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As a healthcare or service provider, you may come into contact with victims of a traumatic sexual event. On this page, you will find information about sexual violence and advice on how to support a victim in a professional capacity.
Sexual violence and consent
Sexual violence and consent
What is sexual violence?
Sexual violence covers any form of undesired sexual contact.
If there has been no physical contact between the victim and the perpetrator, this is known as hands-off sexual violence (sexual harassment, for example). Hands-on sexual violence concerns behaviour involving physical contact, such as violation of sexual integrity or rape.
The distinction between these latter two types of hands-on sexual violence lies in whether sexual penetration is involved:
- Violation of sexual integrity under Belgian law/sexual assault concerns behaviour that involves touching you without your consent, without involving sexual penetration, or whereby you are subjected to sexual acts without having to participate yourself.
- As soon as behaviour involves penetration of a sexual nature (by a body part such as the penis, tongue, fingers, or with an object) in a bodily opening, this constitutes rape.
All forms of sexual violence are serious and constitute a criminal offence.
What is consent?
The difference between desired and undesired sexual contact lies in the giving of consent. 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- Consent may be withdrawn at any time before or during the sexual act;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 happens while taking advantage of 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 act;
- 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.
Busting myths around sexual violence
A great many false beliefs are held about sexual violence. For example, it is often assumed that only men commit sexual violence and that the perpetrator of sexual violence is usually unknown to the victim.
A number of myths are busted in the FAQs.
Statistics on sexual violence
Prevalence of sexual violence
According to the most recent prevalence study, as many as 64% of the Belgian population between the ages of 16 and 69 have already experienced some form of sexual violence.1 The same survey shows that two in five women and one in five men have faced 'hands-on' sexual violence, where they were touched physically against their will. 19% of women and 5% of men even reported having been raped.
Willingness to report and help-seeking behaviour
In 2021, police recorded more than 4,000 cases of rape2, which equates to more than 11 rapes per day in Belgium.
Yet, according to the Veiligheidsmonitor [Safety Monitor]3, only 25% of victims who experience sexual violence within a family context report these incidents. For sexual violence outside the family context, the percentage is 16%. Other studies, such as a study conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights4 and a study by the Institute for the equality of women and men5, also showed that victims often do not (or dare not) come forward with what has happened to them. Consequently, the dark figure of acts of sexual violence is enormously high.
The above prevalence study also surveyed help-seeking behaviour. About half of the male and two-thirds of the female respondents who identified as victims turned to an acquaintance to talk about the violence, while 7% of victims sought professional help.
- Keygnaert, I. - De Schrijver, L. - Cismaru Inescu, A. - Schapansky, E. - Nobels, A. - Hahaut, B. - Stappers, C. - Debauw, Z. - Lemonne, A. - Renard, B. - Weewauters, M. - Nisen, L. - Vander Beken, T. - Vandeviver, C. Understanding the Mechanisms, Nature, Magnitude and Impact of Sexual Violence in Belgium. Final Report. Brussels: Belgian Science Policy 2021 – 142 p. (BRAIN-be - (Belgian Research Action through Interdisciplinary Networks)).
- Federal Police (2022). Police crime statistics Belgium.
- Federal Police – DGR [General Directorate of Resource Management and Information] – Police Information and ICT (2022). Veiligheidsmonitor 2021.
- European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. (2014). Violence against women: an EU-wide survey.
- Institute for the equality of women and men (2010). Emotional, physical and sexual abuse - the experiences of women and men.
Sexual Assault Centre
The Sexual Assault Centres: what are they and who are they for?
A Sexual Assault Centre exists on the basis of a collaboration of three primary partners: the hospital that houses the Sexual Assault Centre, the police, and the Public Prosecutor's Office. Victims of hands-on sexual violence, particularly violating of sexual integrity or rape, can come to a Sexual Assault Centre 24 hours day 7 days a week for:
- 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 on the victim's body or clothing.
- Filing a report: the victim can file a report with the police in a Sexual Assault Centre. If the victim is hesitant, the evidence collected is kept for a pre-agreed period of time, which can be taken by the police if the victim later decides to report the crime.
- 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. A Sexual Assault Centre also employs clinical psychologists who can follow up with the victim and, if desired, a member of the victim's support circle.
- Aftercare: the victim, after reporting the incident, is followed up for a while in terms of medical and psychological health by the nurses of the Sexual Assault Centre. Proper referral to the appropriate psychosocial and legal services will also be provided.
The medical and psychological care provided by a Sexual Assault Centre is completely free for the victim.
What a Sexual Assault Centre can do for a victim depends on the time that elapsed between the sexual assault and reporting to the Sexual Assault Centre:
- If the events took place no more than seven days ago, then a victim can go to the Sexual Assault Centre, or call or send an email and receive the necessary medical, forensic and psychological care immediately. If the victim so wishes, the matter can also be reported to the police vice inspectors at the Sexual Assault Centre itself.
- If the sexual assault occurred more than seven days but less than one month ago, an appointment is made with the Sexual Assault Centre via email or telephone. The further options for medical and psychological care and forensic examination are investigated together with the nurse. To report the incident, an appointment can be made with the police through the Sexual Assault Centre.
- If the sexual assault happened more than a month ago, an appointment can be scheduled with the Sexual Assault Centre by phone or email. During the appointment, staff will look at what medical and psychological care is necessary in order to make targeted referrals to the existing assistance and care services outside the Sexual Assault Centre. To report the incident, an appointment can be made with the police through the Sexual Assault Centre.
On the About the Sexual Assault Centres page, you can find more information about the origins of the Sexual Assault Centres and view the SAC model and any open job vacancies.
Belgium has ten Sexual Assault Centres
Below you will find the contact information for each Sexual Assault Centre.