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Iceland Unanimously Passes Landmark Law On Sexual Consent

Iceland Unanimously Passes Landmark Law On Sexual Consent

Photos by
Silje Bergum Kinsten/norden.org

Published March 23, 2018

Today, Iceland’s Parliament passed a law putting the onus of consent on being told “yes”; rather than not being told “no”.

It’s very seldom that Parliament passes a law with unanimous approval, but that rare event came up today, when Iceland’s legislature unanimously passed a new law (with one abstention) changing the legal framework for sexual consent. In basic language, Icelandic law has shifted from asking a rape survivor “did you say no?” to asking an accused perpetrator “did they say yes?”

Jón Steindór Valdimarsson, an MP for the Reform Party, was the primary advocate for the new law.

“I started to look around, and saw there was some discussion, especially in Sweden, regarding their law,” he told Grapevine. “I wanted to explicitly say it in the law that a sexual encounter without consent is rape.”

Making things clear

An important aspect of this law, for Jón, is that the law is clear and understandable.

“When talking about this, and educating young people for example, then this is very clear,” he says. “It will probably help prevent sexual encounters that happen without consent. That is, I think, the main impact of this law. This is of course in the same spirit of the Fáðu Já campaign. I think this is a step forward in recognition that we have had a problem in the relations between the genders, and we need to address this. This is one step in that direction that you need to be very clear in your laws that society is declaiming certain behaviors.”

“You have to have consent when you engage in the actual act. You can’t have old consent for something when the situation has changed.”

“Do I need forms in duplicate to have sex?”

While the passage was unanimous, Jón admits there was some opposition to the idea amongst people he first discussed it with.

“Most understood that this was supposed to be an improvement,” Jón tells us. “But of course some people, especially men, said, ‘How is this supposed to happen? Should I get a written consent? In two copies? Should I go to the District Commissioner and have it stamped before I can have sex?’ But it is very simple. It has to be clear when you engage in a sexual act that you have approval, and that it is not enough to expect or assume you have approval. There must be no question that you have consent.”

Informed consent is the only consent

Jón also provided clarity on when “yes” has value. That is, agreeing to have sex when someone is heavily intoxicated is not consent.

“The consent has to be with a free will and you have to be of sound mind to give consent,” Jón told us. “Let’s say we meet at a bar, and we’re having a chat, and we discuss whether we should go home and have sex, and I say yes. If we go home and I’m drunk or doped, then the earlier consent is null and void. You have to have consent when you engage in the actual act. You can’t have old consent for something when the situation has changed.”

Challenges still persist

This is not to say that there still is not a ways to go yet. The question of determining what exactly happened when someone is accused of rape is often times a matter of one person’s word against another’s. He also admits it may take time for some lawyers, judges and police to change from the old ways to the new. But Jón was especially encouraged by the representatives of the courts and law enforcement who participated in the law’s crafting.

“Everyone that came before the committee to discuss this in Parliament, and that sent in their comments on the bill, they were all very positive,” Jón says. “I think in the end, everyone who came together over this had consensus that this was the right thing to do, and in the end, it was unanimously approved in Parliament, which is very important.”

Most of all, Jón considers it a given that a freely-shared sexual encounter be fully and explicitly consensual.

“It’s kind of natural that when you’re engaging with someone sexually, that you ask, ‘Should we do this? Or should we go for a walk or watch a movie instead?’,” he says. “This should be a very natural thing.”


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