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How Spain’s "Only Yes Means Yes" Law Has Freed Sexual Assault Convicts From Prison

Spain's groundbreaking "only yes means yes" law on consent was supposed to crack down on sexual abusers. But early signs say the real-life effect may be just the opposite. Critical voices of its effects keep appearing.

Image of people protesting against the Only Yes Means Yes in Valencia, Spain.

Popular Party members in a demonstration earlier this year in Valencia against the Only Yes Means Yes law

Rober Solsona/ZUMA
Carmen Domingo


MADRID — In May 2022, Spanish lawmakers introduced what was touted as a revolutionary feminist bill aimed at toughening legislation around sexual abuse. The law was conceived by the Ministry of Equality following the trial in an infamous 2016 gang rape case of an 18-year-old during the running-of-the-bulls in Pamplona. A video had shown the victim was silent and passive, which was interpreted by judges as proof of her consent.

Dubbed the "Only Yes Means Yes" law, the new legislation aims to ensure that a case like this would never come to be again. Now, a sexual act where no explicit consent is given (even without violence or threat) would be classified as rape. Spain would be joining 12 other European countries who have changed their legal definition of rape as sex without clear consent.

It was a watershed in criminal justice and society at large, aiming to completely redefine acts of sexual abuse and give ultimate power to the victim to acknowledge her trauma and pursue legal action .

But the new law came with a caveat: some of those already convicted of sexual assault and abuse would see an automatic reduction in their prison sentences because the new law created a wider range for sentencing. And indeed, more than a year since the new law took effect, studies indicate that a troubling number of rapists and other sexual offenders have been released from jail.

UN critique

Irene Montero, the politician and psychologist who serves as the Spanish Minister of Equality, is now facing growing criticism for the 'only yes means yes' law she introduced. While the minister first denied that prison sentences were being reduced at all, she later changed her statement as evidence began to stream in. Even then, she explained that any such revisions of prison sentences were occurring unlawfully at the hands of right-wing judges — and were, in any case, not widespread small quantities.

This did not convince Reem Alsalem, special rapporteur of the United Nations on violence against women, its causes and consequences. She expressed her concern last week over the fact that the ‘only yes means yes’ law had indeed backfired for the victims that it was trying to protect. Alsalem recognized the positive aspects of the sexual consent law, such as the recognition of victims' rights and facilitation of their access to resources, but stated that these were eclipsed by the damage done with the growing reductions in prison sentences.

“While it cannot be undone,” she said, “it is now crucial for the Spanish government and its institutions to monitor the real impact of the early release of abusers on the life of their victims, try to minimize re-victimization and ensure their protection.”

The Spanish Supreme Court has also begun this week to review around 30 appeals regarding sentence reductions following the application of that same law, in order to establish legal precedent regarding the reductions.

Sexist propaganda

Indeed, many are now recalling the assurances made by Montero shortly after the approval of the ‘only yes means yes’ law that there would be no sentence reduction.

She emphatically tried to assure us: “Since we live in a context where it is more important to sensationalize headlines that instill sexual terror, to re-criminalize the feminist struggle, to question feminist advances and to instill doubt within women, then what happens, happens," Montero said. "There are indeed many scandalous headlines, but not a single sentence reduction has been observed, nor will it be. It’s sexist propaganda.”

In case the minister’s position was not clear enough, Secretary of State Ángela Rodríguez Pam and the delegate against Gender Violence, Victoria Russell, stated that the solution was not punitive measures. In other words, they wanted to please everyone. On one hand they said that prison sentences would not be reduced, and on the other hand they argued that the solution was not imprisonment.

Image of The Minister of Equality, Irene Montero, and Podemos candidate for the Presidency of the Community of Madrid, Alejandra Jacinto in Madrid.

May 20, 2023: The Minister of Equality, Irene Montero, and Podemos candidate for the Presidency of the Community of Madrid, Alejandra Jacinto, during a walk through the Barrio de la Luna in Rivas-Vaciamadrid, Madrid (Spain).

Fernando Sánchez/ZUMA

A new truth

But there have indeed been many sentence reductions, and there will be many more. In terms of percentages, the Supreme Court has agreed to reducing 40.5% of reviewed case’s sentences; the National Court to 14.3% of cases, provincial courts to 31.6% of cases and higher courts to 39.5%.

In total, there has been a sentence reduction in 32% of the reviewed procedures. That means that as of May 1, there have been 1,079 sentence reductions for rapists and abusers and 188 have been released from prison.

Finally, the higher court has rejected the application of the transitional provision of 1995, which was advocated by the Prosecutor’s Office. This provision is included in all judicial reforms to prevent sentence reductions. The crucial detail is that the Minister of Equality forgot to include this provision in her law, thus facilitating the retroactive application of benefits.

This is why the Second Chamber of the Supreme Court has endorsed the sentence reductions for sexual offenders with the application of the ‘only yes means yes’ law.

Moving forward

Now we know that the minister would have avoided many sentence reductions in sexual abuse cases if only she had included the provision that would have made these impossible when writing her law, an addition which was suggested to her and which she decided not to act upon.

How many of those rapists and abusers who now walk freely will attempt violence against other women?

We also know that the victims, having already faced the personal offense of these sentence reductions, are organizing themselves to demand compensation from the government.

What we don’t know, and I fear we will never really know, is how many of those rapists and abusers who now walk freely through the streets will attempt violence against other women who they would have never reached had they stayed in prison.

What is clear is the confusion that the Minister of Equality is embroiled in, which is what ultimately reaches ordinary citizens. First, they said that there would be no sentence reductions; then, that the reductions occurred due to right-wing judges; then, someone from the ministry said that imprisonment was not the solution, while others insist on maintaining prison sentences.

Now we have to wait to see their response to the reprimand from the UN. But ultimately, while everyone is busy blaming one another, nothing is getting resolved and nobody is taking responsibility for the failure of a law that they implemented.

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The Problem With Always Blaming Climate Change For Natural Disasters

Climate change is real, but a closer look at the science shows there are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters. It is important to raise awareness about the long-term impact of global warming, but there's a risk in overstating its role in the latest floods or fires.

People on foot, on bikes, motorcycles, scooters and cars navigate through a flooded street during the day time.

Karachi - People wade through flood water after heavy rain in a southern Pakistani city

Xinhua / ZUMA
Axel Bojanowski


BERLIN — In September, thousands of people lost their lives when dams collapsed during flooding in Libya. Engineers had warned that the dams were structurally unsound.

Two years ago, dozens died in floods in western Germany, a region that had experienced a number of similar floods in earlier centuries, where thousands of houses had been built on the natural floodplain.

Last year saw more than 1,000 people lose their lives during monsoon floods in Pakistan. Studies showed that the impact of flooding in the region was exacerbated by the proximity of human settlements, the outdated river management system, high poverty rates and political instability in Pakistan.

There are many factors that contribute to weather-related disasters, but one dominates the headlines: climate change. That is because of so-called attribution studies, which are published very quickly after these disasters to highlight how human-caused climate change contributes to extreme weather events. After the flooding in Libya, German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described climate change as a “serial offender," while the Tageszeitung wrote that “the climate crisis has exacerbated the extreme rainfall."

The World Weather Attribution initiative (WWA) has once again achieved its aim of using “real-time analysis” to draw attention to the issue: on its website, the institute says its goal is to “analyse and communicate the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events." Frederike Otto, who works on attribution studies for the WWA, says these reports help to underscore the urgent need for climate action. They transform climate change from an “abstract threat into a concrete one."

In the immediate aftermath of a weather-related disaster, teams of researchers rush to put together attribution studies – “so that they are ready within the same news cycle," as the New York Times reported. However, these attribution studies do not meet normal scientific standards, as they are published without going through the peer-review process that would be undertaken before publication in a specialist scientific journal. And that creates problems.

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