Monday, January 18, 2016

Keeping an Arm's Length

In the aftermath of Cologne, Germany's New Year's Eve festivities, close to 500 women have little to cheer about. That is the number of women who have come forward to the police and reported that they were victimized by sexual violence that night.  Many women were forced to run a gauntlet through "masses of heavily intoxicated men."  Women victimized because the police force that was deployed that night was understaffed and overwhelmed and could not stop the mob violence against women. Incredulously, the police department originally reported that "the night had passed off peaceably."

One would think that reporters would have been all over this story from the start. Yet it took the German public broadcasting channel, ZDF, four days to report on the event. Given that many of the attackers were described as having a "North African background," some politicians on the right have accused the government of trying to suppress the reports in order not to stoke anti-immigrant violence.

While anti-immigrant violence is a definite concern, German attitudes towards rape are a concern as well. In the wake of the mass sexual assaults the city's mayor, is quoted as saying:

    There’s always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm’s length—that is to say to make sure yourself you don’t look to be too close to people who are not known to you, and to whom you don’t have a trusting relationship.

No the mayor is not a conservative, white male, politician, but a woman-Henriette Reker. Sadly, her views dovetail with many German citizens' indifference to sexual crimes against women in general. Indeed,  German commentator Sasha Lobo has gone so far as to write that "the majority of the German public cares so shockingly little about sexual violence -- unless it is committed by "men with a North African or Arab appearance."

While there are close to 500 victims of the Cologne assaults, only one perpetrator is currently in custody on sexual assault charges. Even if more perpetrators are arrested, Germany's current rape laws are not helpful to rape victims.  It is not enough for a victim to have said "no." The court must find that the perpetrator used violence, threatened life or limb, or coerced the victim. The structure of the law requires women not just to refuse to consent, but to forcibly resist.  A German association of rape crisis organizations and counseling centers, organization, the BFF,  "has documented over a hundred cases where attackers escaped sexual assault convictions because of this loophole."

Despite the fact that in 2011, the Council of Europe enacted the Istanbul Convention which states that any "non-consensual" sexual act must be criminalized, Germany has dragged its feet on updating its rape laws.

Unfortunately, the German government has not just left German women unprotected, but female refugees as well. Last August, four social work organizations and women's rights groups, addressed a letter to  Minister of Integration and Social Affairs in the state of Hesse.  The letter flagged conditions at the refugee reception center in Giessen and stated:

"It is a fact that women and children are unprotected. This situation is opportune to those men who already regard women as their inferior and treat unaccompanied women as “fair game”. As a consequence, there are reports of numerous rapes, sexual assaults and increasingly of forced prostitution. These are not isolated incidents."

If there is a silver lining to this incident it is that Germany may finally update its rape laws. A bill that redefines rape has the support of the Chancellor and is now making its way through the system. Still, simply changing the law will not keep perpetrators at arm's length.


Krishnadev Calamur, "The Fallout from the Reports of Sexual Assault in Cologne,"  The Atlantic, January 6, 2016.

"Cologne Assaults: Police Report Outlines 'Chaotic and Shameful' New Year's Eve," Spiegel Online, January 7, 2016.

Kate Connelly, "Tensions Rise in Germany Over Handling of Mass Sexual Assaults in Cologne," The Guardian, January 7, 2016.

Ben Knight, "Germany Set to Finally Update its Rape Law," Deutsche Welle, January 8, 2016.

Sascha Lobo, "Mobs and Counter-Mobs: Pitfalls, Prejudice and the Cologne Sexual Assaults," Spiegel Online, January 8, 2016.

Situation der Flüchtlingsfrauen in der Hessischen Erstaufnahmeeinrichtung und deren Außenstellen

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