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Victims of sexual violence are not the only ones left facing many questions - family members, a partner and friends are just as often searching for answers.
On this page, you will find more information about what sexual violence entails, how you can assist a victim as a member of their support circle, and how the Sexual Assault Centres can help you.
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 violating 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 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.
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- Consent may be withdrawn at any time before or during the sexual act;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 ofthe 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.
Sexual violence occurs often
Sexual violence is a common problem: as many as 64% of the Belgian population between the ages of 16 and 69 have already experienced some form of sexual violence, ranging from sexual harassment to sexual exploitation.
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.
- 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)).
How can you help?
How can you help a victim?
Below are some tips that can help you assist your friend, partner or relative who became a victim of sexual violence. Be sure to consult the Guide for the victim's support circle to learn more about the coping process, possible responses and consequences of sexual violence.
1. Visit a Sexual Assault Centre
In the event of a rape or violation of sexual integrity/assault, it is important to encourage the victim to visit a Sexual Assault Centre as soon as possible. On the contact page, you can see where to find the nearest Sexual Assault Centre to you and/or the victim and how to contact them.
2. The normal course of events
Sexual violence can also impact a victim's everyday life. As a member of the victim's support circle, you can help by avoiding treating the victim differently and behaving the same way you did before towards them. You may, of course, comfort the victim and offer a listening ear, but at the same time, try to continue as though life were normal. The normal daily routine provides the victim with the most support and distraction.
3. A listening ear
Some victims prefer to keep the sexual violence to themselves. By keeping it to themselves, no one can view them differently and they cannot be labelled as victims. Often victims conceal the events in the hope that the memory will fade. Fear of not being believed, fear of causing grief to loved ones or terror of the perpetrator also tend to play a role. After all, the perpetrator is often a known person.
Victims may also struggle with a sense of guilt: they often feel (unjustly) guilty about all or part of what happened and they fear that others will judge them this way as well, so they remain silent.
You can try to encourage the victim to talk, but without any pressure. Make it clear that the victim can trust you and that you are always approachable. Offer an unbiased listening ear and, above all, keep listening.
- As a partner, friend or family member, you may be very angry with the perpetrator, while the victim often is not (yet). Vent your anger at others and not at the victim. Continue to check in with the victim's feelings without imposing your emotions.
- As a partner, it is best to withhold initiation of any sexual contact and indicate that nothing will happen on that front until the victim indicates that they want it for themselves.
4. The victim is not to blame
A victim may wonder if the violence could have been avoided, which can lead to feelings of guilt and shame.
Emphasise that the perpetrator is absolutely the only person to blame and that no one asks to be abused. Tell the victim that your door is always open.
Be careful not to reinforce the victim's guilt (victim blaming). Do not ask questions such as "Why were you walking there?", "Why were you wearing those clothes?", "Why didn't you do anything?". You too must remember that the victim is not to blame.
5. There is no right or wrong response
A victim is overwhelmed by emotions after the violence: dejection, guilt, shame, anger, among others. Reassure the victim that there is no right or wrong way to respond. Feelings may be confusing and may even be conflicting.
6. No timetable
The victim may still feel guilt long after the event. The typical question, "What if I had done this or that?" may haunt a victim for a very long time. Make sure they know that there is no time limit for coping with sexual violence.
7. The victim decides
During the long process of coping, you stand on the sidelines as a member of the victim's support circle. It is down to the victim to re-engage, at a leisurely pace, in activities that will restore self-confidence. As a member of their support circle, you can encourage the victim, but make it clear that making certain decisions always rests with them.
Also avoid being overprotective. Although you may feel the natural need to hold the victim's hand, this is not recommended. After all, victims do not want to feel like victims.
Impact on you as a member of the victim's support circle
The impact of sexual violence on you as a member of the victim's support circle
It is quite normal to experience symptoms or all kinds of emotions when someone you love has been the victim of sexual violence. After all, sexual violence also impacts you as a member of the victim's support circle.
The Guide for the victim's support circle lists some tips that can help you take care of yourself. Seek professional help if you feel you cannot bear this alone or if you have no-one else to turn to.
- Are you in need of support? Do you want to talk about it? Call 106. You can call Tele-onthaal at any time day or night. A phone call is completely anonymous and does not appear on the phone bill. You can also chat anonymously with a Tele-Onthaal volunteer.
- 1712 is a professional helpline for anyone who has a question about violence, abuse and child cruelty. The helpline is available by phone Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and 24 hours a day 7 days a week via email. The chat service is available from Monday to Thursday, between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. each day. The helpline is free and anonymous.
Sexual Assault Centre for the victim's support circle
The Sexual Assault Centres are there for you too
Depending on the amount of time that has passed between the incident of sexual violence and reporting, the Sexual Assault Centre can offer a variety of care to a victim, such as medical attention and psychological support.
If someone close to you is experiencing sexual violence, you can assist that person at the Sexual Assault Centre. The nurses will accommodate you along with the victim and answer any questions you may have. If you feel the need, you can also schedule an appointment with a psychologist at the Sexual Assault Centre.
You can contact the Sexual Assault Centre by email or phone or go directly to the Sexual Assault Centre with a victim. Details of each Sexual Assault Centre are available on the contact page of this website.
Belgium has ten Sexual Assault Centres
Below you will find the contact information for each Sexual Assault Centre.