Europe’s ‘Outdated And Harmful’ Rape Laws

Sunday, November 25 marked the annual International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which saw people protest across the world against sexual violence, female genital mutilation (FGM) and transphobia, amongst other important and prevalent issues. On the eve of the day, a report by Amnesty International was released, stating that only eight out of 31 European countries reviewed (the 18 E.U. countries plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) legally defined rape as sex without consent. Other definitions of rape depend on the use or threat of violence and intimidation. For example, in Spain physical violence must be evident for a conviction of rape; if no physical violence is used against the victim, the act is classified as the lesser offence of sex without consent.

Amnesty International’s Lead Researcher on Western Europe and Women’s Rights, Anna Blus, clearly states in the report what should be obvious to all: “sex without consent is rape, full stop. Until governments bring their legislations in line with this simple fact, the perpetrators of rape will continue to get away with their crimes.” Women who come forward to report rape, Blus says, are being failed repeatedly by “outdated and harmful definitions of rape in law” which suggest that a victim was not raped if they did not attempt to fight back, were drunk, or dressed in revealing clothing. Jacqui Hunt, Europe Director of rights group Equality Now, agrees that “rape is a crime of violence, and you shouldn’t have to prove additional violence to show rape.”

In recent weeks there have been several widely condemned reports in Europe about rape cases handled inappropriately in courts. Earlier in November protests broke out across Ireland under the banner of #ThisIsNotConsent after it was reported that during a trial the underwear of a 17-year-old victim of sexual assault was passed around the jury. The defence lawyer, Elizabeth O’Connell, told the court “you have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.” The man accused was acquitted of rape, but protestors say it is not necessarily the outcome of the case that they are disagreeing with, but rather the manner in which irrelevant ‘evidence’ was used by the defence team which was humiliating for the victim and wrongfully encourages victim blaming. In Spain an uncle and nephew duo were recently sentenced to four and a half years for sexual abuse rather than being given the longer sentence for rape, after they assaulted a teenager in an alleyway having spent time with her that evening in a nightclub. Judges stated that this sentence was given because no physical violence was used against the victim. Also in Spain, a group of five men, known on their Whatsapp chat as ‘the wolf gang,’ were acquitted of sexual assault when they filmed themselves gang raping an 18-year-old girl during the 2016 San Fermin bull festival in Pamplona because the victim appeared ‘passive or neutral’ in the video.

The Amnesty report and these recent cases clearly suggest an urgent need for the reform of European laws regarding the definition of rape. Rape should be clearly defined as sex without consent – regardless of the victim’s clothing, their behaviour during the attack, and the presence or absence of violence and intimidation. Laws across Europe, and indeed the world, must reflect this. Furthermore, there is a need for judges and other legal experts to be specifically trained in sexual assault and violence. Any legal professionals partaking in legal proceedings regarding rape and sexual assault must be clear on the definition of rape as sex without consent, and be made fully aware of the harmful narrative of victim blaming. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has reported that one in 20 women are raped in their adult lives, and that more than a third of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence in some form. Whilst campaigns such as #MeToo and #ThisIsNotConsent are commendable in what they aim to achieve, rape is still hugely under-reported. Reports of legal proceedings where the victim is blamed for causing their own rape by wearing revealing underwear, or told that they were not technically raped because they did not defend themselves, discourages victims from coming forward. Europe’s rape laws must be reformed so that victims of sexual assault receive the respect and justice that they deserve.

On this International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I call for an end to victim shaming in the legal system and for laws to be changed where necessary to clearly state that rape is sex without consent.