11/19/2015 12:31 EST | Updated 11/19/2016 05:12 EST

Sexual Violence And Harassment Is Never Okay

Ontario government

It is staggering how often we hear lies about the prevalence of sexual assault in our society. Too often language is employed to cast doubt on the veracity of a survivor's account, and unsubstantiated statistics are pulled out that suggest sexual assault is not a problem in our country.

When we talk about the way a woman dresses, her job, how much she had to drink -- these are excuses. These are excuses that our society uses to explain away tragedies. They are employed to explain why our country has so many missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and they are used to explain why sexual assault happens.

The reality is that these excuses are symptoms of our bigger problems -- and that's dangerous, because when we focus exclusively on symptoms, we do nothing to fight the underlying disease. That disease is a society in which attitudes that lead to sexual violence and harassment are still very much a part of our culture. Sometimes quietly, other times forcefully, and always destructively, these attitudes are part of our power structures.

And the perpetuation of myths and stereotypes that are rooted in misogyny and sexism not only contribute to these attitudes. They create an environment where those who are affected by sexual violence and harassment do not feel safe, they do not feel heard, and they do not feel they can come forward.

But little by little, we are making a positive change. And we're doing this by educating, empowering and informing people that sexual violence and harassment is never okay. Because we can and must change -- change the way we talk about sexual violence and harassment, how we confront misogyny and sexism, how we teach young people what consent means.

In March, the Ontario government released an action plan to end sexual violence and harassment called It's Never Okay. The action plan is about helping more survivors feel that it's safe to come forward -- and better supporting them when they do. It's about strengthening our laws to better protect people at work, in our communities and on campus. It's about providing more funding to help sexual assault centres across our province continue their vital work.

And in all of this, most fundamentally, It's Never Okay is about challenging and changing deeply held beliefs that contribute to rape culture, misogyny and sexual violence in our society.

As part of the plan, we released the #WhoWillYouHelp ads. This series of PSA-style ads educated people on their role, and empowered them to act when they see sexual violence and harassment happening in any form. The ad was instantly popular, with the first video receiving over 7 million views within 10 days of its release.

To find out how the ads affected attitudes, we did some research. Before we launched the action plan and ads, 37 per cent of people surveyed said they had an obligation to intervene when witnessing sexual harassment. Six months later, that number is up to 58 per cent.

People are rethinking whether they've been a bystander, rethinking their role and changing the way they see themselves acting in these situations. And that's progress, but the research also revealed that there remains an entire group of people having trouble identifying what sexual violence and harassment actually looks like.

Predominantly, this group is young men. But across gender lines there are still 37 per cent of people aged 18 to 29 who think men aren't usually forcing themselves on women with intent -- they just get carried away sometimes. That's not okay.

In response, our government released a new ad. at Ontario's first-ever Summit on Sexual Violence and Harassment. The ad is designed to challenge people's perceptions of what constitutes sexual violence and harassment, and make it clear in no uncertain terms that sexual violence and harassment is never okay.

We need to use every tool at our disposal to end sexual violence and harassment. We have a country filled with dedicated, passionate people who are using their talents and their voice to make positive change.

Together, we are going to make our society safer and more equitable for all.