Frequently asked questions about sexual violence and the Sexual Assault Centres
Below you will find answers to frequently asked questions about sexual violence and the services of the Sexual Assault Centres. We will also define sexual violence as well as bust some myths.
There are different definitions of sexual violence. The Sexual Assault Centres follow the definition of the World Health Organization, which states that sexual violence is any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, or other act directed against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting.
The term 'sexual violence' may include different forms of sexually intrusive behaviour, ranging from sexual harassment to rape and sexual exploitation. The operations of the Sexual Assault Centres focus on forms of hands-on sexual violence. The difference between desired sexual contact and sexual violence lies in the giving of consent, or the absence of consent.
The term hands-on sexual violence is used to describe any form of sexual violence involving physical contact between the perpetrator and the victim. The offences of ‘rape’ and ‘violation of sexual integrity’ are forms of hands-on sexual violence.
If there has been no physical contact between the victim and the perpetrator, this is known as hands-off sexual violence. One example of this is sexual harassment.
The offence of 'violation of sexual integrity' under Belgian law covers any situation in which a person is touched without their consent, without involving sexual penetration (sexual assault), or where a person is subjected to sexual acts without having to participate themselves (for example, being forced to watch someone taking their clothes off).
The Sexual Assault Centres focus on situations where physical contact has taken place between the victim and the perpetrator, in view of the greater chance of finding traces of the perpetrator on the victim.
As soon as behaviour involves penetration of a sexual nature (by a body part or with an object) in a bodily opening (such as the mouth, anus or vagina), this constitutes rape.
The most obvious example of rape is sexual penetration against a person's will or where they have not given consent. Since the legislative amendment in 2021 concerning sexual offences in law, unwanted penetration of a person is now also considered rape.
The difference between desired and undesired sexual contact lies in whether or not consent is given to the sexual act. If a person's boundaries are crossed or in the absence of consent, this is considered to be sexual violence.
In 2021, consent was defined in law and was added as a key concept in criminal law concerning sexual offences. The Belgian Criminal Code stipulates that:
- Consent is given of a person's free will;
- If the victim does not (physically) resist, this does not automatically mean that consent is given;
- Consent may be withdrawn at any time before or during the sexual act;
- Consent is not deemed to be given if the sexual act is being conducted by utilising the victim's vulnerable situation whereby their free will is affected (such as fear, alcohol, sedatives, psychotropic substances or any other substance with a similar effect, an illness or a disability);
- Similarly, consent cannot be given if the sexual act is the result of a threat, physical or psychological violence, force, surprise, being tricked or any other criminal offence;
- A victim can never give consent while unconscious or sleeping.
If you are still unsure as to what constitutes consent, you should watch this video.
When someone experiences sexual violence, the body switches to an automatic pilot mode, as it were, and its responses are instinctive. The FFFF model presents four possible responses:
All of these responses are normal. The victim is never to blame, regardless of the response.
Some victims get an erection or may orgasm during sexual violence. This may be confusing, because it seems as though they enjoyed the experience. It is important to know, however, that it is also possible for someone to orgasm or ejaculate under extreme stress. A person therefore does not need to be sexually aroused for this to happen.
If you would like to find out more about the possible effects of sexual violence and practical tips for coping with it, read our leaflet for victims.
Sexual violence can have effects on a victim and their environment in a variety of areas:
- Psychological symptoms: anxiety, depression, development of post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.
- Physical symptoms: injuries as a result of the violence, unwanted physical responses, etc.
- Sexual and reproductive effects: pregnancy, hypersexuality, etc.
- Socio-economic effects: difficulty with trusting others, loss of income, etc.
No two victims experience the effects of sexual violence in the same way and symptoms may vary from person to person. To enable the appropriate care to be offered, these effects need to be investigated on an individual case basis.
If you would like to find out more about the possible effects of sexual violence and practical tips for coping with it, read the leaflet for victims.
Victim blaming refers to responses from others that may make the victim feel as though they themselves are to blame. The following questions or comments could be perceived as victim blaming:
- Why didn't you defend yourself?
- What were you doing there at that time?
- Fortunately, it wasn't any worse.
- Why did you drink so much?
- and so on.
Victim blaming can make a victim feel like they are a victim all over again. This is known as secondary victimisation. The feeling of being treated unfairly or not being heard can also give rise to feelings of secondary victimisation.
Sexual Assault Centres
A Sexual Assault Centre provides victims with a range of holistic care services, 24/7 and free of charge. Trained professionals, including nurses, psychologists, and police officers, work as part of one team to provide the following services to victims of sexual violence:
- Medical care: care of any wounds and injuries and performing a medical examination to treat the physical, sexual and/or reproductive effects of sexual violence (including STD screening, emergency contraception, treatment if at risk from HIV transmission, and preventative or indicated treatment of hepatitis A or B and of tetanus).
- Forensic examination: recording any injuries and collecting evidence of sexual violence on the victim's body or clothing.
- Filing of a report: filing a report with the police. This is not a requirement, however. If the victim is still hesitant about doing this, the evidence collected will be kept for a pre-agreed period of time. The victim may then still decide later to file a report.
- Psychological care: the offer of a listening ear and provision of information and advice on the normal responses after sexual violence and how to cope with them. Clinical psychologists also work at Sexual Assault Centres, which allows a consultation to be scheduled.
- Aftercare: monitoring of medical and psychological health and/or referral to the appropriate psychosocial and legal services.
A victim may choose to be accompanied during the visit to the Sexual Assault Centre by a member of their support circle. This person is also offered the necessary psychological support and may schedule an appointment with a psychologist at the Sexual Assault Centre, if they wish to do so.
What a Sexual Assault Centre can do for a victim depends on how long ago the sexual violence incident occurred. Consult the help finder for more information about the victim's specific situation.
All victims of sexual violence are welcome in a Sexual Assault Centre, regardless of age, ethnic origin, religion, gender identity, residence status, and so on. Victims may choose to be accompanied by a member of their support circle, such as a friend, partner, or family member.
A Sexual Assault Centre is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Depending on the time that has elapsed since the sexual violence event, a person can report immediately or it may be best to make an appointment:
- If the sexual violence event took place less than one week ago, the victim can visit the Sexual Assault Centre or call or send an email.
- If the sexual violence event took place more than one month ago, the victim can call or email for an appointment.
What a Sexual Assault Centre can do for a victim also depends on how long ago the sexual violence incident occurred. Consult the help finder for more information about the victim's specific situation.
Busting myths around sexual violence
Most victims who report to a Sexual Assault Centre were involved in sexual violence committed by a partner (or ex-partner), family member, housemate, or acquaintance.
The cause of sexual violence is not due to a lack of 'common sense' on the part of the victim. This has been commonly claimed to be the case, but is absolute nonsense. Victims are involved in sexual violence due to the extreme bad luck of coming into contact with a perpetrator and it is very important to rid the world of this myth. It can, after all, lead to a restriction of freedom of movement: sexual violence is not 'asked for' by walking down the street late at night or by wearing certain clothing. Responsibility lies entirely with the perpetrator, never with the victim.
There is no archetypal victim of sexual violence: anyone can become a victim, regardless of gender identity, sex or age, therefore including men, non-binary persons, etc.
A victim may experience the negative effects of sexual violence immediately after the event, but they may also not manifest themselves until years later. This is often the case with people who were victims of sexual violence as minors.
A wide range of symptoms are often found: irritability, angry outbursts, sleep disorders, concentration problems, over-alertness, severe shock responses, psychological and physical responses to similar events, re-living events, dissociation, nightmares, avoidance of certain situations or activities, memory loss, problems with expressing feelings, a feeling of alienation, drink and drug addiction, etc.
In order to start addressing these symptoms, it is important that a victim is offered the necessary care and/or seeks the right help.
Experiencing sexual violence has a huge impact on a victim. The response of a victim to sexual violence is impossible to estimate beforehand; there is, therefore, no 'right' or 'wrong' response.
According to the FFFF-model, there are four different physical responses to the violence: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. In the case of freeze or fawn, there is often no physical violence involved, but this does not mean that a victim consented. Therefore, such cases still constitute sexual violence.
Some victims get an erection or may orgasm during sexual violence. This may be confusing, because it seems as though they enjoyed the experience. It is important to know, however, that it is also possible for someone to orgasm or ejaculate under extreme stress. A person therefore does not need to be sexually aroused.
The vagina produces fluid during sexual activity and this is also the case during sexual violence. This is, in fact, a natural response to protect the vagina against injury and may therefore also occur if the sexual activity is unwanted. The fact that a biologically female victim responds in this way does not mean that they consented or enjoyed it.
There is a myth that a perpetrator commits sexual violence if they cannot control themselves any longer or have an irresistible need for sex, but this is rarely or never the case. Sex may be one of a perpetrator's motives, but sexual frustration is generally far from the only or most important reason.
Sexual violence may be an expression or instrument of anger. There is such a thing as 'impulsive' rape, whereby the perpetrator severely violates the victim's boundaries without acting out of frustration or anger.
Rape is an act of violence and therefore has nothing to do with passion or love. Most rapes do not occur spontaneously: the motivation conducive to the rape has been present in the perpetrator's mind for some time already. It is therefore not an act of uncontrollable passion. Perpetrators can easily keep their sexual urge under control.
Sex workers can indeed be raped. It is not the case that a client can and is permitted to do whatever they want because they are paying for sex. If a sex worker is forced into unwanted sexual acts, this constitutes sexual violence.