Why blaming women for Cologne New Year’s Eve attacks undermines the problem

In the wake of mass sexual assaults reported in Germany on New Year’s Eve, reporter Claire Hubble explains why it’s integral to remember who the blame lies with when discussing sexual violence.

The main station in Cologne, Germany, where many women were sexually assaulted and robbed
The main station in Cologne, Germany, where many women were sexually assaulted and robbed

Chances are if you’re a woman, you’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment, intimidation or catcalling thrown your way more than once. Whether it was a creepy guy who pinches your bum in a club, the drunken middle-aged man on the train who wheezes whiskey into your face as he tells you you’re beautiful, a car following you on your way home or something more sinister, the feelings of helplessness, fear and dread your felt were inevitably the same.

What were you thinking, in those panicked moments? How can I get away? Do I have enough charge on my phone to call for help if need be? Is there anyone around who can help me? Could I physically overpower this person if necessary?

Were you thinking “damn, I wish I’d kept this creepy stranger at arms length. How foolish of me”? Probably not.

That’s because it’s never the responsibility of the victim that she (yes there are male victims of sexual assault and harassment, but for the sake of simplicity we will stick to the female pronoun for now) is attacked.

Police officers patrol in front of the main station of Cologne
Police officers patrol the main station of Cologne

Which is why comments from the Mayor of Cologne in the wake of mass sexually violent attacks against women on New Year’s Eve are so very problematic, after she implied that females facing attack should do more to protect themselves. Around 90 people have filed reports to police, many of which are women who were groped, shouted at or mugged, as well as one woman who was raped.

Those are only the reported crimes, without even considering those who are too afraid to come forward.

Mayor Henriette Reker detracted attention from the violent male perpetrators and instead suggested that women should adopt a “Code of Conduct” to prevent attacks, recommending that women should keep more than an arm’s length distance from strangers, to stick together in groups and to make police aware of any incidents.

Everybody has the capability to do horrible things, but that doesn’t mean that we SHOULD or WILL do these things.

Just because you know your neighbour is on holiday doesn’t mean you’re going to kick their door down and steal their television.

Just because you saw someone put their iPhone 6 in their back pocket doesn’t mean you’re about to snatch it from their jeans.

Just because you can shove someone out of the way to get into a train carriage before they do doesn’t mean you’re about to send them flying across the platform.

Why blaming women for Cologne New Year's Eve attacks undermines the problem

The blame resides not with the victim, the person who is having the horrible thing DONE to them. It lies with the DO-ER. So why is the discussion centred around what women should do? We’re just pulling focus from the real, horrific crimes at hand, the crimes which were committed by an estimated 1,000 men, men who are still at large, roaming the streets of Cologne, ready to act again lest a woman let him within an arm’s reach.

Is it really any wonder one in five adult females have experienced sexual violence, when we repeatedly condemn the victim and fail to draw attention to the perpetrator?

Not a single arrest has been made so far, yet here Reker is telling women it’s their job to protect themselves, not the duty of the police to crack down on sexual violence, not the responsibility of the government to assure victims justice will be served, and not the blatantly obvious obligation of men quite simply NOT to sexually abuse women.

Written for Snappa, published on Irish Examiner, BT and more.