Let's talk about yes!
Sex without consent is rape. It’s as simple as that. Or, at least it should be.
In reality though, only 9 out of 31 European countries analysed by Amnesty International have laws that define rape based on the absence of consent, instead defining 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 behaviours, 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.
Women aged 15+ in the EU have been raped
number of women affected
women aged 15+ in the EU have experienced some form of sexual violence.
Rape in Denmark
Denmark is considered by many to be a model of gender equality. But if you were a survivor of rape you might think differently.
What is consent to sex?
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.
Sex without consent is rape... but this is not reflected in the law in many European countries
Amnesty International has analysed rape legislation in 31 countries in Europe. Only 9 of these countries have consent-based legislation in place.
Things are moving in the right direction, mainly due to brave women fighting for change. In 2018, Iceland and Sweden became the 7th and 8th country in Europe to adopt legislation defining rape by the absence of consent. Then in June 2019, Greece became the ninth. The other countries are the UK, Ireland, Luxembourg, Germany, Cyprus and Belgium.
In the other European countries, for the crime to be considered rape, the law requires things like the use of force or threats of force to have been used, but this is not what happens in a great majority of rape cases.
As a result, many survivors of rape are unable to seek justice, leading to a lack of trust in the legal system. Therefore, fewer women choose to report sexual violence to the police and the perpetrators walk free.
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.
Changing laws will help change attitudes
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.
A recent survey 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.
However, women are sparking change all over Europe. Sweden amended its law recognising sex without consent as rape in 2018. Denmark is poised to follow suit and authorities in Finland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Slovenia are also considering such changes.
But we all need to speak up to make this happen. Amnesty International will keep fighting with these activists for consent-based laws, 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 2020