- - -
Spanish protests on sexual violence

Story

Legislating the path to consent: Spain's Yes Means Yes law

‘Everyone has the right to live without violence. You can have sex without love, but always with care’. Filomena Ruggiero of SEDRA-Spanish Federation for Family Planning on the fight against GBV in Spain.

‘Everyone has the right to live without violence. You can have sex without love, but always with care’. This is the message Filomena Ruggiero wants people to take away. For her, broadening the concept of violence and placing the focus on ‘yes’ contributes to a better understanding about sex as an encounter that is wanted and not one of obligation.

A long-time women’s rights champion, Filomena, who is policy adviser and advocacy lead at SEDRA-Spanish Federation for Family Planning (SEDRA-FPFE), says the collective trauma resulting from a shocking rape case in 2016 was the catalyst for change and provoked a wave of feminist action across the country.

Spain’s new ‘yes means yes’ consent law, which came into effect in October this year, was sparked by the acquittal of five men who raped an 18-year-old woman during the 2016 Pamplona bull-running festival. Dubbed ‘the wolf pack’ case, there was widespread outrage after the court argued footage showing the woman motionless with her eyes closed, was proof of consent.

Again, four years after the rape in Pamplona, a group of men who gang raped a 14-year-old girl in Catalonia were convicted of the lesser charge of sexual abuse, this time because the victim was intoxicated. Both cases highlighted the abject inadequacy of Spanish rape legislation, which previously stated violence or coercion had to be present for it to be considered rape.

Relics of a patriarchal system, previous rape laws in Spain were steeped in sexist assumptions about consent and so-called ‘acceptable’ behaviour. Cases so often hinged on the behaviour of the victim, as if this had somehow contributed to or excused rape. What the survivor was wearing, drinking or doing at the time was put under the spotlight, and not the actions of the accused. 

The legal changes mean victims will no longer have to provide proof of violence or threat of violence, coercion or resistance against their attacker(s) in court. Plying someone with drugs or alcohol to coerce them into sex is a criminal offence, and digital violence, such as threats or non-consensual sharing of images, has also been criminalised. The new law maintains the presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. But going forward it is the defendant who will have to prove there was consent and the victim will have to prove there was no consent.

The law also aims to avoid secondary victimisation that results when institutions and individuals acting on their behalf, for example lawyers, the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s office, seek to discredit the victim by asking unnecessary and intrusive questions about her private life that are rooted in gender stereotypes and prejudices.

An alliance of feminist organisations, which included SEDRA-FPFE, played an integral part in drafting the new law. They ensured the introduction of 50 crisis centres and 24-hour support for victims, as well as financial support. But Filomena says the issue now lies in resources. The national law needs to be implemented at the regional level, which means its application will be unequal.

Nevertheless, the law reform sends a very clear message: nobody is entitled to your body, and consent is never given through coercion, intimidation, violence or incapacitation. Consent must now be freely given and expressed. If it is not, this is rape.

Encouraging men to step up

Street harassment – the provocative comments, whistling or gestures women are so often subjected to – is now also a criminal offence. This marks a paradigm shift to seeing sexual harassment as an issue of social justice. Despite this, the public outcry has galvanised the extreme right who view the reform as a threat to their regressive anti-feminist agenda. Opponents of the new law claim street harassment is part of Latin culture and something to be celebrated. Filomena rebuffs this arguing it defines women as sexual objects: ‘Catcalling is often viewed by men as something positive in Spain but the comments are of a sexual nature, which provokes insecurity and fear. It can limit women’s freedom in their choice of clothing, how they act or behave.’

Filomena believes men need to do more to end violence: ‘Social norms don’t change through laws alone but are constructed through a long cultural process. Boys and men are also victims of macho social norms. We must encourage men to stop other men from doing this and raise awareness.’

Filomena is adamant the role of men as peer educators is fundamental to the law: ‘We need to have a reflection in society on gender roles, and we cannot let macho groups distort and weaponize the debate. There is a lot of misinformation around the legislation. Male influencers should tackle this by speaking out about how this is really about putting desire at the centre, about sex being wanted and enjoyed. This would contribute to a better understanding of the law and of its consequences, which are very positive for men.’

 

"We need education, education, education... We need to stop perpetuating gender stereotypes."

Filomena Ruggiero

Filomena Ruggiero

when

Subject

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, Comprehensive Sex Education

Creating consent culture

Filomena believes the law needs to be sufficiently communicated through education about consent for teachers and teenagers: ‘Consent is the key element that will determine the existence of a sexual assault. There is a shift from a system that required proof that the victim refused and resisted, to one that requires affirmative consent.’

SEDRA-FPFE has worked tirelessly for years on implementing Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) as part of the curriculum, and it is now included as a fundamental prevention measure within the new law. CSE helps young people identify what they want from their sexuality and sexual relations, and how best to express and convey those desires.

‘We need education, education, education,’ Filomena says emphatically. ‘In schools, in universities – especially those who train journalists and other communication professionals – and in families. We need to stop perpetuating gender stereotypes by talking about princesses and princes. We can give young people better tools to understand and perceive gestures, wants and needs, as well as bodily integrity. You have to develop skills, empathy and intelligence to understand the moment and whether there is consent from both parties We must be able to communicate and stop assuming what the other person wants.’

A great step forward in the fight for change

Filomena and her fellow campaigners are hopeful. Young people have mobilised across Spain in an extraordinary way, she says. The large demonstrations on International Women’s Day and the recent high profile rape cases have been a huge driving force behind the legislative reform. However, she’s disappointed the new law lacks a greater commitment to education across the police force, judicial and political systems.

Those who fought alongside her for this major step forward on women’s rights include some of the very people in government committed to changing the status quo: ‘You must link what’s happening on the street with the politicians. If there is no alliance between the two, progress is not protected. More and more people are starting to change. Young women are completely different from older generations. We have a new generation of women who can recognise a violation of their rights and they’re not as accepting of it. They speak up all the time and have the power to shame the person harassing them. We have a long way to go but we start in our daily lives and now we have a law that supports this.’

Protests against sexual violence in Spain
 
Check out our #SafeFromHarm campaign to find out more about the legal and policy measures IPPF EN wants to see prioritised in the fight againt gender-based violence in the European Union.

Interview by Dearbhla Crosse. Photo credit Filomena Ruggiero.