Press review (Dis)Equality

Rape, consent, power (and femicide)

How should rape be defined? The notion of consent draws a dividing line between the member states in the European Parliament, where the subject is under debate. In this review, we look at how this concept is leading to a new revolution, both affective and sexual.

Published on 6 December 2023 at 11:37

The unexpected success of the French film Le Consentement (“Consent”) by Vanessa Filho, which has reached an unexpected audience, has put the notion of consent back at the centre of public debate in France, but also elsewhere in Europe.

The film is an adaptation of Vanessa Springora's book of the same name, published in 2020, which tells the story of the relationship between the author and the writer Gabriel Matzneff (who is now the subject of further accusations of sexual assault on minors). As the story unfolds, the author is 14 years old and Matzneff is 50. Their relationship is on public display, for families, society, and public opinion.

The “revolution of consent”

The text takes a collective step towards putting words to so many questions that permeate the history of masculinity and femininity, power and violence, and exploded with #MeToo. What is consent? What does it mean to consent to a relationship, to sexual intercourse? What is the power relationship that runs through intimate relationships? #MeToo was a 'revolution of consent', writes Mediapart.

Upon release, Vanessa Filho’s film was a discreet success with the public, especially among the urban, educated middle class, explains Le Monde. Then something unexpected happened: ten days after its release, “young people, under twenty, girls as young as fifteen, in couples, with friends or parents, many from working-class neighbourhoods, who did not know there was a book” went to the cinema. This audience accounts for almost half of the recorded admissions. What happened? TikTok turned the film into a 'phenomenon', an intimate event, says Radio France. These young women filmed themselves entering and leaving the theatres. Some in tears. The hashtag #leconsentement has reached 32 million views at the time of writing. The book, which was selling about 1,800 copies a month, had sold 17,500 copies by October.

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Another film on the same theme tells the story of young people's relationship to sex, love and consent: How to Have Sex, by Molly Manning Walker (which won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes). In The Guardian, Barbara Ellen invites everyone to go and see this film because it tells us "a fundamental devastating truth: that, however much sexual consent is theorised, debated and culturally disinfected, ‘out in the field’, where it matters, where the real girls and boys are, it remains a slippery concept, and too often a non-existent one." According to Allen, "It is time to acknowledge that predators exploit the loopholes and small print of sexual consent. That, to them, reluctant acquiescence is still legal assent. Also, to recognise that young people can be clued-up, yet still vulnerable."

Consent in the definition of rape

On 14 November, the European Parliament, the Commission and the member states met again to discuss the proposed directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence launched on 8 March 2022 to define what constitutes sexual violence (rape, including marital rape, mutilation, forced marriage, forced sterilisation, harassment...) and approved in June 2023 by MEPs, as reported by the Franco-German TV channel Arte.

Last June, however, the justice ministers of some countries - France especially, but also Hungary, Poland, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Germany - opposed Article 5, which defines rape as “absence of consent”.  As Le Monde explains, these countries base their opposition, at least formally, on the fact that only so-called “euro crimes” - corruption, terrorism and sexual exploitation - included in Article 83 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TfUe) are within the remit of European law, while crimes such as rape are addressed by national criminal codes.

And then there is another problem, both cultural and social: how to use, define and think about the notion of consent from a legal point of view. We know, on the basis of studies - Nature, May 2023 for example - and common sense, that fear does not always manifest itself in physical resistance or even a “no”, whether loud and clear or barely whispered. Meanwhile, “yes” comes in different forms and for different reasons. While the concept may be present in customs and vocabularies, from a legal perspective it is a complex issue.

In the columns of Libération, the American feminist and jurist Catherine MacKinnon - to whom we owe the legal battle for the definition of sexual harassment, and who has just published Le Viol redéfini (“Rape Redefined”, Flammarion 2023) - opposes changing the law in France, which defines rape as a sexual act committed with “violence, coercion, threat or surprise”.

"If you want to change the law, make explicit the gender inequalities that exist in companies, intimate relationships, couples and families. How can you exercise consent when you are in a situation of social inequality? Consent is used to justify the obedience of the powerless to the law of the powerful,' MacKinnon explains. According to the jurist, the current law should be improved not with the concept of consent, but "by including the dimension of inequality: class, age, 'races', minority status, nationality, religion, disability, the list is extensive and detailed in the law".

On gender-based violence 

Around the world, 45,000 women and girls were killed by a partner or relative in 2022, according to estimates in the UN Women report Gender-Related Killings of Women and Girls (Femicide/Feminicide)

In Europe, approximately two women are killed every week by a partner or family member, according to the European Commission. The data lacks precision due to imprecise definitions and heterogeneous data collection. The MIIR study conducted with the European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet) that we published in 2022 reports that more than 6,500 women (a conservative estimate) died in the EU at the hands of a partner or family member between 2011 and 2021.

On 1 October, the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence entered into force in the EU, Eunews reports. This despite six countries refusing to ratify it (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia). According to the aforementioned TfUe they will have to comply because the international agreements concluded by the Union “bind the EU institutions and the member states”.

Patriarchy is wounded, that’s why it’s more ferocious - Interview with Ilda Dominijanni

Graziella Balestrieri | L’Unità | 22 November | IT

Giulia Cecchettin was a 22-year-old student. On 11 November, she was killed by her ex, Filippo Turetta, with whom she had remained on friendly terms. Since the beginning of the year, according to data from the Italian Ministry of the Interior, 102 women have been killed. 82 of these women were killed in a family and/or intimate context, and 53 were killed by their partner (or former partner).

Journalist Ida Dominijanni, interviewed by L'Unità, gives a systemic reading of this phenomenon against discourses - spread on talk shows, or by politicians - that reduce it to simple crime or individual deviance. “There is a whole section of opinion makers who are surprised that there are fewer femicides in Italy than in northern European countries, and draw the conclusion that it is therefore wrong to attribute femicide to a patriarchal culture. Behind this objection lies a total ignorance of what patriarchy is. Patriarchy is a cross-cultural socio-symbolic system, which is found in various forms in different cultures, and is not defeated by democracy. We are dealing with a post-patriarchy, which is no longer the traditional patriarchy, in which women did not even need to be killed, because they were domesticated. Now we have a wounded patriarchy, wounded by women's earned freedom, which then reacts to this freedom in a brutal manner”.

In partnership with Display Europe, cofunded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate‑General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

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