Late Thursday evening, the Belgian Federal Parliament gave the green light for a modernisation of sexual criminal law. This should not only provide better protection against sexual violence, but also adapt our laws to the sexual morals of the 21st century. Belgian Minister of Justice Vincent Van Quickenborne talks about a milestone, but what will actually change?

Why was this change necessary?

Our current penal code dates back to 1867 and is therefore not at all adapted to social reality. While it is estimated that eighty women are raped every day, the sometimes very unclear legislation and difficult burden of proof still make it extremely difficult to prosecute the crimes. The law book was therefore in urgent need of updating. Also to change many archaic concepts such as ‘assault on the integrity of the person’, which will soon become ‘violation of sexual integrity’. Vivaldi therefore wrote the renewal of sexual law into the coalition agreement.

What will change?

Central to the new legislation is the concept of consent. Without consent, sexual acts are punishable. The fact that someone does not resist does not mean that they have consented. Another new feature is that consent can now be withdrawn during sex. This is to prevent, among other things, stealth: someone who suddenly takes off the condom without consent and continues having sex.

Another phenomenon has also been tackled: spiking. This involves putting a narcotic in the drinks of women in order to rape them afterwards. From now on, this will be an aggravating circumstance, just like threats, incest, sexual violence by a partner, a discriminating motive, abuse of authority, sex in the presence of several persons, sex with minors or abuse of a person’s vulnerable situation.

The age of sexual consent remains at 16, but young people between 14 and 16 can have sex with mutual consent. As long as there is no more than three years difference. Although sex between two people aged, say, 14 and 18 will still be covered by the legal cloak of love.

Voyeurism will be defined differently from now on. In order to speak of voyeurism, victims no longer need to be bared. Last year, a voyeur who filmed under skirts was acquitted, because the intimate areas of the victims were not bared and, according to the letter of the law, no crime was committed’, says Van Quickenborne. So that changes.

Will the punishment be stiffer?

Certainly. The penalties will go from one month to five years to six months to ten years. So the maximum sentence for rape will be doubled. If there are aggravating circumstances, another five years will be added. Judges will also have more opportunities to impose therapy, for example, when sentencing.

What about sex workers?

The new Penal Code partially decriminalises sex work. Currently, there is a policy of tolerance, but no legal framework for those involved, so that sex workers cannot, for example, take out a mortgage loan. Or that anyone who works with them – bookkeepers or drivers – is also officially punishable.

This is changing, by gradually decriminalising sex work for adults and giving them a status. Initially, sex work for self-employed persons will be possible. In a second phase, rules will be developed on safety, hygiene and working conditions. At the same time, stricter action will be taken against the abuse of prostitution. This will involve punishing pimps, tackling loverboys and sugardaddies, and an absolute ban on incitement to prostitution.

When will the law enter into force?

Three months after publication in the Belgian Official Journal, the new rules will enter into force.

What are the reactions?

Naturally, Minister Van Quickenborne himself is very pleased. A milestone in the history of this country was reached on Thursday evening. Impunity in the field of sexual violence has been tackled, perpetrators are punished more severely, obsolete concepts have been clearly redefined and are no longer open to interpretation. New phenomena can be tackled with appropriate penalties. Sex workers have finally been taken out of the criminal sphere and have been given social rights,’ he summarises.

Sensoa(Flemish expertise centre for sexual health) is also very satisfied. Among others because sexual acts between young people are now finally possible. This corresponds to reality and ensures that both young people and parents don’t have to worry anymore. Of course, it wasn’t the case that the police tackled young people who kissed or hugged each other, but a 15-year-old daughter who came home with an 18-year-old boyfriend sometimes caused anxiety in families,’ says Boris Cruyssaerts from Sensoa.

He is also pleased that sexting is now possible from the age of 16. When young people do that now with mutual consent, it is actually considered child pornography and both the sender and the one who gets the pictures are punishable. It is good that this is changing.

But Sensoa is most satisfied with the extended definition of ‘consent’, and that this is also necessary for indecent assault. This was now only punishable when violence or threats were involved. In the future, this will also require consent.

Source: De Standaard (Belgian News Paper) – Farid El Mabrouk (Author)