Hundreds of sexual assault advocates, experts in SA to collaborate, close gaps

This year's TAASA conference is the largest in organization's history

By Courtney Friedman - VJ, Reporter, Lee Carpio - Photojournalist

SAN ANTONIO - San Antonio is hosting the largest conference in the history of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, or TAASA.

More than 400 experts, some from outside the U.S., are in town to close gaps and find ways for different advocates to collaborate.

An important part of that is hearing from survivors themselves.

Anna Westbrook is a brave survivor of chronic childhood sexual abuse.

"I was, unfortunately, in a very unsafe position until I was about 20, and in my early 20s I spoke out and my family supported me," Westbrook said.

That support allowed her to begin recovering and eventually become an advocate and educator. She even wrote and produced a musical on the subject.

"I also have a 90-minute training program that we do in corporate environments, schools, churches," Westbrook said.

At the TAASA conference, she has been able to meet other advocates working toward the same goals.

One of those goals is collaboration.

"There hasn't historically been a lot of collaboration between the fields of violence prevention and healthy sexuality and sex education. So, folks are excited about these conversations," said Sharon Hoefer, an abuse prevention specialist who works at the Longhorn Wellness Center at University of Texas at Austin.

The Longhorn Wellness Center is a great example of how experts are infusing sexual assault prevention into the center's general health program.

On Monday, Hoefer helped lead a workshop about how they're accomplishing their goals.

"We work on a whole host of topics -- healthy sexuality, sleep, physical nutrition," said Katherine Protil, the Longhorn Wellness Center's health promotion coordinator.

Protil said that, after a reorganization of the program, sexual assault prevention is now one of those topics.

"What does sexual violence and stalking look like? What is consent and what are the barriers to consent? And how to support a survivor," Hoefer said.

How to support a survivor is one of the main things Westbrook is trying to teach.

"You don't have to know exactly what to say. Saying 'Thank you for sharing your story' can be very helpful, saying, 'I'm sad that this happened to you.' It's also OK to just ask the survivors what they need because often we know what we need," Westbrook said.

The enormous conference is proof that those needs can be met by a coordinated network of advocates who are ready to help.

The conference includes a total of 49 workshops covering different topics. The event continues through Wednesday.

For more information, click here to visit TAASA's website.

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