Sex without consent is rape. It’s as simple as that. Or, at least it should be.

In reality though, only 12 out of 31 European countries analysed by Amnesty International now have laws that define rape based on the absence of consent. These are:

  • Belgium
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Denmark
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Sweden
  • UK

The others instead define rape by other measures, such as whether violence or the threat of violence was used.

But what about cases where there was no physical violence? What about cases where the victim froze, paralysed not by violence but by sheer terror, or because the person who raped them was a friend or partner? We know this happens, so the law should take account of it.

At the same time, the prevalence of rape in Europe is staggering. Figures from a European Union-wide survey show that:

  • 1 in 20 women aged 15 and over in the EU have been raped. That is around 9 million women.
  • 1 in 10 women aged 15 and over in the EU have experienced some form of sexual violence.

Laws guide people’s attitudes and behaviour, so it’s crucial to make it crystal clear, in law, that sex without consent is rape.

Rape in Europe

The prevalence of rape in Europe is staggering.

1/20
Women aged 15+ in the EU have been raped
9 MILLION
number of women affected
1/10
women aged 15+ in the EU have experienced some form of sexual violence.

What is consent to sex?

Women all over Europe, including in Denmark 
 where this photo is taken, are campaigning for consent-based rape legislation. © John Nielsen
Women all over Europe, including in Denmark where this photo is taken, are campaigning for consent-based rape legislation. © John Nielsen

Consent is everything when it comes to sex. When talking about consent a variety of questions arise, even though the concept is quite straightforward:

To have sex, you need to know that the person you wish to have sex with wants to have sex with you too.  

Some ask if they must sign a contract to have sex. The answer is no. They must simply communicate with their partner and make sure all sexual activities they engage in happen with mutual consent.

Sexual consent must be a voluntary and free choice for all parties involved. Being silent or not saying no is NOT the same as giving consent.

The question is not whether a person says “no”, but whether they say “yes”.

A general rule is: If in doubt, ask. If you’re still in doubt, stop.  

It is not embarrassing to ask, and you should not proceed unless the other person consents. If a person is asleep or unconscious, that person is not able to respond, which means they cannot consent to any kind of sexual activity.

The now famous tea-video explains what consent is very well.

Change is happening

Despite these fairly damning facts, there have been major successes already. This is a passionate, brave movement of women, survivors and their allies and – because of their efforts – things are changing right across Europe.

Since 2018, when Amnesty International first analysed rape laws in Europe, six more countries have adopted consent-based laws. These are Denmark, Croatia, Greece and Malta, Sweden and Iceland.

Other countries such as Finland, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Slovenia are also considering reforming their outdated laws.

In March 2020, the Spanish government announced a bill to address sexual violence which includes a reform of the legal definition of rape, to bring it into line with international human rights law and standards.

Survivors have been courageously sharing their experiences and campaigning for laws and attitudes to be based not on myths about rape, but on the reality: that sex without consent is rape.

Amnesty International has supported campaigners and activists across Europe, playing its part in putting pressure on governments to introduce reforms.

Read Amnesty’s overview of rape in Europe here.

“Give us respect and justice!”

Kirstine’s story

Rape is under-reported in Europe 

Rape is a form of sexual violence and can have a profound emotional, physical and psychological impact on the victim. Anyone, regardless of their gender, can be a victim of rape. However, it is a crime that disproportionately affects women and girls.

Despite the seriousness of the violation, rape remains hugely under-reported in Europe. Fear of not being believed, lack of trust in the justice system or the stigma attached to it deter too many women from reporting rape.

Women and girls who may face particular challenges asserting their claims include, for instance, sex workers, transgender women, those living in rural areas, homeless women, asylum-seekers, women with irregular immigration status and those suffering from substance abuse or mental illness.

When they report, chances of having their case tried in a court are slim. Often, cases are dropped at various stages of the legal process without ever making it to trial. This means that perpetrators are not held to account.

Harmful myths and gender stereotypes about what constitutes rape and consent are widespread both in justice systems and societies as a whole.

“I don’t think I could handle having to report it again.”

Emilie’s story

Changing laws will help change attitudes 

rape in Europe
rape in Europe

Adopting consent-based laws will not stop rapes occurring, but it is an important step towards changing attitudes and achieving justice. Laws guide people’s attitudes and behaviour, so they must make it clear that sex without consent is rape.

Surveys in 2014 and 2016 revealed some worrying attitudes among people in the EU:

  • More than 1 in 4 people in the EU believe that sexual intercourse without consent may be justified in certain circumstances, such as if the victim is drunk or under the influence of drugs; is voluntarily going home with someone, wearing revealing clothes, not saying ‘no’ clearly or not fighting back.
  • More than 1 in 5 people in the EU believe that women often make up or exaggerate claims of abuse or rape.

All of the above is incorrect and is rooted in harmful and sexist stereotypes about rape victims. No one other than the perpetrator is responsible for a rape.

These stereotypes are as widespread in society as they are in courts. In 2013, three young men in Sweden were acquitted of raping a 15-year-old girl with a wine bottle until she bled. The verdict stated: “People involved in sexual activities do things naturally to each other’s body in a spontaneous way, without asking for consent.” The judges also suggested that the girl’s refusal to open her legs might have been a sign of “shyness”.

The outrage caused by this case sparked the formation of a new national movement FATTA (“Get it”), that was a major force behind the recent legislative change in Sweden, where the law now recognizes the simple fact that sex without consent is rape.

Survivors are making change happen

Thanks to determined campaigning by survivors over many years, we are seeing progress.

2014 was a landmark year for everyone fighting sexual violence against women in Europe, as the Istanbul Convention came into force to ensure that governments guarantee the right to a private and public life free from violence, including sexual violence.

The Istanbul Convention clearly states that lack of consent must be at the centre of any legal definition of rape and other forms of sexual violence. It has been ratified by more than 20 European states, but the majority of them still haven’t amended their legal definitions of rape accordingly.

Activists are sparking change all over Europe. But we all need to speak up to make this happen in every country. Amnesty International will keep fighting with them for consent-based laws everywhere, and for authorities to work to change public attitudes and create a ‘consent culture’.

Will you join us? #LetsTalkAboutYES

Find out about how we are promoting conversations about sexual consent across Europe.

NOTE: This page was updated in February 2021