On 6 May 2019, Parliament passed the Criminal Law Reform Bill (“the Bill”). Not only will the Bill introduce new offences, it will also amend pre-existing ones. In this article, we will focus on the changes that will be made to existing sexual offences.
This is perhaps one of the biggest changes that will be brought about by the Bill. With the current definition of rape requiring penile penetration of the vagina, it means that only women can be victims. The Bill will amend the Penal Code to include non-consensual penile penetration of the anus and mouth, bringing males within the ambit of the offence.
The newfound gender neutrality of the offence is based on the rationale that penile penetration of the anus or mouth is as severe as the violation of the vagina. It is acknowledged that these acts all constitute equally grievous infringements of sexual autonomy.
This change now means that Singapore is in line with other jurisdictions. Victims of penile assault will no longer be treated differently because of their gender.
Repeal of Marital Immunity for Rape
The rationale for marital immunity of rape stems from the 1700s when it was thought that through marriage, a wife had surrendered herself to sexual intercourse with her husband. This was based on the philosophy that the law should not intrude on the sanctity and intimacy of marriages.
The 2007 amendments to the Penal Code withdrew marital immunity in circumstances which indicated that the marriage had broken down. With the modern view towards marriage being a partnership of equals, the archaic rationale for marital immunity is no longer applicable. Consequently, the 2007 amendments are considered inadequate protection from sexual abuse.
There are several other reasons for the repeal of marital immunity. Firstly, no one should be able to use marriage as an excuse to commit the serious offence of rape. Secondly, the law should not require the victim to take steps to terminate the perpetrator’s marital immunity before protection can be given. Lastly, vulnerable wives who are dependent on their husbands are not likely to be in the position to seek help and withdraw the marital immunity.
This change will protect all women from heinous sexual abuse, whether in a marital relationship or not. The law will no longer require the victim to take pre-emptive steps to repeal the offender’s marital immunity.
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Age of Consent
While the Penal Code currently prohibits commercial sex with minors below the age of 18, the current age of consent for sexual activity is 16 years of age. This maintains a good balance between respecting an individual’s sexual autonomy and protecting young persons who might be immature and exploitable.
However, the Internet and utility of smartphones have figuratively connected the world. This unintentionally facilitates sexual predators in targeting the vulnerable from the comfort of their home. There is a need to extend protection for minors due to the ease in which they can be exploited into sexual activity. Hence, for all sexual offences where there is an element of exploitation involved, the Bill will increase the maximum age of the victim from 16 to 18 years.
The Bill will effect this by inserting new sections in the Penal Code that applies to minors who are above the age of 16, but below that of 18. The sections relate to the exploitative sexual grooming, exploitative sexual communication and exploitative sexual activity or image in the presence of such minors.
On the whole, the Criminal Law Reform Bill will bring about several significant amendments to the area of sexual offences alone. These changes are slated to come into effect in early 2020 and show that legislation is being updated to reflect the changing perceptions and the fading of archaic presumptions.
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