The conversation about Cologne needs to focus on women’s rights

Women marching through Cologne holding placards reading "Against Sexism, Against Racism." (Image via he Independent)
Women marching through Cologne holding placards reading “Against Sexism, Against Racism.” (Image via he Independent)

Shock and outrage over the mass sexual assault in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve has captivated the world through an outpouring of media coverage and debate. German women held protests, furious with the police who did little to stop the attacks and a mayor who initially responded by warning women to stay “an arm’s length away from men” in order to protect themselves. Women protestors demanded more protection from male violence and more respect for women in German society.

But what could be a historical moment — an opportunity to really address violence against women and to talk about male entitlement — has been hijacked by right-wing political groups, using the Cologne attack as an excuse to create stricter immigration policy. The conversation has been turned away from women’s rights and male violence, and instead has become an opportunity to protest refugees, due to the fact that perpetrators have been described as “Arab” and “North African.” Simultaneous protests have erupted in Germany demanding the deportation of immigrants and demonizing asylum-seeking Syrian refugees. Right-wing groups who normally would not care about the issue of sexual violence against women and patriarchal attitudes are suddenly up in arms because it now (conveniently) serves their political agenda.

It isn’t just German men, but men all around the world who are pointing to the racial and cultural identity of the Cologne attackers in an attempt to divert blame from what feminists can easily identify as the root cause of the incident: Male violence and male entitlement — two global forces that transcend the boundaries of race, culture, and nation.

The problem of the Cologne attack is being cast as external and alien to Germany, as Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, suggested that a continual review of deportation policy is needed “to send a clear signal to people who do not want to stick to our legal framework.” Yet Germany was rife with violence-promoting misogyny and sexism long before the recent influx of immigrants, ensuring an inhospitable environment for women, all by itself.

Most notably, Germany garnered the title, “The Bordello of Europe,” since the passing of the Prostitution Act in 2002, which legalized the demand for prostitution and recognized prostitution as a legal profession subject to taxation. Prostitution is now a €15 billion a year industry in Germany, having quadrupled in size since the law came into effect. And an increase in demand for prostitution means an increase in sex trafficking — one study shows a 70 per cent increase in the number of women trafficked into Germany for sexual exploitation between 2005 and 2010.

Coincidentally, Europe’s largest brothel, the 12-story Pascha, which boasts up to 1,000 customers per day, just happens to be right in the city of Cologne. In German mega-brothels, women are subjected to dangerous and violent acts, which could easily be defined as torture, including “gang-bangs” and “blood-sports,” wherein a man can pay to cut women. All of this is done with full approval from the German government, who take a cut of the sex industry’s profits by taxing the prostituted women, so “privileged” to be working in their land of promise.

By legalizing prostitution, the German government is legitimizing male sexual entitlement to female bodies. As such, Germany cannot wash its hands of the Cologne mass sexual assault.

While authorities have described the perpetrators as being of “North African or Arabic” descent, whether these men were all migrants is unconfirmed. It’s been pointed out that an influx of single, male migrants poses a threat to women, and, as such, we’ve seen Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, for example, decide to only accept women, accompanied children, and families from Syria into Canada, thereby excluding unaccompanied minor males and single adult males (unless they are members of the LGBTQ community). European governments might do well to consider the impacts of bringing in a disproportionate number of young, unmarried, unaccompanied male migrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

But the fact remains that society at large provided the milieu in which this horrific incident of male violence was conceived and carried out — even the German media seemingly covered up the attacks for days. The solutions offered consisted mainly of the same old victim-blaming: women should be careful, cover up, not attend big, drunken events at night, etc. The hypocrisy of government officials’ and men’s anger at other men, in all of this, is palpable.

Interestingly, there is some evidence that the attack may have been coordinated through social media, as Hamburg police reported a similar style attack on New Year’s Eve (though on a smaller scale), carried out against women in Hamburg’s red-light district. Considering the unspeakable acts against women condoned in mega-brothels, it doesn’t seem particularly shocking that men would feel entitled to treat women as sex objects to be used and abused, just down the street. Sexism in society cannot be compartmentalized, and Germany has engineered a culture that accepts sexual violence. Yes, extreme misogyny exists and must not be condoned in some Muslim cultures; no we mustn’t ignore European men and the West’s active participation in creating a misogynistic society.

Since we’re talking about sexual assault, here, it’s worth noting that Germany doesn’t have a very good record on that front, either. Rape is technically legal in Germany, as it is not prosecuted if the victim failed to fight back. Under current German rape law, rape is only illegal if violence, or the threat of violence, is used to coerce the victim. So it’s not “No means no” in Germany, as violation of sexual consent is not enough to categorize it as assault. With rape law like this, is it any wonder studies show that the proportion of raped women in Germany who do not report sexual violence to the police is estimated at 85 to 95 per cent? And in 2012, only 8.4 per cent of the reported acts of sexual violence were sentenced.

Germany’s legislation leaves much to be desired in terms of its commitment to protecting women from male violence and its support for women’s rights. For example, child pornography in Germany is not criminalized if the child is 14 years or older. 14-years-old. When it comes to abortion law, abortion is actually illegal in Germany but “exempt from punishment” if women comply with strict “counseling” requirements and receive a certificate of permission from a “recognized advisory board.”

The response to the Cologne mass sexual assault must make the status of women a primary concern in order to prevent something like this from occurring again.

In some ways, this is already the case. For example, an amendment (which would define rape as a non-consensual sexual act) to Germany’s rape law is currently under consideration. Previous to the Cologne attacks, the amendment had been blocked by the Chancellery and Internal Ministry for half a year. In light of the incident in Cologne and considering how many instances of sexual violence perpetrated in Germany fail to meet the current legal definition of sexual assault, thereby highlighting German rape law’s gaping weaknesses, the amendment might now pass.

Ultimately, Germany won’t succeed in protecting its female citizens from male violence by simply expelling that which they consider foreign, but by changing the fabric of their society from within.

It’s ironic that Middle-Eastern men are being positioned as a kind of cultural pollution, bringing sexual violence to Europe, when one of the biggest exports of current Western cultural imperialism comes in the form of an endless deluge of brutal female degradation by way of sex trafficking and mainstream pornography. When looking at causes for rape culture, who is polluting who? The German government, with its thorough and shameful commodification of female bodies, cannot misdirect women’s rage and thirst for political change away from itself.

Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.