Beyond the Breakthrough: Highlights from the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference

The theme of the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference—Beyond the Breakthrough—sought to inspire the collective movement to end sexual violence and build on the momentum of the #MeToo movement. Ms. was the media sponsor for the conference—and expanded the discussions happening on-site with this dedicated series. Click here to read more posts. You can also watch interviews and conference sessions from #NSAC2019 on the Ms. Facebook!

Last week, over 1,700 advocates, practitioners and public figures working to end sexual violence came together in Philadelphia—now re-dubbed “the city of consensual brotherly love”—to forge a new path forward in their movement.

In the wake of #MeToo, speakers and workshop leaders agreed, it is time to push beyond the breakthrough, and leverage this current moment for long-term change. Attendees alike also agreed that the moment is ripe for trying something new—for taking stock of what worked and what didn’t and being honest about what changes are in order to end sexual violence in a generation.

Ms. was the proud media sponsor of the conference, live-streaming sessions and sitting down with experts in the exhibition hall to envision the next steps for a renewed fight to end violence. Below, I’ll recap all we learned—and what comes next.

Wednesday, August 21

The 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference kicked off with a plenary session focused on the crux of the #MeToo movement’s viral moment in 2017: how rape culture takes shape in the workplace, and how corporate leaders can challenge it. Tina Tchen, former Director of the White House Council on Women & Girls and a co-founder of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, joined Uber Chief Legal Officer Tony West, also an Obama administration alum from the Department of Justice, and Monika Jones Hostler, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault and founding RALIANCE partner, for a wide-ranging conversation about corporate accountability and changing workplace culture.

Tchen, West and Hostler joined me afterward to continue the conversation with a live interview—in which they laid out some concrete steps advocates and non-profits can take to foster partnerships with corporations invested in doing better.

That first plenary also featured a performance from feminist poet Ursula Rucker, who read her piece L.O.V.E. on stage. She opened up to Ms. before the conference about what it meant for her to be in the room—but after she’d had the chance to take the stage, she also made time to catch up with us in the exhibition hall and envision a world where love and compassion were more powerful than violence.

That kicked off a full day of live interviews with advocates, experts and educators focused not just on changing corporate rape culture, but on shifting their own movement to end violence—and demanding better from every institution that protects perpetrators and excuses sexual violence.

Ignacio Rivera—activist, writer, educator, sex(ual) healer, filmmaker, performance artist, mother and abueli—took some time to talk to Ms. about their organization, The HEAL Project, and how holistic sexuality information could be a major tool for preventing, interrupting and ending child sexual abuse. 

Devin Rojas, the Capacity Building Specialist at the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, took a minute with me to break down the findings of their recent statewide hotline audit—and boast about the action that advocates in the Garden State are taking to improve these pivotal resources.

Holly Rider Milkovich, who spoke to me last year about her work as Senior Prevention Director at EVERFI, came back for a second go this year—and brought with her Elizabeth Billie, whose work there focuses on programs to disrupt and end campus sexual violence specifically. Together, they shared strategies with our viewers about ending harassment and violence in different workplaces—including on campus and in corporate suites.

Tara Graham from Just Detention International came by next—and talked about what survivors in confinement face and what the movement to end violence can and should do to advance the baseline standards in place to protect them.

Terri Poore, who has worked with the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence on federal policy and appropriations related to sexual assault for almost 15 years, first as a board member and now as the Policy Director, and previously worked at the National Sexual Assault Coalition Resource Sharing Project and the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence for 13 years, provided us with an insight into the difference between “feel good” sexual assault prevention policies and the kinds of laws that make a real impact—and what activists can do to tell the difference and fight for tangible change.

Christina Presenti and Diane Daiber from the International Association of Forensic Nurses also made time on Wednesday to talk with Ms.—and expanded on the ways in which forensic nurses can make a huge difference in shifting culture as well as improving the individual experiences of survivors across the country. (Diane talked a bit during our interview about going “beyond the rape kit”—which she also wrote about for Ms. before NSAC.)

We ended the day on the right note with Fiona Oliphant and Jessica Li from Healing Equity United—who laid out some radical self-care strategies and challenged all of us in the movement to do better by ourselves and each other. (Jessica wrote about radical self-care for Ms. before the conference, and Fiona wrote about the basics of cultural humility.)

Thursday, August 22

Thursday got off to an early and education start when Julie Germann, a former prosecutor who now works through Finding the Right to train law enforcement officials on how to seek justice for survivors, explained what going beyond the breakthrough required from folks who work in the courtroom and the criminal justice system.

That conversation continued when Jessica Mindlin, the National Director of Training and Technical Assistance at the Victim Rights Law Center, elaborated on the work she does to train folks who engage with survivors—including law enforcement officials, prosecutors, advocates and health care workers.

We explored a different conversation about accountability when filmmaker, lecturer and writer Aishah Shahidah Simmons sat down for a Q&A about her new anthology, Love With Accountability, and her upcoming #FromNoToLove conference—both efforts that center a black feminist framework for addressing sexual violence.

Tricia Banks Russell, Executive Director of From Fear to Freedom, sat down with us next—and talked about their model of providing survivor resources and engaging campus communities against violence at the same time.

We swung back to conversations about policy and law when District Attorney Kevin Steele and two attorneys from the case he prosecuted against Bill Cosby joined us next. Steele, Stewart Ryan and Kristen Feden all opened up about the power of holding the powerful accountable—and how they make it possible.

Luz Marquez Benbow joined us next to tell her own stories from the frontlines—and stress the importance of survivor leadership from the intersections in the fight to end violence.

To that end, Nina Jusuf joined us next, sitting down at the Ms. booth to talk about co-founding the National Organization of Asian Pacific Islanders Ending Sexual Violence, the first organization centered on API survivors in the country.

Victoria Dickman-Burnett, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati and a youth educator, helped connect all of these conversations when she broke down the basics of action research, and the difference it makes in the movement when advocates let survivors speak for themselves.

We took a pause then for the afternoon plenary—in which NPR reporter Joe Shapiro took the stage with advocates Debra Robinson and Carolyn Morgan to talk about sexual violence against folks with intellectual disabilities and the urgency of their own leadership in this space.

Joe also joined us offstage for a follow-up conversation about his work covering people with disabilities, and his groundbreaking series of reports on sexual violence on campus and in the disability community. (He wrote about that experience, too, for our Beyond the Breakthrough series.)

We closed off the day with an informal self-defense lesson from Lauren Taylor, founder and director of Defend Yourself, an empowerment self-defense organization teaching people of all identities to raise their voices and reclaim their power. (She’s written about her work before for Ms.—check it out!)

Friday, August 23

On the last day of the Conference, I took to that plenary stage myself—and talked to “Surviving R. Kelly” producer and showrunner, dream hampton, about community accountability, black feminism in the fight to end violence and the impact of her groundbreaking Lifetime series.

That plenary kicked off with a performance by LaTreice Branson, who proudly Drums Like a Lady. Afterward, she opened up about the incredible opportunity to take that stage, and how it’s already impacting her work.

That marked the end of the Conference—but not the end of this fight, or of these conversations. You can explore more in our Beyond the Breakthrough archives.


Carmen Rios is a self-proclaimed feminist superstar and the former digital editor at Ms. Her writing on queerness, gender, race and class has been published in print and online by outlets including BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, DAME, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic, the National Women’s History Museum, SIGNS and the Women’s Media Center; and she is a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine. @carmenriosss|