Sexual Offences Act 2003, Section 1

Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 is of considerable symbolic significance for women.
While the Government’s motivations for rape law reform focused on increasing the conviction rate, the process provided feminist scholars and activists with the opportunity to influence the legislation to reflect women’s lived experiences of rape and to encourage belief in complainants throughout the criminal justice process.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 radically altered the archaic sexual offences laws in England and Wales.

Section 1 defines rape as the intentional penile penetration of the vagina, anus or mouth of another person without that person’s consent or a reasonable belief that s/he consents. Significantly, the defendant’s belief in consent need no longer simply be ‘honest’ – decried by feminists as a ‘rapists charter’— but rather must be ‘reasonable’. In addition , section 74 included, for the first time, a definition of consent, emphasising women’s autonomy over men’s desires.

The new legislation was the culmination of a detailed review process informed by contributions of feminist scholars, organisations and campaigns, drawing on decades of feminist anti-rape work. The result of this feminist input is a revised definition of rape which – while not perfect – better reflects the fundamental violation of rape and the realities of women’s experiences of men’s sexual violence. It is a law which conveys important messages about the regard which should be given to a woman’s sexual autonomy, and provides a platform from which to articulate feminist conceptions of consent and to continue to challenge pernicious and damaging rape culture and myths.

The full version of this landmark is written by Nikki Godden-Rasul.


Further Reading

Alan Travis, ‘Rape Law Change to Redefine Consent’ (The Guardian News and Media Ltd. 

Home Office, Setting the Boundaries: Reforming the Law on Sex Offences Volume I (July 2000)

Home Office, Protecting the Public: Strengthening Protection Against Sex Offenders and Reforming the Law on Sexual Offences (Cmd 5668, November 2002)

Vicky Spratt, ‘A History of Rape Law in the UK’ (The Debrief