Spain on Thursday toughened its rape laws, pushing through legislation requiring explicit consent for sex in a move driven by its left-wing government following a notorious gang rape that outraged the country.
Known as the “Only yes means yes" law, the bill was given the green light by parliament with 205 votes in favour and 141 against after passing its first reading by lawmakers in May.
It involves a reform of Spain’s criminal code that now defines rape as sex without clear consent.
“Consent is recognised only when a person has freely demonstrated it through actions which, in the context of the circumstances of the case, clearly express the person’s will," it says.
“At last our country legally recognises that consent is what needs to be at the centre of all our relationships," said Equality Minister Irene Montero.
“No woman will ever have to prove that violence or intimidation was involved in order for it to be considered a sexual assault."
Until now, rape victims needed to prove that they had been subjected to violence or intimidation.
The issue was at the heart of the notorious 2016 gang rape of an 18-year-old woman by five men at the bull-running festival in Pamplona, northern Spain.
The men — who called themselves the “wolf pack" — were initially convicted of “sexual abuse" and not rape.
Two of the men filmed the assault, during which the woman is shown silent and passive — a fact the judges interpreted as consent.
Defined by the absence of violence or intimidation, such an offence carried lighter penalties — but no longer exists in the reformed criminal code.
That initial verdict led to huge nationwide protests demanding reform.
In 2019, the Supreme Court overturned the verdict, convicting all five of rape and increasing their sentences from nine years to 15 years each.
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez — a self-described feminist — vowed to introduce a law on consent aimed at removing ambiguity in rape cases when he took office in June 2018.
The new law also tightens the rules on street harassment, expands emotional and sexual education in schools and strengthens protection and compensation for victims of sexual violence.
Marisa Soleto, head of Fundacion Mujeres said it was the culmination of a “long-awaited" demand of the feminist movement. "
“We’re hoping it will bring about a change in behaviour" both within Spain and beyond, she told AFP.
The government says the legislation was based on the recommendations of the 2011 Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women.
Montero said Spain was also inspired by pioneering legislation which came into force in Sweden in 2018 which considers as rape any sex act without explicit consent.
Such laws remain the exception in Europe.
According to an Amnesty International study, only 12 of 31 European countries it analysed have changed their legal definition of rape to sex without clear consent.
They include Belgium, Croatia, Denmark and Sweden.
The remaining nations defining it by other measures such as whether violence or the threat of violence was used — as was the case in Spain until now.
In June French senator Esther Benbassa proposed a law inspired on Spain’s “Only yes is yes bill" that would require explicit consent for sex acts.
Spain is considered a pioneer in the fight against violence against women after in 2004 approving Europe’s first law that specifically cracked down on domestic violence.
That law made the victim’s gender an aggravating factor in cases of assault.