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Spanish government backpedals over sexual consent law

Spanish government backpedals over sexual consent law

Coalition partners at odds over law that has resulted in more than 200 convicted sex offenders having their sentences reduced.
Spain’s government is scrambling to close a loophole in a law it introduced that has inadvertently led to the reduction of jail sentences for sex offenders and created new tensions between the leftist coalition partners.

The Guarantee of Sexual Freedom law — also known as the “Only yes means yes law” — means that it is no longer necessary to show that violence or intimidation were used in a sexual assault. Introduced in October, it aims to favor victims of such attacks and ensure consent in sexual relations.

However, the legislation has led to more than 200 convicted sex offenders having their jail sentences reduced, and many of them being released, because a broader definition of sexual assault introduced in the law has meant that minimum sentences have been lowered.

After months of pressure from the opposition, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has said the government plans to review the law in a bid to close the loophole. Government spokesperson Isabel Rodríguez, of the PSOE, said the law needs “technical adjustments.”

But PSOE’s junior coalition partner, Unidas Podemos (UP), which controls the Equality Ministry that has been the driving force behind the legislation, has been resisting any such change. It insists the law is technically sound and that the reduction of sentences is the fault of socially conservative magistrates.

“When a new law comes into effect which brings about a major change … it takes some time to work and, of course, there are judges who continue to apply a sexist and patriarchal approach and they don’t apply the law correctly,” said Ione Belarra, UP’s minister of social rights. She claimed the PSOE’s “legs are shaking” on the issue.

Meanwhile, the spate of sentence reductions continues to draw fierce criticism from the right-wing opposition.

The leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), Alberto Núñez Feijóo, said Sánchez “will go down in history as someone who set the feminist struggle back in Spain.”

There has also been criticism from senior figures in the PSOE, such as Emiliano García-Page, president of the Castilla-La Mancha region, who asked: “How many sentence [reductions] do there have to be before someone in the [Equality] Ministry that promoted the law starts to think that they might have made a mistake?”

Despite its public reluctance to review the law, UP is discussing with the PSOE legal formulas to end the trend of sentence reductions — for example, by raising jail terms for sex offenders again. However, UP is concerned that changes to the law proposed by its partner could undermine the notion of consent enshrined in the legislation. Sánchez has suggested that his party will seek parliamentary support from elsewhere — possibly even from the opposition PP — if an agreement is not reached.

This is the latest in a series of issues over which the PSOE and UP have clashed since forming the first coalition government of Spain’s modern era, in 2020. The supply of weapons for Ukraine, transgender legislation, and the monarchy have all generated tensions between them in the past, but this crisis is particularly damaging.

“This is part of an ongoing rivalry — at times explicit, at other times less so — between PSOE and UP for control of the feminist issue,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

“It’s clear that this is seriously bad for the government,” he added. “The reduction of sentences for sex offenders due to this law is having an impact on the electoral prospects of the left in general.”

Although the coalition is expected to survive this latest storm, its political impact could soon become apparent, with regional and municipal elections in May and a general election by the end of the year.
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