NOTA 2023 Annual Conference review

By Kieran McCartan, PhD.

The annual NOTA international conference took place in Cardiff, Wales, this week. There were over 230 attendees, across three days, with six keynotes and 36 parallel breakout sessions. For this blog post, we talk through the highlights of a successful, engaging, and thought-provoking conference.

The conference kicked off on Wednesday morning in a sunny Cardiff with a keynote from Professor Melissa Grady on the use of trauma informed practice in working with people convicted of a sexual offence. Professor Grady emphasized the importance of understanding past trauma in the populations that we work with to develop the correct conditions and process for treatment and rehabilitation. She indicated that we as a profession are trauma-aware but may need to go further to be truly trauma informed. Additionally, she highlighted the importance of attachment and the links between maladaptive attachment, trauma, and sexual abuse. This theme was restated throughout the conference. Professor Grady’s talk was followed up by a roundtable discussion on the use of restorative justice in cases of sexual abuse, an often debated and sometimes challenging topic. The roundtable had representation from across the UK with Clifford Grimason laying out the position of HMPPS to Restorative Justice, both in general and in respect to cases of sexual offending; Stephen Barry talked about some of the practice and therapeutic work being done by the BE Safe Service in Bristol with children and young people who have sexually harmed; and Ashley Scotland from Thriving Survivors and David Russell from Midlothian Council talking about the innovative work going on in Scotland around the development of restorative justice approaches to sexual abuse cases. The panel was varied in their views and the roundtable opened the opportunity for a nuanced debate on an under discussed response to cases of sexual abuse, with the final comment being the need for a sensitive and individualised approach, as well as a promise to continue the conversation.

On Thursday the conference started with Pat Brannigan, Shelley Shaw, & Jennie Hammond talking about the development and roll out of Together for Childhood, a project in Plymouth and in Stoke. Together for Childhood is a place-based approach to the prevention of child sexual abuse led by the NSOCC in conjunction with local and regional partners. The talk emphasized that sexual abuse is a community issue and that we need a community-building approach to prevent and respond to it. This was followed by another place-oriented keynote with Dr Sophie Hallett on innovative approaches in preventing Child Sexual Exploitation in Wales. Dr. Hallet discussed the social and political construction of child sexual exploitation before discussing why a child-centered approach was essential in understanding and responding to sexual exploitation. She asked the audience to consider whether we as professionals listen to the voices and requests of our child clients enough.

The final day of the conference started with Dr. Wendy MacDowall on research from the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (AKA NATSAL), wherein she discussed the changing sexual lifestyles in the UK, the increasing inclusion of sexual abuse questions in the survey, and the new sexual competency measure that is being introduced in the current live version of the NATSAL. One of the topics that Dr. MacDowell discussed that stood out the most was research from the NATSAL on the importance of sexual education in school and its links to sexual behavior and abuse.  This led to the final keynote of the conference by Professor Clare Allely on her recent research on neurodiversity, autism, and sexual offending.  Professor Allely gave an engaging and thought-provoking talk on the relevance of understanding autism in clients in terms of assessment, sentencing, and treatment. She reminded us that problematic sexual behavior in autistic and neurodiverse individuals may not be simply sexual deviance but could be a symptom of their diagnosis that is of a sexual nature but not done for sexually motivated reasons (she gave the example of an individual who as a child in crisis situations would drop their pants as they knew they would be removed from that situation, but as an adult that took on a different meaning and consequence).

Across the Wednesday and Thursday afternoon we had 36 breakout sessions covering topics as broad as research and treatment on sibling sexual abuse, harmful sexual behavior in young people, restorative justice, campus climate surveys, masculinity and sex education, circles of support and accountability, treatment, desistence, and updates from HMPPS on current policy as well as practice. In addition, we also had an international roundtable on the assessment, treatment and management of people convicted of a sexual offence with speakers from leading professional organizations that work with people convicted of a sexual offence from England & Wales (HMPPS), Scotland (Stop it now Scotland/NOTA), Northern Ireland (Leonard Consulting/NOTA), France (CRIAVS),  the Netherlands (NL-ATSA), Latvia(Dardedze), and Italy (CoNTRAS-TI).

This year the conference had a special online edition of the Journal of Sexual Aggression curated by Dr. Nadine McKillop; readers are invited to go to the journal website and twitter account for more information.

Finally, we had a changing of the NOTA guard, with Professor Sarah Brown stepping down as NOTA Chair and Stuart Allardyce stepping into the role. Thanks for all your hard work and leadership Sarah and good luck to Stuart as he leads NOTA forward. In closing, the conference was a great success. It was a great opportunity to reconnect and reengage with colleagues as well as learn about innovative research, policy, and practice.