Belgium's updated sexual criminal law has come into effect: what has changed?

Belgium's updated sexual criminal law has come into effect: what has changed?
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A thorough reform of Belgium's sexual criminal law enters into force today, with the country now putting the concept of consent at the centre of the law, as well as enforcing stricter sentences for rape, and decriminalising sex work.

While the reform of the law, which was one of the main issues tackled by Federal Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, was already approved in mid-March, the changes only come into effect now.

“The sexual criminal law was based on a code from 1867 and therefore insufficiently adapted to today’s standards," he said back in March. "That is why modernisation was more than necessary." From now on, consent is the "central principle" of the law regarding sex crimes in Belgium.

What does that mean?

Simply, the reform states that if consent for sexual acts is not given, it is a crime. This implies that consent was given freely and voluntarily, and is judged in the light of the circumstances of the case.

If a victim does not defend themself, this does not mean that consent has been given. Additionally, if someone takes advantage of the victim's vulnerable condition – which affects their free will – there can be no question of consent either.

Consent can also be withdrawn at any time before or during the sexual act.

From what age can consent be given?

The basic principle is that a minor under the age of 16 cannot give permission for any type of sexual act.

However, the law provides one exception for "sexual development between peers": teenagers between 14 and 16 years old can consent to sexual acts, as long as the age difference with the other person does not exceed three years.

However, a minor can never voluntarily consent to sexual acts with blood relatives and (extended) family members, with persons who exercise a recognised position of trust, authority or influence over the minor or when it concerns prostitution.

When does the law speak of rape?

The reform has modified the definition of rape, to include that penetration no longer has to be complete, but can also be partial.

The maximum prison sentence for rape has also increased, going from five years previously to ten years now. The basic penalty is also increased by five years if there is an aggravating circumstance, such as drugging someone.

The crime that was previously called 'indecent assault' will be called 'assault on sexual integrity'. For this, too, the lack of permission is enough to be prosecuted from now on. Violence or coercion is no longer a necessary condition.

What is changing for sex workers?

As Belgium is also removing sex work from its penal code, the country is now the first in Europe, and the second in the world, to officially decriminalise sex work.

Decriminalisation will be happening step by step. Firstly, self-employed sex workers will be able to do their job legally, and stricter action will be taken against the abuse of prostitution. Additionally, advertising for prostitution will be allowed, but only when someone advertises their own sexual services.

The next step will be regulating sex work for employees by imposing rules regarding safety, hygiene, and working conditions on companies.

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While sex work itself was not forbidden in Belgium up until now, all third parties involved with sex workers were still committing a crime. That law aimed to target pimps, but in practice also meant those providing a service for sex workers – from bookkeepers and web designers to drivers, landlords and even banks – were punishable by law.

"We are removing all that. This way, someone who does sex work – if they are of age and do it voluntarily – no longer has to worry about it," Van Quickenborne told The Brussels Times last year.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the need for a legal framework became apparent once more as sex workers had no recognition, no social status, and in some cases no safety net in case of reduced income.

Why is the sexual criminal law being reformed?

With the reform, Van Quickenborne aims to fight sexual violence in Belgium, as an average of eight reports of rape are made every day, but the actual number is estimated much higher, at 80. On top of that, only 10% of rape reports lead to a conviction.


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