If you were raped, would you press charges? How would you prove it happened? Would you share evidence that you were beaten up and subjected to violence?
But if you are one of the 9 million women in Europe who has survived rape, you might know that not all rape is physically violent, and that providing evidence of rape, violent or not, is never easy.
Most likely, you would hope that your country’s rape law clearly states that rape is sexual penetration -- whether vaginal, anal or oral -- without your consent. You wouldn’t want the law to say that it’s only rape if you’ve been beaten or subjected to intimidation.
No. You would want the question of rape to hinge on your consent, and your decision -- not the actions of your abuser. You would want the rape laws in your country to protect you even if you were unconscious and unable to give consent or too afraid to put up a fight. And you would want it to protect you whether you were a woman, man, transgender or nonbinary.
That’s the definition of rape according to the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention. It’s the definition of rape in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Iceland, Ireland and Germany. It's also defined as a violation of consent, not an act of violence, in the United States, South Africa, Afghanistan, and in many other countries around the world.
But that’s not the case in the majority of European countries, even though they’ve ratified the Istanbul Convention.
In Spain, five men lured an 18-year-old woman into a building, stole her phone and had group sex with her involving all types of penetration, sometimes simultaneously, without a condom. They filmed her while doing it. She was later found crying on a bench.
The victim’s behavior in the Wolf Pack case was typical of rape victims: she froze, closed her eyes, and didn’t fight back. And that instinct quite possibly saved her life.
Yet, the Spanish courts ruled that what happened was not rape -- that she consented. As a result, they found the men guilty of “sexual abuse" but not of "rape," a decision that was met with mass protests throughout the country.
Spain’s law is typical for Europe, where twenty-four countries do not include a provision for consent in their rape laws.
Not only that -- according to some countries, rape can only happen to you if you’re a woman. Yup. If you’re a man, transgender, nonbinary, or cannot prove that you suffered violence or intimidation, your country’s law sides with your abuser.
The problem isn’t simply that such laws prevent people from bringing their rapists to justice, but that they contribute to a culture of impunity that blames the victim. If what you experienced isn’t seen as rape in the eyes of the law, then are you to blame for what happened? Did you actually consent to, or even want, that horrific event that left you crying on a bench, and now haunts you for who knows how long after?
No. It’s not your fault.
We as a society must hold rapists, and the legal systems that protect them, accountable -- not only to send the perpetrators to prison, but also to state clearly to victims: you are heard, we believe you and we believe in your right to justice.
Europe is supposedly a model for gender equality and women’s rights. So why is it that when women in Italy cry “#MeToo,” they are subjected to vicious attacks? Why is it that universities in France scoff at gender studies programs? Why is it that a woman who was clearly gang raped in Spain cannot bring her abusers to justice?
Many of us who aren’t European nationals envy and admire your strong welfare systems. But we do not understand why we have experienced extreme street harassment in your capitals and been told to just shrug it off? Or why some of you scoff at the word feminism, but confess to horror stories of gender harassment in the workplace? We also don’t understand why Europe's legal systems fail to adequately protect women from rapists.
Say what you like about gender norms and women’s rights elsewhere in the world, but feminist leaders and movements elsewhere in the world are bringing about concrete change and are happy to wave the feminist flag. From China to Iran, Palestine to Argentina, Pakistan to indigenous women in North America, the current global feminist movement extends far beyond #MeToo and other Western women’s rights movements.
The United States may lag behind Europe when it comes to healthcare and parental leave, but millions of people marched across the country last year to stand up for women’s rights and the feminist movements there are as diverse as its people.
Change is on the horizon: Spain is calling for revisions to rape laws and Sweden is poised to align its own laws with the Istanbul Convention.
When will the rest of the continent decide to hold all rapists accountable? When will the law protect everyone’s right to consent? When will more Europeans stand behind the leaders in their countries who are calling out not only individual abusers, but the culture of rape as well?
Not until the women's movement generates enough pressure to get it done. Exactly like it is doing in Spain right now.