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

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

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  • Tired feminist

    This article is superb, Susan. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I feel that everyone but radical feminists is failing to make this obvious link between Germany’s prostitution policy (and its general acceptance of misogyny) and the New Year attacks. We really, really need to turn this conversation onto the real problem.

  • Oil and beef

    This article neatly steers away for the clear and present danger to women–Islam–and instead shifts it to all men. Cop out. The real problem is Islam and its subjugation of women. Do women’s group fear Islam? They must, because they never point fingers at the religion who wishes nothing more than to put a black bag over their head, stay in the house, get no education, have no rights, and be relegated to a level of cattle. If women’s groups do not add their voices to denounce Islam, all the rights they have won will be tossed out the window because Sharia Law is not compatible with women. I am very lucky my wife and daughters live in the West where they can be loved and cherished by……!!!

    • fencepost

      Nothing says cherishing women like a gangbang video produced right here in the west. In fact, I’m gonna go celebrate all this fuzzy wuzzy with couple hours spent on that super duper woman lovin’ “facial abuse” website.

    • Cassandra

      Nope. Nope. Nope. Islam sucks for sure. All the major religions do. Let’s say Islam is a 10 on the subjugation level. The rest of the patriarchal religions are only what, a 7? Fucking with women’s reproductive autonomy in the form of abortion restrictions, sexual harassment and rape, erasure of the female reproductive system/root of women’s oppression and the destruction of women-only spaces, prostitution and pornography, I could go on. Don’t pat yourself on the back, dude. The “West” isn’t nearly as benevolent toward women as men like you would like to believe, and you know what? I think you know it.

    • Zuzanna Smith

      Loved and cherished, wait did you mean objectified, mocked, oppressed, ogled, prostituted, abused in porn, raped and murdered? Because that is what happens to women in the West. Thanks men!

    • Melissa Cutler

      Tell us, Oil and beef, how does Western culture’s pornography and legalized prostitution, including Germany’s mega-brothels, fit in with your delusion–I mean, opinion—of women in the West being loved and cherished by men?

      • Mellie

        That poster didn’t say the west didn’t have a rape culture. It is not mutually exclusive to say Islam and western sexual objectification BOTH are rape cultures.

        • will

          “It is not mutually exclusive to say Islam and western sexual objectification BOTH are rape cultures.”

          Exactly. Nowhere in this article does it say that Islam is NOT conducive to rape culture. The writer takes a broader view of rape culture, uses this particular instance as a reference and the predictable onslaught of men correcting the author with “it’s not us, it’s a problem with Muslims/Immigrants” floods in. It’s complete bullshit to pretend that a normalization and tolerance for the sexual use and abuse of women did not pre-exist the arrival of the refugees. It’s a complete cop-out. Yes, there is a problem with Islam. It’s the same that both Christianity and secular liberalism have: they believe that women are sexual property for the use of men.

          • Wendy Lev

            White feminists using the Cologne et all attacks to make a point about white rape culture. How low can you go?

          • will

            Right. Muslims rape so we’ll talk about that. Christians rape so we’ll talk about that. Jews rape so we’ll talk about that. But do NOT talk about them in relation to one another!!! Lord Above, someone might start thinking about the global rape culture and we can’t have that!!! How low can you go?

            Seriously though, who are these “white feminists” you are talking about? And why are you insisting that rape by various groups of men is mutually exclusive?

        • Melissa Cutler

          You are inferring that I was accusing Oil and beef of saying that the west doesn’t have a rape culture. That is not correct. I was challenging the last sentence of his post, which stated that women in the west are loved and cherished by men, and therefore he feels lucky that his wife and daughters live in the west.
          The idea that we, as women, could have it worse, and that we are therefore lucky to live in a western culture where the men ‘aren’t so bad’, is dangerous, misogynistic thinking. Are you suggesting that we not address women’s oppression in Germany and other western cultures, and only focus our attention on Islam’s oppression of women? Who benefits if we limit our discussion to the problem with the “other” instead of discussing the global oppression of women across all cultures, nationalities, and races? The answer is that men would benefit by that narrow focus. Men of western cultures, in particular. Tell me, Mellie, how does that help all women liberate ourselves from the oppression of patriarchy?

          • Deshaunte Jackson

            It’s sickening. There are also sites where white men sexually assault black women in a racist fashion. Just because she’s paid doesn’t make it okay. Imagine the sick tards getting a cheap thrill from this racialized hate porn.

            You won’t find any porn where black men degrade white women, though. You know why? Because black males are less aggressive and less war-like than the white men that commit ALL the rapes.

    • marv

      Posturing propaganda. As if marriage anywhere undermines patriarchy. The institution divides women among themselves bolstering the power of men.

    • Hierophant2

      What does “Islam” have to do with the topic of the article? What a pathetic misdirection.

      • Mellie

        If a fraternity engaged in a gang rape, people would have no problem saying fraternities have rape culture problem. If a catholic priest raped a bunch of boys, most feminist would have not issue saying the catholic church has a rape culture. But for some reason we are not allowed to say Islam encourages a rape culture??

        • will

          That’s disingenuous. You are misrepresenting the argument. No one says Islam is not part of rape culture. They are just calling bullshit on rape apologists who prey on western prejudice in order to pretend that the problem of sexual terrorism starts and ends with Muslims.

          • Wendy Lev

            So youre abandoning women to be politically correct. Way cool.

          • will

            Fuck Wendy Lev, how do you figure that I am “abandoning women to be politically correct”?? That’s completely inaccurate. I said that no one here, NOBODY has claimed that Islam is not a problem. If someone has, then please, quote that person because I can’t find it. And show me where I said that Islam is not a problem. And please show how I am abandoning women.

            Islam is a fucking big problem. Fraternities are a big fucking problem. Professional sporting events are a big fucking problem. It’s all rooted in the same murderous poisonous lie of male authority and entitlement. We’re on the same side here. What the fuck are you trying to do?

            I’m sorry, but your insulting, inappropriate comment has made me very angry.

        • Tired feminist

          As far as my experience goes, what we usually aren’t allowed to say is that prostitution, pornography and “consent” encourage rape culture.

        • Deshaunte Jackson

          True Islam, which you will not hear about outside of a postcolonial studies class, is form complementarity of the sexes. Not subjugation. It’s 2016. Read a book.

        • Hierophant2

          Fraternities are not a religion, you dope. And there’s no doubt that a catholic priest is catholic. So in neither case is there any doubt about what religion they are. Your examples are shit.

          • Mellie

            They are not shit examples, because they are all examples of cultures. There is a military culture that encourages a rape culture. Islam, Christianity, and fraternities also have rape cultures.

          • Mellie

            The men come from Muslim cultures, so yes we can assume Islam shapes their opinions on western women. And y western women I don’t mean just white women. But all western women who are painted as unrapeable by religious people who hate women who are not chaste.

          • Hierophant2

            No, you may not assume someone’s religion, because THAT’S THE POINT AT ISSUE! You are a waste of flesh.

    • Deshaunte Jackson

      You are an idiot.

  • Melissa Cutler

    “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.”
    And therein lies the heart of our goals as radical feminists, not only in Germany, but the throughout the world. Thanks for this thorough article, Susan. Besides shining a great spotlight on some of the dangers of liberal feminism on a global scale, it’s also a terrific companion piece to Meghan’s male curfew editorial, and a great rebuttal to all those breathtakingly ignorant and hateful comments from men left on that post.

  • Deshaunte Jackson

    This article is great in that it points out the glaring hypocrisy of Western media. When can we face up to the fact that not North African but white men are the real rapists? Western, not Islamic culture, is the fundamental evil. We need to stop blaming these refugee victims, most of whom are women and children, and take aim at the real culprits– White European men.

    • pjwhite

      You’re doing exactly the same thing you accused white European men of doing – deflecting responsibility away from yourself onto “the Other”. Black men have been raping, beating, mutilating, and killing black women since forever. Men need to look at themselves and how their own communities degrade women – not project blame onto other men. All men, in all communities, need to clean up their own houses.

  • Tired feminist

    You’re allowed to say whatever you want, only don’t expect to be taken seriously in a radfem space if you’re willing to acknowledge the misogyny of one culture while closing your eyes to the misogyny of another.

    • Wendy Lev

      NO ONE is doing that. How on earth can the Cologne et all attacks NOT lead to a discussion about muslim rape culture?? Why is that made about white rape culture? You abandon all women that have to deal with muslime rape culture. When is this going to be about the European women that are dealing with a new rape culture?

  • Deshaunte Jackson

    Islam is the most peaceful, woman and gay-friendly religion that exists. It’s Christianity that brought all the nasty elements into modern day Islam (which is not the REAL Islam).

    All of your quotes are from a racist author that does not consider the role of the West in colonizing the Middle-east– Turning brown bodies into mere chattel.

    You’re the same as those white retards that began blaming the Cologne “assaults” on the refugees. What you’re not seeing is white supremacy pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

    Wake up.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Please don’t insult my commenters by calling them “retards.”

  • Deshaunte Jackson

    White men rape more than men of color. When men of color rape, it’s only because of the economic and cultural conditions. In other words, it’s people like your father, your brother, and all the other greedy, immoral, hateful, cruel, supremacist whites in your “racial” family that made them.

    If a white woman is raped by a black male, it’s the fault of white supremacy, not black male behavior. Get over it.

    • Meghan Murphy

      No. That is not true. All men — even men of colour — are accountable when they rape. Racism is no excuse to rape women!

      • k.f. morton

        Meghan, please would you remove deshaunte jeckson’s comments? The rape apologism is incredibly painful and women seeking to engage in this discussion shouldn’t have to navigate that b.s 🙁 thank you

  • Deshaunte Jackson

    The misogyny inherent in Islam? Good to know I’m dealing with another Islamophobe. Can we ever let Islam speak for itself? Why do Islamophobes love to misquote and mistranslate the Quran? For the same reason stuck-up white women try to smear men of color with charges of rape– Irrational fears and projections of inner desires. Just like in To Kill a Mocking Bird.

    • Morag999

      Look: the mask slips before it falls. Another anti-racist queer post-colonial post-modern anti-imperialist social justice advocate who’s actually a raging, violent, woman-hating, patriarchy-loving man.

      And also, if I may add, a self-hating gay black man who’s sucking up to his oppressors, hoping — no doubt — for a good deal. Ah, unrequited love. Is there anything more sad?

      “Oh, please, brother,” said he, “please don’t hurt me! Do it to her instead. She’s a slut and a stuck-up bitch and secretly wants to be raped, anyway! For the love of God, let me go and do it to her!”

      Better us than you, right?

  • Kennedy Taylor

    Exactly. Rape is universal. It’s a male thing. We always need to take instances of rape by non-whites and reformulate them so we don’t focus on the crimes themselves. This should be our first tactic whenever dealing with right wing hatemongers. Distract from the event and bury it in strategic discourse that does not allow them to single out minorities.

    Say someone asks you about the Knoxville Horror. Just say, sarcastically, “totally!” then ask them about slavery. Ask them about the genocide of the Native Americans. A lot worse is in store for white people than the Knoxville Horror, they will be minorities in their own countries in a few decades, so we need to get them used to it. They are NOT special. EVERYBODY suffers.

  • Morag999

    Yeah. Misogynists are so horribly oppressed by non-obedient women. Lord, when will the nightmare end? When you cut a woman-hating rape-apologist, does he not bleed? Oh, humanity!

  • Ann E. Oakley

    Initially, I responded to these incidents with the same fervent liberal apologetics, Susan Cox. My main argument like yours was the ‘fact’ that these attacks ‘only’ occurred in Germany. Reading radical feminists’ views began to change my mind; and discovering that some attacks actually took place in Sweden pushed me over the edge, back to the rad-fem view. “On New Year’s Eve 2015, simultaneous coordinated sexual attacks took place against women in public space in about 10 cities, mostly in Germany, but also in Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, and Finland…These attacks were perpetrated by young men of migrant descent (be they immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, or other) from North Africa and the Middle East.”

    “About 1,000 immigrants of Arab origins gathered to practice mass harassment, which has become widely commonplace in Arab and Islamic countries. They separated the women in circles, with a detailed plan to isolate them so they could harass them sexually, physically, and in some cases, even raped them….Testimonies of witnesses and victims confirm that these harassers did not have the slightest sense of wrongdoing; on the contrary, they have displayed a kind of pleasure and satisfaction.”

    Being the Brothel of Europe doubtless enabled the attackers’ preference for that nation, but had that been the root cause, there would have been none occurring in Sweden, where the Nordic model is succeeding, the very nation that developed it.

    “[T]his combination of assertive misogyny promoted by some immgrant communities, on the one hand, plus the attitute of moral relativism in the West, on the other hand, are a setback that could derail the women’s project of liberation.” ~Ayaan Hirsi Ali

  • Wendy Lev

    Yep, I feel exactly the same. Im most shocked with radical feminists that put muslim males above women, as thats what they do. As a European woman my landscape has changed a lot since NYE mass sexual assaults/rapes and everyday rapes and sexual assaults by migrant males all over Europe. This has tremendous effects and consequences for European women. And many (radical) feminists DO NOT have our backs in this serious development that is an added attack to women’s rights, safety and freedom. Instead feminists invalidate our concerns and new realities and new issues where women’s rights are continuously under attack. Migrants in swimmingpools sexually harassing women and girls, nightclubs that are dealing with sexually aggressive migrant males, women on the streets being assaulted and/or raped by a man or groups of men. But no, all we get to hear from these feminists is: white men do it too!!
    How is that porn and prostitution is rape culture but masses of rape culture males entering our relatively safe countries there can be no outrage about? Im seriously questioning feminism altogether. Im very shocked with many feminists in this. Ask any woman that has lived in a muslim society what her life is like. Or muslin women in western societies? We ALL know this!! But no. Its being used to show how bad prostitution is and porn is. YES, we know that and we are not denying that!! But this mass immigration is a new, added, attack on women’s lives in Europe. And many feminists dont have our backs in this. We get the political correct talk from them, and with that defending muslim culture. And they dont see they do that. I am outraged.

  • Tired feminist

    “I’m shocked to see it isn’t, …”

    Yes, it is.

    “… and compared with other forms of violence against women.”

    Well yeah, sorry-not-sorry but you’ll have to deal with this.

  • Alan Kikely

    it needs to focus on islam, there is no way around it

  • will

    “we are not allowed to say Islam is a rape culture even WITHIN rad-fem spaces.”

    I agree with so much of what you have written, but I am confused by the above statement. Which radical feminists are “disallowing” the naming of rape culture within Islam? Who here has said that?

    There has been a predictable influx of dudes saying that because these rapists were Muslim, the broader issue of women’s safety in public spaces, a continuum within which this particular event exists at the extreme end, should not be discussed. To counter that mealy-mouthed argument is not in any way saying that the Islamist movement is not a horrific manifestation of patriarchal violence.

    The argument on this thread makes me very sad. The misogynists are winning when we divide and conquer our own ranks with these misunderstandings and misrepresentations of stated positions.

  • will

    The NYT article refers to [quoting Schwarzer] “the so called ‘post-feminist’
    Internet feminists who are for pornography and prostitution are in favor
    of the head scarf and even the burqa. “. I don’t consider those people to be feminists or part of a serious discussion any more than I take opportunistic right wing bigots to be a serious part of the discussion. Both women in the Der Spiegle article call for constructive reforms. To dismiss the entire feminist movement because of the aforementioned “post-feminists” or because serious feminists lean towards a critical caution of either the phony concern by obvious misogynists or the dangers of flabby libberish excusing a particularly heinous group of men, is fiddling while Rome burns.

    • Wendy Lev

      See my other comment to you here. Im done with you. I am truly shocked you dont get what Im saying. Its so simple. Is it maybe your own racism that stops you from getting it? Think about that. Arab and North African women and feminists have been saying what Ive been saying, for decades now. It has come to Europe and still your eyes are shut. Thats your racism.

  • will

    You do realize that when you quote someone else’s words that it’s customary to put quotation marks around those words (in this case your entire post)? Otherwise it’s plagiarism.

  • will
  • k.f. morton

    Implying that white women secretly want to be raped by black men IS misogynist. Fuck off