After dragging its feet for years, Germany has updated its widely criticized laws on sexual assault.
Lawmakers in the lower house of parliament voted unanimously today (July 7) to pass new legislation broadening the definition of rape. Dubbed the “no means no” law by local media, the new law also classifies groping as a sex crime, allows for prosecution of perpetrators in groups, and makes it easier to deport non-nationals who commit sexual offenses.
Under Section 177 of the German criminal code, a woman reporting a rape must show evidence that she had tried to defend herself against her attacker before it could be prosecuted—a verbal refusal was not considered enough.
From now on, all non-consensual sex will be a punishable offense, including if a victim is taken by surprise, intimidated, or threatened with other forms of violence, something which could help protect women in abusive relationships.
“It is crucial that we finally embed the principle ‘No means No’ in criminal law and make every non-consensual sexual act a punishable offense,” said Eva Högl of the Social Democrats, one of the law’s sponsors.
Despite signing the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women, which states that all non-consensual sexual acts are crimes, Germany never actually ratified the convention. This left holes in the law that allow perpetrators to get away with rape, according to a 2014 study (pdf, in German). Around 7,400 rapes were reported in Germany that year, according to the Federal Crime Office.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet signed off on the new legislation in March, after hundreds of women alleged they were sexually assaulted during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne. At the time, the local mayor, a woman, caused serious outrage by suggesting that women should protect themselves by keeping men “at arm’s length.”
Kristina Lunz, co-founder of the “NeinHeisstNein” (No means No) campaign, which she launched after the Cologne attacks, called the legal situation “medieval.” She told Deutsche Welle of friends who had been raped but didn’t press charges: “They assume that there is no point, because they will always be confronted with the question: ‘Why didn’t you defend yourself?'”