When I heard about the mass sexual assaults on New Year´s Eve in Cologne, I was shocked, I was appalled, but, to be honest, I was not surprised. While much of the debate around the assaults has been along the lines of “How could something like this ever happen in Germany?” For me, and most other women, the equation anonymous large crowds + alcohol + men = possible sexual harassment made sense before Cologne and has been internalised by us long before the binomial formulas.
While the very organised way in which the attacks in Cologne took place may have added a shocking and frightening new character, being aware of large groups of men and feeling uncomfortable when surrounded by them is sadly not new at all for many women. Or as Anne Wizorek, part of the new outspoken generation of feminists in Germany puts it: “When large groups of men come together and alcohol is involved, women are often the subject of harassment. That happens in football stadiums, during Karneval in Cologne or at Oktoberfest in Munich.”
What made the aftermath of the incidents in Cologne stand out was the reaction to it. Except for the convenient and easily manageable tip by the mayor of Cologne to always keep men at arm´s length, there was very little victim blaming and a lot of support for the victims with many politicians speaking up against this sexual violence.
However, this time, the alleged rapists and assaulters were North-African men, which lead to many arguing that these violent acts were part of their culture, the dangerous belief system around Islam and the misogynistic practices of the “orient.” Pointing fingers after Cologne was easier than in other cases because there was no need to point at oneself.
This time speaking up for the victims could conveniently be paired with racist propaganda and that called surprising new advocates for women´s rights onto the stage. For example Horst Seehofer, prime minister of Bavaria and head of the conservative Christian Social Union, called the assaults in Cologne “disgusting” and was quick to call for harder punishment of migrants who violate the law.
Ironically, Seehofer did not seem to think sexual violence needed to be punished when he voted against classifying rape in marriage as a crime in 1997.
The general huge interest in sexual violence baffled me. I have rarely met men, who thought of the fight against sexual violence on the top of their agenda. Many men I talked to after the attacks in Cologne thought that this kind of behaviour had long vanished from the German public and was only done by horrible, horrible people in horrible, horrible places. Thus, the events in Cologne could only be explained by the different background of the aggressors and the backward thinking of Muslims.
The rhetoric of stigmatisation and racism against the Muslim men in the great tradition of Orientalism and the age-old racist story of having to protect your women against the strangers who will steal (or in this case harass) them, falls on fruitful ground, when talking about sexual violence has been a taboo for so long.
I truly believe that for many men, the fear of being sexually harassed is not a daily thought. Most men do not have to watch out for their bodies from the innocent age of 11, or have to take inventive and often round-about ways of getting home after parties. Most men are not incredibly conscious about their surroundings whenever they are out and about and most men do not know the feeling of your heart pounding whenever someone walks behind you on a sidewalk at night, while these scenarios are a reality in the daily life of many women. And maybe this unawareness of sexual assault and the former silence about this topic in the media makes so many of the racist allegations after Cologne so easily accepted.
Most men have never been made aware of the reality of sexual assault against women in Germany even -dare I say it- by German men, which makes it even easier to simply blame a different culture, a different belief system! The system behind rape culture, where there is an intense focus on the victim (What was she wearing? Was she drinking?), as well as the huge stigma and difficulty for victims of sexual violence to speak up, banishes the entire topic into a dark back room, far away from open debate.
And thus the events in Cologne were often described by politicians and the media as a shocking new step back to barbaric practices of sexual violence
brought into our secure Christian, occidental countries by dangerous Muslim, oriental migrants. The fact that there is still a huge problem with sexual violence in Germany with 58% of women in Germany saying they have experienced sexual harassment, and 40% having suffered physical or sexual violence from a partner (who are very unlikely to all have middle eastern husband) is being ignored in favour of a racist discourse. As Wizorek points out: “(… ) the core problem is not Islam, it is patriarchy. Perpetrators clearly need to be punished, but the problem of sexualized violence has already existed here for some time and can’t simply be “deported”.”
Conservative politicians speaking up for women´s rights would be wonderful if it would not only be done as part of a anti-migration rhetoric. The attacks of Cologne added even more fuel to the fire of hatred and anxiety towards refugees that is burning in Europe and we can already see first developments that stem from the propaganda around Cologne. Refugees who break the law are now to be send back to their home countries quicker and easier, even though it has become evident that only three of the 58 arrested suspects are recent asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq.
While the attacks have been used to further declare migrants and refugees as threats to our safety, little is being done about the underlying misogynistic practices that allow for such sexual violence to occur. There are neither additional programmes to help victims of sexual assault speak up nor a new discussion about sexual violence within Germany.
The victims of this whole discourse are the refugees and migrants, who never planned on breaking German laws and more than anything the women, who were assaulted in Cologne. They were not only grossly violated, but are now used simply as tools in racist propaganda they may have never agreed to. Using the attacks only as a way to further discriminate refugees and widen the gap between “us” and “them,” Germany has missed yet another chance to finally open up a debate about misogyny and sexual violence while finding efficient ways to counter them.
By Céline Sonnenberg
Picture 1: Jacob Surland licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Picture 2: Chase Carter licensed underCC BY-ND 2.0