The Italian supreme court has ruled that the rape of someone who is already sexually active is not as serious a crime as the rape of a virgin.

In 2001 a lower court sentenced a 41-year-old drug addict to prison for three years and four months for raping the 14-year old daughter of the woman he was living with at the time. His appeal has taken four years to be heard but the higher court has now ruled that the sentence was excessive, on the grounds that the victim was already sexually active and therefore the damage to her would be less than for someone who had no sexual experience at all.

The decision is causing an outcry from politicians, child protection agencies and the general public.

Maria Gabriella Moscatelli, president of Telefono Rosa a telephone helpline for women, said that the decision was particularly shocking considering the rise in sexual violence; the helpline recorded three times as many calls from women who suffered sexual abuse last year as it did in 2004.