The Select Committee on Sexual Violence and Harassment presented its Interim Report to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in June, summarizing testimony of those who informed the Committee and providing background context on the hearings held earlier this year.
The Committee is honoured and encouraged by the reception we have received across the province. Witnesses shared deeply personal information with grace and dignity, in an environment that many people would consider intimidating. The resilience of survivors and the dedication of the families and organizations helping them will inform the spirit with which we fulfill the remainder of our mandate. We hope that our work will ultimately help to improve Ontario's response to those who have experienced sexual violence and harassment and to minimize the incidence of these crimes in the future.
There are numerous references to the sexual abuse of children and other sexual crimes against children and youth in the interim report, informed by the work of professionals in the field as well as adult survivors of childhood abuse. Emphasis is placed on "child sexual abuse" perpetrated by other children and youth (e.g. in schools) and the Committee heard that "these behaviours can include inducing fear or making threats to get others to expose themselves, engaging in chronic peeking, inappropriate touching, forcing others to view pornography...any sexual offence, the Committee was told, is traumatic because it represents a violation of emotional and physical boundaries. Witnesses explained that this trauma may progressively worsen as the child matures through later developmental stages, resulting in long-term impacts." The Kingston Police recommended "mandatory intervention programs for adolescent sex offenders" while others noted that "perpetrators are generall suffering from their own traumas, and while they need to be held accountable, we have a responsibility to help them".
The Committee acknowledged the trauma of sexual abuse or violence ("a robber of soul" and "a thief of voice" according to one cited witness).
No one is immune to the impact of trauma. It affects families and communities by disrupting healthy development and adversely affecting relationships, and contributes to mental health issues including substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual violence. Everyone pays the price when a community produces multiple generations of people with untreated trauma.
Among its learnings, the Committee reports that it is "important to have practical and effective systems in place in schools for responding to and preventing inappropriate sexual behaviour and abuse perpetrated by children and youth". The new provincial Health and Physical Education curriculum was highlighted as an effective tool for teaching children and youth about touch, communication, healthy relationships, and how to come forward and report inappropriate behaviour. The Committee also heard about the Internet as a means of sexual exploitation, hypersexualization in advertising and mass media, and recommendations that include the creation of laws to prohibit the use of sexualized images of children and adolescents in the media.
Witnesses across the province spoke of the key role played by numerous organizations providing services and supports to survivors of sexual crimes, and the need for more services and the importance of consistent, stable funding. With a greater focus on prevention, increased public awareness, and an improved legal response, it was noted that "more survivors may come forward who will need access to a robust support system".
A comprehensive prevention and intervention strategy is required; primary prevention for adults, youth, and children is the key to changing attitudes and enhancing safety, and must be prioritized. Historically, the focus of sexual violence and harassment prevention efforts has been on educating victims to protect themselves from violence and aggression. We don't put enough resources into the primary prevention of violence. Intensive primary prevention programming addresses violence and relational aggression by providing children and youth with skills to build healthy, mutually rewarding relationships and reduce victimization.
Schools across Ontario were highlighted as the ideal location to teach children and youth about healthy relationships, touch, communication, respect for others, and how and where to get help. "Children also need to be explicitly told about the risks of familial abuse. 'Stranger danger' can be misleading when so much child sexual abuse takes place at the hands of individuals known to the victims".
It is not enough to teach children and youth about consent and respect for others; adults must also be educated to respect children.
A number of presenters told the Committee that successful education and prevention is best achieved when it involves partnerships and participation from all stakeholders, including parents/guardians, teachers, employers, co-workers, service providers, and people who are most vulnerable to abuse. As one witness put it, "we need a whole community approach to prevention and intervention; sexual violence and harassment is not an individual problem".
The interim report can be viewed here: Interim Report. The Committee is mandated to release its final report by December 10, 2015.