Here Lies the Abyss: Xenophobia and Gender After the Cologne Assaults

On New Year’s Day, outside the central railway station in Cologne, Germany, dozens of women were sexually assaulted by a pressing crowd of men, groping them, slipping their hands under their clothes, trying to kiss them, trying to rape them; the mass crime, fuelled by alcohol, could have arisen in any number of places in the Western world. It’s why many women, myself included, will fear the hooting and hollering of groups of men after dark, whether it’s on St. Patrick’s Day or after a sporting event (win or lose, it never matters, the men find it an excuse to revenge themselves upon civic order).

What made the attacks in Cologne different was that the shellshocked police force claimed the attack was perpetrated by men of “Middle Eastern and North African origin.”

Thus began a feeding frenzy on the whole of the far right, clamouring with renewed vitriol against the million Syrian refugees Germany took in this past year, asylum seekers and immigrants in general, and Muslims (even though the Cologne Police never ascribed a religion to the drink-besotted mob). Amidst the online outrage is the claim that feminists and leftists are hypocrites, caring about women’s rights only when white men can be blamed as oppressors, and the false claim that we have been silent about the New Year’s sex attacks.

Yet, as one might expect, such people project a fantasy onto us, ignoring the fact that this crime has sparked ample condemnation from feminists around the world. Local German feminists took to the streets of Cologne to highlight not only the police’s lackadaisical protection of women that night, but the larger plague of sexual violence (committed by white German men as well as non-white) throughout the country, refusing to scapegoat refugees and immigrants for a wider social problem. It was, after all, the city police (hardly in the thrall of poor refugees) who suggested a “code of conduct” for women who wished to avoid being raped.

As two German feminists, Stefanie Lohaus and Anne Wizroek wrote in Vice recently:

“Sexual assaults and even rape happen every year at big events like Oktoberfest. ‘The way to the toilet alone is like running the gauntlet: within 50 feet, you can be sure to tally three hugs from drunken strangers, two pats on the ass, someone looking up your dirndl and some beer purposely splashed right down your cleavage,’ wrote Karoline Beisel and Beate Wild in 2011, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. An average of 10 reported rapes take place each year at Oktoberfest. The estimated number of unreported cases is 200.”

Where were the newfound defenders of “women’s rights” back then? Perhaps they were upholding Germany’s troublingly archaic laws around rape, which require the victim to prove that they fought back against their attacker. Meanwhile, as this open letter from a multi-ethnic group of German feminists points out, sexual harassment isn’t even a criminal offence in Germany. The anti-immigrant “culture warriors” would be hard pressed to argue this is the result of ‘medievalist Muslim dominion’ over Germany’s legal system.

The women who suffered the attacks in Cologne–and in other German cities on that fateful morning– are now being used as mute props by nationalists and xenophobes who never gave a damn about rape before. According to both the BBC and Deutsche Welle, actual victims of the attacks do not want the crimes inflicted upon them to be used against all refugees in the nation. “It would be wrong to blame refugees,” a young woman named Michelle told BBC correspondent Jenny Hill. “They need our help.”


This is not the first time that women have been used by reactionary forces as a wedge upon a progressive consensus, and it’s hardly a coincidence that the white woman raped and violated by a foreigner or a non-white man is a figure of ecstatic worship amongst white nationalists and xenophobes. Women cannot speak, in their world; we are metaphors and ciphers for the nation as a whole, clad in its colours, and nothing so much as the symbol of its violation by the impure Other. Our own thoughts and understanding of sexual violence never count in this dark vision of the world, especially not when that sexual violation is visited upon us by white men or men of rank and station.

Slightly less callow people, like philosopher and men’s rights activist Christina Hoff-Sommers, argue that it is indeed morally wrong to blame all refugees or Muslims for the sex crimes in Germany, but only because it “is to be like gender warriors who blame all men.”

This language is mirrored by those who seek to deflect feminist criticism of male entitlement, even if they ignore Sommers’ warning against xenophobia. When, for example, I debated members of the GamerGate harassment campaign, arguing that even their less toxic members bore responsibility for creating an environment where bigotry and abuse flourished, I was accused of treating them the way Islamophobes treat Muslims after a terrorist attack. This line of un-reasoning rests on a false equivalence but it’s not enough to simply say that one situation is different from the other.

How most feminists respond (or should respond, at any rate–we have an Islamophobia problem of our own) to these distinct cases says a lot about differing philosophical approaches to seemingly intractable structural problems like terrorism.

First and foremost, I and many other feminists do indeed blame toxic masculinity for widespread social terror, from gang rapes to mass shootings, or point to the role of misogyny in cases of extreme white supremacist violence like that of the Charleston Massacre (Dylan Roof accused black men of “raping our women,” for instance) or the terror in Norway committed by Anders Bering Breivik who believed, among other things, that “feminising” of Scandinavia left white women, and the whole Norwegian nation, ripe for rape at the hands of invading Muslim horde. But what we do not, and indeed cannot do, is say that all men or all white men, should be interned in concentration camps, or deported into warzones, or beaten in the streets. We do not call for their exile from our society, but ask them to properly join it, without fear or resentment of women, without hatred for anyone they perceive as an Other. We ask not for violent retribution, but for mercy and sharing.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, when I criticised the right wing German anti-Islam movement PEGIDA for its beliefs, including shuttering mosques and deporting all immigrants, one of their supporters replied “Sounds like a good start to restoring Germany to being a decent country! ?? #Pegida #Köln [Cologne] #SalafistenRaus [Salfists Out].” Perhaps he is blissfully unaware of the dark echoes such words have in his country’s own history, but that’s no excuse for the rest of us to be.

Simply put, there is no comparison between a proper feminist response that assigns structural responsibility to all men for putting an end to sexual violence, and Islamophobia that demands violent retribution against non-whites for the actions of a few. It is one thing to call in a community and join with them in building a healthier society for all, it’s another to throw families between the hammer of ISIS and the anvil of Bashar al-Assad and call it a just thing.

When I speak of men and toxic masculinity, I say the solution is more humanity; when xenophobes speak of Muslims and the Cologne crimes, they say the solution is for us to abandon it.

By and large, feminists see gender equity and justice as a long term project that we all must share in, one which admits no simple solutions. That is the fundamental difference between us and the crop of Islamophobes who suddenly got religion on “protecting women.” In stopping sexual violence, only the immediate perpetrators of it need to be punished, but all men are responsible for checking each other and refusing to create a safe environment for a vile minority. They are summoned not to submit to physical abuse and state violence, but to a position of responsibility and shepherding, something ennobling and humane. And really, can anyone compare the occasional sexual-violence prevention class with the migrant camp at Calais,  your temporary home in a strange country getting firebombed, or being forced to raft across the Mediterranean?

So no, contrary to the views of those like Sommers, calling all men to responsibility and marking all asylum seekers and immigrants for hatred, shame, discrimination, and violent exile are not parallel in the slightest.


But larger issues remain. We must not allow ourselves to be seduced by the widening gyre of xenophobia now gripping our country. Everywhere are gendered dog whistles (remember Donald Trump accusing Latino men of being rapists?), and we are surrounded by opportunities to seek alliances of convenience with Islamophobes and racists whose sudden concern for women was prompted only by the enticing prospect of a brown, foreign man to blame. His purpose, like that of the violated virginal white woman, is also to act as a cipher; in him is invested all of the nation’s sin and thus, it is hoped, his exile will coincide with the expiation of that sin. “Rape culture exists,” the xenophobe at last admits, “but you will find it only among Muslims/Mexicans/asylum seekers.” They can temporarily position themselves as allies in the fight for women’s rights, and scorn us for denying them, but we deny ourselves lasting solutions if we focus narrowly on crimes committed by immigrants.

Misogyny cannot be deported, you cannot build a wall to keep it out, it cannot be beaten by a policeman’s truncheon, and it cannot be interred in a camp. The xenophobe’s prayer is that he can invest his own sins into that of the Other, thus feeling more moral himself, and assured of the rightness of an otherwise inhumane conviction. How many white German men now screaming for the heads of Syrian refugees were among that Oktoberfest crowd groping women, one wonders?

One wonders, further, how many of those white men might assault Muslim women because they wear hijabs or niqabs? So much Islamophobic violence throughout the West is directed at the very women these white men claim to want to “save,” in part because their religious symbols are more visible, in part because of the same rank misogyny that sees men entitled to tell women what they can and can’t wear.

We are living at a profoundly dangerous and explosive moment, where terrorist attacks are visited upon a Europe already enflamed by rampant xenophobia. Far right parties have been empowered across the continent in a move mirrored by the ascent of crypto-fascists like Donald Trump here in the US. Borders in Europe are tightening, the Schengen Agreement that embodied the borderless hope of a postwar Europe is fraying, and Denmark even proposes the confiscation of valuables from refugees. The echoes of our past return to us ever louder down the dark canyons of European history.

We stand at the edge of a terrifying abyss where serious people with power and authority are flirting with ideas that would see Western societies target religious and ethnic minorities with state power and violence unseen since the 1930s, all against the backdrop of ongoing sexual violence against women in the West. From a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, to deadly road rage in Houston, to ISIS’s continued threats against us all and their insidious attacks against “soft targets,” we are confronted with a pantheon of terrors that are determined to bring out the very worst in us all. Just this weekend, a gang of hundreds of masked men with white supremacist ties roamed the streets of Stockholm looking for non-whites to assault, whether or not they were refugees.

In moments like this our moral clarity cannot fail us.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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