Sexual violence can be defined as “any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act, or unwanted sexual comments (…), that are directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by anyone, regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including at home and at work.”

Sexual violence is a form of gender-based violence as it disproportionately affects women, but anyone can be the victim of sexual violence, regardless of gender, age, socio-economic status or any other characteristic. It is also important to stress that sometimes acts of sexual violence can constitute a crime of domestic violence – if the person committing the harm is, for example, your (former) partner or relative. If you are looking for information on domestic violence, including acts of sexual violence, please visit our section on the topic. add hyperlink. Finally, this section refers to sexual violence towards adults. If you are looking for information about sexual violence towards children, please visit our section on Child Victimisation.

Sexual violence is an umbrella term encompassing several crimes and harmful acts against someone’s autonomy and sexual freedom. According to the World Health Organization, some forms of sexual violence are:

  • rape, including rape within an intimate relationship (by the spouse/partner);
  • systematic rape during armed conflict;
  • unwanted sexual advances or sexual harassment, including demanding sex in return for favours;
  • sexual abuse of mentally or physically disabled people;
  • sexual abuse of children;
  • forced marriage or cohabitation, including the marriage of children;
  • denial of the right to use contraception or to adopt other measures to protect against sexually transmitted diseases;
  • forced abortion;
  • violent acts against the sexual integrity of women, including female genital mutilation and obligatory inspections for virginity;
  • forced prostitution and trafficking of people for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

Some of these acts can be considered under the umbrella term of Harmful practices Against Women and Girls – including female genital mutilation, forced marriage, forced abortion or sterilisation, and so-called honour crimes.

Consent

Sexual violence crimes take place when someone does not consent to a certain sexual act. Consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent should be clearly and freely communicated.

In order to be in agreement, all people must be able to consent to sexual acts of any kind. For that reason, consent cannot be given by individuals who are under the legal age for consent, intoxicated or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, or asleep or unconscious. Besides, if someone agrees to an activity under pressure of intimidation or threat, that isn’t considered consent because it was not given freely. Unequal power dynamics, such as engaging in sexual activity with an employee or student, also mean that consent cannot be freely given. (Source: RAINN)

The Istanbul Convention has a consent-based definition of rape and other acts of sexual violence, according to its article 36:

“(…)

  1. engaging in non-consensual vaginal, anal or oral penetration of a sexual nature of the body of another person with any bodily part or object;
  2. engaging in other non-consensual acts of a sexual nature with a person;
  3. causing another person to engage in non-consensual acts of a sexual nature with a third person.“

The convention additionally considers that: “Consent must be given voluntarily as the result of the person’s free will assessed in the context of the surrounding circumstances.

However, not all countries have consent-based definitions of rape, and some define rape based on the type of violent acts that are criminalised. In the following table, developed by the European Institute for Gender Equality, you can see how the different EU Member-States define rape in their criminal law. https://eige.europa.eu/sites/default/files/mh0417297enn_table_3.pdf

Image-based Sexual Abuse refers to the non-consensual taking, making and/or sharing of intimate images without consent, including threats and ‘deepfakes’.

It takes place when someone shares sexually explicit images or videos of another person without their consent, and with the aim of causing them distress or harm. It refers to materials that are shared both online and offline, and includes uploading images to the internet and social media channels, sharing by text and email, and showing someone a physical or electronic image or video.

While in many cases, the perpetrator is known from the victim – e.g. an ex-partner – anyone can be affected by image-based sexual abuse. Image-based sexual abuse is a violation of privacy and people who have been targeted often feel humiliated, angry or depressed. You might feel too ashamed or embarrassed to report the crime to the police, but if you’ve experienced image-based sexual abuse it’s important to remember that you’re not to blame – only the offender is responsible for this crime taking place.

(Source: Victim Support UK)

It may involve fraudulent ends, such as extorsion (‘sextortion’). If you want to know more about this type of fraud, please visit our section on fraud.

According to the Istanbul Convention, sexual harassment is “any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”. It includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Sexual harassment can occur anywhere – in the street, at events, in the workplace or learning environment, among other settings.

Sexual harassment at work can happen in many different scenarios, including after-hours conversations, exchanges in the hallways, and non-office settings of employees or peers. Some forms of sexual harassment at work include:

  • Making conditions of employment or advancement dependent on sexual favours, either explicitly or implicitly.
  • Physical acts of sexual assault.
  • Requests for sexual favours.
  • Verbal harassment of a sexual nature, including jokes referring to sexual acts or sexual orientation.
  • Unwanted touching or physical contact.
  • Unwelcome sexual advances.
  • Discussing sexual relations/stories/fantasies at work, school, or in other inappropriate places.
  • Feeling pressured to engage with someone sexually.
  • Exposing oneself or performing sexual acts on oneself.
  • Unwanted sexually explicit photos, emails, or text messages.

(Source: RAINN)

The United Nations’ Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) recognises several types of sexual violence as a humanitarian issue.

The International Labour Organization, in the Violence and Harassment Convention (2019), defines sexual harassment as a form of gender-based violence, putting forth measures to protect workers from this type of violence.

Not all countries criminalize the same behaviours, and some harmful acts, such as image-based sexual assault or stealthing, are often not criminalised in EU member-states. Even if this is the case, victim support organizations in your country can still help you recover from the aftermath of these acts and handle your security needs.

The European Union does not have yet a common definition of domestic violence due to the lack of specific legislation on combatting domestic violence. However, the EU’s recent and first proposal for a Directive on Combatting Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence from March 2022 will aim to adopt a harmonised definition among Member States, in line with the Istanbul Convention’s.

While not all EU Member-States have adhered to the Istanbul Convention by the Council of Europe, on combatting violence against women and domestic violence, many member-states have ratified it and are bound to its obligations. Find out if your member-state has ratified the convention here. The Istanbul Convention recognises violence against women as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women and puts forth a series of standards for victim support, solidifying the rights of victims of sexual violence.

As the EU does not currently have a specific legal framework designed to combat sexual violence and support its victims, the legislation on domestic violence (including the definition of the offence, the penalties, etc) varies from one Member State to another. However, a range of legal measures targeting support and access to justice for victims, including victims of domestic violence, were adopted by the EU:

  • Directive 2012/29/EU on the rights and protection of victims of crime – sets up minimum standards related to the provision of support and protection to victims of all crimes. It includes the obligation to provide targeted and integrated support for victims with specific needs, such as victims of sexual violence, victims of gender-based violence and victims of violence in close relationships, as well as an individual assessment mechanism to assess protection measures for particularly vulnerable victims during criminal proceedings, among others;
  • Directive 2011/36/EU (the ‘Anti-Trafficking Directive’) – The Anti-Trafficking Directive combats trafficking in human beings for the purpose of sexual exploitation. It is currently under review to assess the possible need for future amendments, taking into account the EU-level criminalisations and corresponding penalties introduced by this Directive.
  • Directive (2006/54/EC) on equal opportunities and equal treatment of women and men in employment and occupation stipulates that sex-based and sexual harassment at work and in access to goods and services are contrary to the principle of equal treatment between men and women. The Directives require Member States to prohibit such conduct, ensure remedies (including compensation), and provide for effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties.
  • Proposal for a Regulation on a Single Market for Digital Services (the ‘Digital Services Act’): With this proposal, the Commission aims to protect fundamental rights online and address risks in the online space, including the risk to women’s safety online, and the risk of sexual violence.

The only way to prevent sexual violence from happening is for the perpetrators to not commit those crimes. However, there are some ways for all of us, and for communities, to reduce the prevalence of sexual violence and to support its victims. Here are some ways to prevent or reduce your risk of sexual violence, without jeopardizing your right to freedom and self-expression:

  • Create safe communities by striving to change the norms or beliefs of your community surrounding sexual violence, such as by debunking myths, defending victims and advocating for their rights;
  • Improve safety through bystander interventions – A bystander is a person who is present when an event takes place but isn’t directly involved. Bystanders might be present when sexual assault or abuse occurs—or they could witness the circumstances that lead up to these crimes. We can all intervene as bystanders to sexual violence. Learn more about steps you can take to prevent a sexual assault and “show you C.A.R.E.” (Source: RAINN)
    • C – Create a distraction by communicating with the individual at risk and giving them an opportunity to safely exit the potentially dangerous situation
    • A – Ask directly if you can help – sentences like “Do you need help?” or “Do you want me to stay with you?”.
    • R – Rally Others:
      • Ask someone to come with you to approach the person at risk. When it comes to expressing concern, sometimes there is power in numbers.
      • Ask someone to intervene in your place. For example, you could ask someone who knows the person at risk to escort them to the bathroom.
      • Enlist the friend of the person you’re concerned about.
    • E – Extend Support – Offer them appropriate resources and options for how you can support them. You can ask: “Do you want me to walk with you to your destination?” or “Is there anything I can do to support you?” or “Would you like resources for support and guidance following this incident? You can help direct them to a victim support service.

In order to prevent image-based sexual abuse in particular, you can keep the following in mind:

  • If the person is pressuring you to send those images, do not feel like you have to do it and question their motives. Someone who cares about you will never threaten you.
  • If you decide to share those images, you may leave a watermark on the pictures you send that is specific for each person you send it to, so that if the pictures are leaked you will know and have proof of who did it. You can also crop out identifying features, like your face or tattoos.
  • Check your privacy settings on social media regularly to keep them up to date. Don’t share personal information or contact details online and turn your webcam off when you are not using it.

It is important to note that the impact of crime is felt differently by each person. Every reaction of victims is normal when faced with an unexpected and potentially painful experience of crime.

The impacts of crime can be physical, psychological, social and economic, among others, and can last for long after the event. In the immediate aftermath, physical effects can be an increased heart rate, heavy or shallow breathing, sweating, dry mouth, tense muscles, feeling unable to move, feeling jittery or shaky, as the body is on high alert for further threats. These immediate effects can impact the psychological state of the victim and may lead them to act irrationally, to misunderstand information, to have issues remembering the event or what is communicated to them, and even act opposite to their best interest. Depending on the type of crime and the degree of physical violence, medical assistance might be necessary, as well as psychological first aid.

On the long-term, physical effects can linger on. For example, victims can experience recurrent loss of energy, muscle pain, headaches and/or migraines, menstruation disorders, cold sensations, shivering and/or hot flashes, digestive problems and high blood pressure, even long after the crime has taken place. Psychological effects of crime can also persist, or develop, on the long-term. These effects can include anxiety, difficulty concentrating, guilt, depression, isolation, trouble while sleeping, post-traumatic stress disorder, among other reactions.

There are also important possible social consequences of victimisation, such as the abovementioned isolation and tense relationships with those surrounding the victim. Victims have to rethink their relationship with the world around them, and the reactions of their surroundings may increase their inclination to isolate themselves. For instance, surroundings may misunderstand the victim’s reactions, or even blame the victim to preserve their own world views. Economically, the consequences of crime encompass the costs of medical or psychological support, or the costs of absenteeism from work due to the previous mentioned consequences of crime.

Many victims of sexual violence may be afraid of reprisals from the abuser if they report the crime and may fear going to the police or might not want to know how to make the report. Whether you decide to report the crime or not, victim support services can help you navigate the justice system and guide you through your medical, legal and psychological needs in the aftermath of a crime.

If you do decide to report the crime, you should contact the police either by phone or in person. If you are being attacked or in immediate danger, you should use the emergency number, otherwise use the non-emergency number to file your complaint.  If you decide not to report the crime immediately, you can do so later. The exact period of time after the crime that you can still report it will depend on the national legislation, but victim support services should support you no matter how much time has passed since the crime took place.

You may consider the possibility of a forensic examination, a medical exam to collect evidence of the assault(s). Your local victim support organization will know what the national rules and procedures are for this and will guide you to the competent authorities. They can also accompany you to the police station to make a report, or you can be accompanied by a friend, a relative, and/or a lawyer.

You will need to give details about the crime that happened. It is understandable if you have a hard time remembering some of the details, or that it takes a while for you to remember or be able to talk about it. The impact of crime and trauma leads victims to respond in a variety of ways, with some experiencing short-term memory loss, sometimes freezing and being unable to respond in the event of an attack, among other types of reactions which are perfectly natural.

The following are some information that is likely to be asked of you when reporting a crime:

  • Date, time, place of the offense(s)
  • Who carried out the violence and what is your relationship with them
  • What happened during the attack
  • Did you go to the hospital or see a doctor, or do you wish to do so
  • Were there any witnesses, and if so who were they
  • What your immediate protection needs are, especially if the perpetrator is someone you know or with whom you share a family/workplace/neighbourhood/…

You will be given a crime report number and a police investigator will be allocated your complaint. The officer will handle the progress of your file up to and including the trial stage, if your abuser is apprehended and brought to justice. You will be expected to provide statements detailing the assault and its effect on you. You will be informed of your rights as a victim and you will be told what to expect if your case is brought before a jury.  Importantly, you have the right to legal assistance in all EU member states and the right to an interpreter if the trial takes place outside your own country. Victim support services can help you through the criminal justice process.

Additionally, if someone has posted explicit images of you online, report the incident to the website where the images were posted and ask for them to be removed. If you decide to report the crime to the police, try to keep evidence of the incident by taking a record and screenshots of any posts or messages.

If you have been affected by sexual violence, there are a number of ways you can contact support services to get assistance or information.

  1. Get support locally. Contact your Victim Support team
  2. Call 116 006, the telephone number for helplines for victim support. This number is available in Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Sweden.
    The 116 006 helps victims of crime by informing them of their rights and how to use these, offering emotional support, while also referring victims to relevant organisations. As a single access point, it will provide information about local police and criminal justice proceedings, possibilities for compensation and insurance matters, and other sources of help for victims of crime.
  3. Check the Website of Rape Crisis Network Europe to find specialised help in your country: https://www.rcne.com/contact/countries/

The 116 006 helps victims of crime by informing them of their rights and how to use these, offering emotional support, while also referring victims to relevant organisations. As a single access point, it will provide information about local police and criminal justice proceedings, possibilities for compensation and insurance matters, and other sources of help for victims of crime.