balanced all the elements that the Conference Committee and Office hoped for. They ranged from issues of the day (sexual compulsion, the impact of online abuse on those who experience it) to the systems we work in (juvenile court) to what has and hasn’t worked since before the living memory of attendees (an 80-year metanalysis).

The first plenary address was by Nicole Prause, PhD, who addressed what we do and don’t know about sexual compulsion as a “disorder.” Central to her work is that if we can’t completely understand the issues involved in sexual compulsion, our efforts to provide treatment related to it will be severely compromised. Dr. Prause reviewed the science thoroughly, often using screenshots of the research she drew upon for her slides. Dr. Prause has often attracted unwanted attention and criticism from those who believe fully in the construct of sexual addiction, and was understandably highly prepared with a very considerable wealth of research to back up her points. For David, this was one of the highlights of the conference. It is easy to read articles, while finding someone with expertise who can summarize the actual science (and not the public’s opinions) is a far greater challenge.

The second day of the conference started with Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio who provided a perspective on working with young people who sexually harmed from the court’s perspectives. Kieran found this talk interesting and different from the typical ATSA keynotes as it gave voice to an often unheard, but important voice in the sexual harm debate, the judiciary. The judge reinforced the restrictions and complications the legal system is bound to, and described how ultimately a judge’s sentence may reflect the reality of the system rather than the nuance of their perspective on what works. It made Kieran think about where the voice of the judiciary is in the UK and how this might be replicated at NOTA. David, who has spent time in the juvenile justice system, also noted some controversial aspects to the judge’s approach, including compelling the young person to describe their crimes in detail at sentencing. David’s opinion was that this is better left to the clinical team treating the youth and can have adverse consequences when it takes place in a courtroom.

The third keynote at the end of the second day was from Lindsey Lobb, Director of Operations for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. She spoke on the topic of working together to support families and victims of online sexual violence. After providing some general information, Ms. Lobb provided sobering statistics about the nature of online harassment and extortion. It is not nearly as simple as kids sharing nude photos of themselves and facing shameful circumstances. Rather, the scenarios that Ms. Lobb works with involve deep fear, humiliation, vengeance, and the threat of serious harm. In fact, the dynamics strongly resembled/intersected with domestic violence and human trafficking. These will be dynamics that therapists need to address in treatment.

The fourth and final Keynote was Patrick Lussier who, for Kieran, delivered the highlight of the conference. He discussed his meta-analysis of trends in sexual offending reconviction data across 80 years. He illustrated how public policy and public attitudes where at odds with evidence on sexual offending rates and reconviction, asking the question of what was really causing the downturn in reconviction rates across recent decades.

The conference had pre-con workshops that covered everything topics such as risk assessment, prevention, treatment, reintegration, pornography, and sex education. There was also a full array for workshops, parallel sessions, and special interest sessions. Among the more remarkable it-could-only-happen-at-ATSA experiences was a workshop by Tony Beech, David Thornton, and Mike Miner. These experts discussed sexual disorders in DSM-5, with the highlight being a fascinating Q&A at the end involving Ray Knight, who also has a long history of involvement in this area as well and who has collaborated on occasion with the others. To have several of the leading experts in the world (and across our field’s history) engaged in such lively dialog drove home what a unique experience our conference can be.

While some of the format of ATSA may have changed in 2023 its welcoming attitude and commitment to evidence-based practice and professional engagement has not. It was a marvelous accomplishment by many, many people, not least the attendees themselves. The conference was a success, and now it’s on to ATSA 2024 in San Antonio from the 16th -18th of October!

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