The Controversial Reports of Sexual Assault in Cologne Don't Legally Qualify as Crimes

Illustration for article titled The Controversial Reports of Sexual Assault in Cologne Don't Legally Qualify as Crimes

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.

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.

Image via AP.

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Contributing Writer, writing my first book for the Dial Press called The Lonely Hunter, follow me on Twitter @alutkin



Would you care to substantiate this statement, please:

“..complicating the narrative in a country where the Syrian refugee crisis is sending xenophobic sentiment sky-rocketing....”

Do you even read German, or follow the legitimate German press, such as the Frankfurt papers or the Süddeutsche Zeitung? No? I didn’t think so.

Overwhelmingly, throughout Germany, the Flüchtlinge have been welcomed by the country’s citizens and processed by the understandably overwhelmed local authorities as quickly as possible. Even in small towns where space is contested already because small, housing has been found for everyone.

By all means please let us know, comparatively, how immigrants are regarded and treated in the U.S.

With respect to the sexual assault laws, the laws in the North Rhine are different than in Bavaria, than in Prussia, than in Hesse, and in context of the broader situation in Köln, Louis is discussing the problematic local laws there, which are notoriously difficult to police during festival anyway. Unlike in München, for example, where Wies’n is confined to a limited area, Köln’s festivals are city-wide through a large area.

This is a real problem which made it very difficult to obtain accurate data about the New Year’s Eve assaults, and in fact the reluctance of the authorities to name immigrants (not refugees) as the suspects initially is precisely the opposite of xenophobia.

I notice that your first response has been a stupid advertising graphic from the 1990s which perfectly sums up the general tone of Jezebel’s “readership” in respect to, well, reading, and actually become informed about issues other than Shonda Rhimes before making negative comments about an entirely different situation and society.

Flüchtlinge continue to be welcomed in large numbers in Germany. How many Syrian refugees is the U.S. supporting?

The reason that this story was so shocking to Germans, and continues to have traction, is that this occurrence is very very unusual. Generally speaking women’s concerns are much farther along, with respect to paternal leave, wage parity, health care, domestic violence (corporal punishment is illegal), gun control, and so on.

Further, even in Köln, the law has already been amended. And the story in Emma does not say, as your headline and lead graf indicate, that rape and general violent behavior are not prosecutable; Louis gives an example of what she is specifically referring to in the statement you reprinted but didn’t read.

As in the earlier story ridiculing Clinton for...what? not being funny? this type of non-reporting is way, way off the mark, even for Jezebel. You always get the knee-jerk responders like the first wave of commenters huffing and puffing about the Germans, but I assure you, the majority of people are very aware of the Carmichael-era slide.