Last New Year’s Eve, 467 reports of sexual assault and harassment were reported in Cologne, Germany, after a public celebration took a dark turn. Those reports also indicated that many of the alleged assailants were Moroccan and Algerian refugees, complicating the narrative in a country where the Syrian refugee crisis is sending xenophobic sentiment sky-rocketing.

BuzzFeed’s Jina Moore filed an extensive exploration of how these cases are being handled. It turns out, not very well. Accusations are flying that police withheld details of the assaults, fearing they’re reflect poorly on recent government decisions around accepting refugees into the country. Suspicions of some mass cover-up were fanned by conservative outlets that referenced the well-worn racist narrative of dark-skinned men abusing white women. In a small nearby town a burgerwehr, or citizen’s protection force, formed to check I.D.s and question strangers, despite police publicly condemning them.

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Additionally, a bizarre aspect of German law has come into the forefront of the conversation. In Germany, if someone grabs you in a public place, it’s not considered assault.

This is the irony women’s activists are struggling with in the wake of attacks in Cologne. A quick squeeze of the breasts, a hand on the ass, an unwanted kiss — when it happens in a public space, none of these are against the law in Germany.

“The German law accepts that a man generally has the right to touch a woman, to have sexual intercourse with a woman. It’s his right, unless the woman shows her resistance very, very strongly,” said Chantal Louis, an editor at Emma, Germany’s oldest feminist magazine. “We have a situation where … even touching the breasts or vagina can’t be punished in the logic of that law, because if the perpetrator does it very quickly, you don’t have time to resist. It seems weird and crazy, but that’s German law.”

That’s because, as far as the law is concerned, verbal consent isn’t really the issue. The law focuses instead on the overwhelming force of the perpetrator, requiring that there be a “threat of imminent danger to life and limb.” For a court to rule that a woman was raped, and the justice system to put a rapist behind bars, a woman must physically, exhaustively resist her perpetrator. If she can’t prove with her body — with bruises or other injuries — that she fought back, the assault isn’t really a crime.

As Moore points out, though there is a lot of confusion about what exactly happened on New Year’s Eve, this is hardly the first time that German women have been molested in public by strangers. Cologne hosts many large public festivals, such as Octoberfest and Karnaval, at which women are frequently the target of unwelcome—and unprosecutable—assaults. Unfortunately, this story is being framed by many media outlets as a question of who should be allowed into the country, rather than how the country is letting down its female citizens with archaic laws.

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Image via AP.


Contact the author at aimee.lutkin@jezebel.com.