Topic Overview for the Committee on Legal Affairs II (JURI II)

Out of the shadows: “About 215.000 violent sexual crimes were recorded in the EU in 2015. With outdated legislation and a culture of victim-blaming leading to a lack of prosecution across Europe, how can the EU tackle the high number of sexual crimes in its Member States?”

By Jana Gietman (DE)

1. Relevance of the Topic

2 Minutes – that is the average time another sexual crime is reported to the police anywhere in the European Union (EU). A sexual crime, generally spoken, is a crime involving sexual assault or a sexual motive. However, what constitutes a sex crime, differs by culture, law and legal jurisdiction within Member States (MS). Even though anyone can become a victim, women are far more prone to be targeted: 9 in 10 rapes and more than 8 in 10 sexual assaults targeted girls and women, while nearly all perpetrators were male (99%). However, what most people do not know is that these crimes affect the entire population, and not only children and women: 10% of the  victims of rape are, indeed, male. 

Official sources like Eurobarometer indicate that the awareness of sexual crimes is very high across the EU, with 78% of European citizens recognising that sexual violence is a common problem. But even with increasing awareness, there is no decrease of cases: 1 out of 4 European citizens know a woman among friends or in their family circle who is or was a victim of sexual violence. While most people believe that the law in place prevents sexual violence, only 14% of EU citizens are familiar with EU measures to tackle the problem. Moreover, data on sexual violence often fails to capture the extent of the crime committed: Only 5-15% of women in MSof the EU who suffer rape report it to the police. 

2. Key Terms

Sexual Violence: Sexualised violence and sexualised abuse of power describe actions with a sexual reference without the consent or ability to consent of the person concerned. In particular, they are superordinate to offences such as sexual coercion, rape and sexual abuse of children.

Sex Crime: A crime involving sexual assault or having a sexual motive, e.g. rape or child abuse. However, what constitutes a sex crime differs by culture and legal jurisdiction.

Consent: Consent means actively agreeing to be sexual with someone. It also means that the person consenting agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice. Without consent, sexual activity is sexual assault or rape.

Harassment: Harassment covers a wide range of behaviours of an offensive nature. It is commonly understood as behaviour that demeans, humiliates or embarrasses a person, and it is characteristically identified by its unlikelihood in terms of social and moral reasonableness.

Molestation: Sexual abuse, also known as molestation, is abusive sexual behaviour by one person towards another. It is often committed with the use of violence or by taking advantage of another person. If violence is used immediately, of short duration or rarely, it is called sexual abuse. The perpetrator is called a sexual abuser or sexual harasser.

3. Stakeholders

The European Commission (EC) promotes the general interests of the EU by proposing and enforcing legislation as well as by implementing policies and the EU budget. It plays a significant role in fighting against all forms of sexual violence by e.g. providing specific funds or supporting different NGOs or civil movements.

Since the EU has only the competence to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States (MS)  in this area, each State is responsible for its own legislation regarding sexual crimes.

Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) strive to support people that have been victims of sexual crimes, while also fighting for their rights. For example, Amnesty International collects data on sexual violence in various countries and issues independent recommendations to the MS.

Other non-governmental movements can have a great influence: #MeToo, a movement to raise awareness of the prevalence and harmful effects of sexual violence, has generated a huge social discourse and contributed to awareness-raising.

The Council of the EU is an essential EU decision-maker. It adopts legislative acts in most cases together with the European Parliament in policy areas where the EU has exclusive or shared competence with the MS.

Europol is the EU’s law enforcement agency. It aims to make Europe more secure by supporting and coordinating MS’ law enforcement agencies.

The European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics is an initiative for the comparative presentation of European criminal justice systems. It provides comments on the different criminal justice systems, notices of legislative changes and trend analyses of the various numerical developments.

4. Conflicts

In the attempt to combat the problem throughout the EU and capture it in its entirety, it quickly becomes clear that firstly, effective data must be collected. To collect effective data, however, it must first be clearly defined what exactly needs to be discussed. To highlight some of the challenges when comparing official criminal justice data, the example of data on rape is exemplary.

The European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics has tried over several years to systematically compare official crime data in the EU. They lay out the definition of rape in such a way that it can adapt to almost all criminal justice definitions. But even with that being given, official data on rape from each MS cannot be interpreted as representing the true extent of the crime. MS’ definitions of rape differ, as do reporting rates and prosecution and conviction rates. Data from MS cannot, therefore, provide a comparable result, but reflect e.g the extent to which a country has a narrow or broad legal definition of rape, the rate of successful prosecutions and if there is a culture of confidence in the authorities.

Concluding, official crime statistics say more about the mechanisms of official data collection and the culture of reporting on rape than about the “actual” extent of rape. This lack of comparability manifests national differences and makes an EU-wide strategy quite difficult. What we are also facing is a diverse array of legal systems, institutional structures, and support services, all embedded in different and hardly comparable socio-cultural traditions. 

5. Measures in place & status quo

It quickly becomes clear that there is no unified sexual violence legislation in Europe, which is also a result of the limited competences of the EU. However, the EU has provided a common legislative framework for MS to guide its commitment to combating sexual violence against women, manifested in country-specific strategic objectives and legal measures. Whilst the main responsibility for promoting and protecting human rights lies with national governments, the EU supports its MS in taking action and implementing measures in this field. 

In 2009, the Council adopted the Stockholm programme, aiming to better address violence against women and children, including legal protection and comprehensive legislation on victims’ rights. The most recent and all-encompassing instrument has been the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the Istanbul Convention, adopted in 2011. The Convention obliges its Parties to criminalise psychological violence, stalking as well as physical and sexual violence including rape and sexual harassment.

The EU also supports increased protection through soft law by communication through awareness-raising campaigns or by the exchange of best practices, for example given through the EU Justice Programme. Recently in October 2020, Europol has launched the campaign “Europe’s most wanted” in 18 countries across Europe in order to put the spotlight on the perpetrators of violent sexual assaults and to search publicly for some of Europe’s most dangerous sex offenders. In 2017, they also launched a campaign called “Say No!”, addressing the issue of online sexual coercion and extortion affecting minors.

Already in 1997, the European Commission launched the Daphne Initiative, a one-year funding line to fund NGO projects that support victims of sexual violence and combat the violence against women, children and vulnerable groups. The initiative was continuously renewed and financially restocked until 2013 and now continues as one part of the Rights, Equality and Citizenship Programme. The project also offers a toolkit of reports, studies, tools and awareness-raising and training materials.

6. Food for Thought & Brain Munchies

  • How can the EU adopt a common approach to solving the problem whilst supporting the  MS individually?
  • How can the EU foster better comparability of offences, while noting legal and socio-cultural differences in its MS?
  • How can the EU-wide comparability of data be enhanced and ensured?
  • Facing how highly sensitive this topic is, how can public communication be cautiously yet effective?

7. Links for Further Research

– An important report stuffed with a lot of useful information. Especially important: Chapter 1.4

– Please carefully read chapter 1.3 from this report.

– Make yourself familiar with the Istanbul Convention

– A factsheet on the extent of sexual violence

– A useful guide on legal definitions of different types of gender-based violence used in EU Member States, according to their legal terminology and national legislation

– A good introduction to the problem of gender-specific sexualised violence