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Penn State Child Sexual Abuse Conference…!

Author: Penney Wilson – Sexual Assault Advocate

I attended the first Child sexual abuse conference at Penn State. The first of what has been promised to become an    annual event. In my opinion if this is to truly be an annual event, Penn State needs to take stock in what they are presenting. The conference titled: Child Sexual Abuse Conference: Traumatic Impact, Prevention, and Intervention, was held at Penn State on October 29th and 30th, the same week “Super storm Sandy” hit the east coast.

The conference, organized by the Penn State Justice Center for Research and Penn State Outreach, promised the “nation’s top experts in child sexual abuse and child trauma research, prevention, and treatment. Speakers included David Finkelhor, PhD, Director of the Crimes against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire, a respected expert on childhood victimization with special focus on child sexual abuse. Pro boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, and Olympic winner Margaret Hoelzer spoke on being survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Expert after expert was rolled out to impress us with their statistics and expertise and while I appreciated the speaker’s expertise on the subject of CSA I was less impressed with the content of their presentations. I was extremely disappointed when I realized that the entire conference was geared much more towards giving people a “feel good” impression of where we are in the field of prevention and the treatment of trauma than actual prevention.  I felt that the numbers of CSA were manipulated and contradictions rampant. Victims were blamed and children made responsible for their victimization and their own protection. The effects of CSA were minimalized and we were actually told at one point that abusers were not predatory, that the internet has had no real effect on the way children are preyed upon, and that adults working with children needed help in resisting the “coquettish” behavior of young girls. “Coquettish”? Seriously? I look at the notes I took during the conference and they are peppered with words in periphrases like (hmmm), (I don’t agree), (did he did not just say that), (WTF),etc.

The conference ended with Elizabeth Smart, a young women from Utah who was kidnapped from her home at the age of fourteen and kept for nine month before being rescued. Harrowing yes, horrific, but was this really what the conference was about? I don’t wish to minimalize what this young woman suffered or her strength and resilience. She is truly a remarkable young woman but was she really the right choice for this conference? Hers was a stranger abduction and rape, actually somewhat rare. We know that most children are assaulted by people they know, predators who have groomed them and their families and communities just as Sandusky groomed his victims and community. I feel that Ms. Smart’s appearance was to end the conference on a more upbeat note giving those attending a false sense of security.

In my opinion the Penn State conference was presented to improve the school’s tarnished image, and offer a much diluted view of child sexual assault. Those of us in the field know that we are in a war with those who prey on children. At one point a speaker spoke of the resiliency of children and that the effects of CSA were perhaps not as serious as we might think. It was pointed out that all the famous survivors who spoke may not have achieved such greatness had they not experienced the trauma of CSA. Again Seriously!? Resilient yes, but the effects of CSA continue well into adulthood and the majority of victims do not go on to become famous athletes or movie stars. Most live with the trauma and deal with its effects as best they can. What a shame Penn State was more concerned with the effects of the Sandusky case on their image and less on the effects of Sandusky’s abuse on his victims. 

Penney Wilson is an Advisory Board Member to Silent Spirits and has worked with survivors of child sex abuse for over 8 years.

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