The sexism debate has reached Germany, but where are the German Weinsteins? Four years after #Aufschrei and one year after the country’s sexual crime legislation was updated, are German women any better off than their US or French sisters?
It is late October, and Alex’s baby is sleeping as she sits at the kitchen table in her Lichtenberg apartment. Her friend Johanna is over for lunch, and as they are spooning pumpkin soup, the 26-year-olds talk sexism. It’s been three weeks since The New York Times first reported on the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and about two weeks since actress Alyssa Milano encouraged women to post their experiences with sexual harassment online and mark them with #MeToo.
Both the debate and the hashtag have reached Germany: Heidi Klum, who once worked with Weinstein, told the press that “we would be naïve to think that this behaviour only happens in Hollywood”. Top SPD politicians Andrea Nahles and Katarina Barley have complained about structural discrimination, and even about colleagues who use the opportunity of photo shoots to let their hands linger on waists. But so far, Germany has seen no public outings of sexist offenders. When Alex and Johanna think about what they have heard and read in the press, it’s only American actors and British politicians, or the Frenchmen exposed after women in France were encouraged to #balancetonporc (“report your pig”).
“It’s a bit strange, you’d expect there to be some German Weinsteins…” Johanna ponders. She knows from experience that sexism is as widespread in Germany as anywhere else, even at the media start-up she works at. “The other day, as I entered the kitchen to get some tea, I overheard my boss and two male colleagues having this unbelievable discussion about whether women might be ‘scientifically’ less intelligent than men. My boss was going on about there being no top women chess players. The one younger guy said that was bullshit, but the boss kept arguing, saying ‘It’s entirely possible!’”
Alex recalls being groped by a stranger while walking down the street in central Friedrichshain: “He literally squeezed my boob. It was so casual, the way he did it! In broad daylight!” Yet neither she nor Johanna have used the hashtag #MeToo. “I definitely think it’s good that others who might have suffered really bad insults or assaults take the opportunity to speak up,” says Alex. Johanna, who barely uses Twitter, thinks she would feel uncomfortable sharing “less serious” incidents, even if they were enough to make her feel bad at the time.
#MeToo hits Berlin
The two friends were unaware that, as they were speaking, a group of students was organising a demonstration under the banner #MeTooBerlin. And it seems they weren’t alone in missing out. On October 28, 1200 people showed up for the march from Hermannplatz to Leipziger Platz, a relatively small number by Berlin demo standards. But Theresa Hartmann, one of the five main organisers, is still happy with the result. “We only gave ourselves a week to make it happen, because we were worried the momentum might pass. We got a lot of press, so that was a success.”
Demonstrators were mostly young women in their twenties and thirties, but also trans people and men, who had brought their own banners to show support. “We wanted to show solidarity for victims and draw attention to the issue,” says the 23-year-old Hartmann. “Take domestic violence, it’s still a huge problem in our country.” She points to a 2004 German study that concluded 25 percent of women experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. In Berlin alone, the number of reported cases has been constantly rising since 2005 to reach 14490 in 2016. At #MeTooBerlin, about 15 people told their personal stories. Theresa especially remembers one woman who had been abused by her ex-boyfriend and spoke about how difficult it was for her to talk about the experience: “I thought she was so brave!”
Theresa didn’t use the hashtag herself, considering her experiences “minor” next to other women’s stories. She still identifies with the campaign, which she feels is as relevant in Germany as in the US. “Women in Germany still earn 20 percent less than men, and even the ones who make more have to put up with so much shit. As a woman you are always reminded of your female body, but also what people perceive to be a ‘female character’. Even Angela Merkel is called ‘Mama Merkel’ and commentators talk about how she doesn’t show emotion…
As a student of cultural science at Humboldt University, she finds evidence of inequality in everyday academic life: the majority of fellow students in her department are women, but the professors are still mostly male. In fact, statistics show that less than a quarter of professorships in Germany are taken by women, with Berlin slightly ahead at a “progressive” 31.4 percent. During her classes, Theresa says: “It often happens that I say something that doesn’t get acknowledged, but five minutes later a bloke repeats the exact same thing and suddenly it’s the most brilliant thought ever. It makes you question yourself in the moment, but I don’t think it’s just me.”
#Aufschrei, then what?
At this point one might wonder: Is this the first time Germans are discussing sexual violence against women, professional discrimination and everyday sexism? Actually, in January 2013, Germany had its very own #MeToo moment.
In an article in weekly magazine Der Stern, journalist Laura Himmelreich described how leading FDP candidate Rainer Brüderle had preyed on her during an interview, going as far as commenting on the size of her breasts and leading an embarrassed press agent to get the politician out of the bar. That same night, Berlin media consultant, feminist activist and Free University graduate Anne Wizorek made a Twitter post about an ex-professor who had asked her whether she was dating a man with whom she was working on a paper – a question she, but not the fellow student, found irritatingly inappropriate.
Taking inspiration from the 2012 British “Everyday Sexism Project” and the hashtag #ShoutingBack, Wizorek used #Aufschrei (“outcry”) to express her anger. The hashtag went viral within a matter of days, as tens of thousands of women tweeted their stories.
“Because the tweet and the publication of Himmelreich’s article happened on the same day, people thought they were connected, but that was pure coincidence,” says Wizorek. Actually, the idea had come from a post on her blog kleinerdrei.org titled “Normal ist das nicht!” (“This is not normal!”), in which guest author Maike Hank wrote about being sexually harassed on the streets of Berlin. One reader reacted on Twitter by sharing her own experience; others began to follow suit. “I thought we could turn this into something like #ShoutingBack and spontaneously used the hashtag,” says Wizorek. The rest is history.
These days an article like Himmelreich’s could easily cost a politician’s career, but then, as now, German women were not out for blood. In her own post, Wizorek did not disclose the name of her sexist professor. “Back then it really wasn’t about outing anyone,” she says, “It was more an emotional process of acknowledging what was happening to us on a daily basis.”
As the hashtag’s originator, the then-32- year-old gave dozens of interviews in the press and on talk shows. Comparing her experience with the recent TV discussions, Wizorek sees an improvement in awareness: “When I was on Günther Jauch’s show in 2013, the title was ‘Does Germany have a problem with sexism?’. Now I notice that Anne Will’s ARD show asked ‘The sexism debate – are things going to change now?’ It makes me slightly more optimistic.” Yet Wizorek thinks that Germany still has a long way to go: “Of course Weinstein is not a US-only phenomenon. The fact that we do not have such big public cases here only proves that we still live in a culture of silence, where most men turn a blind eye and many women still prefer keeping quiet.”
A sexual scandal, racism and a new law
After #Aufschrei had died down, it took nearly three years until, once again, sexual violence made German headlines. On New Year’s Eve 2015, hundreds of women were harassed, assaulted and robbed in the city of Cologne. It took days for the police to admit the scope of the incidents and for the press to report on them. As the off enders turned out to be mostly of North African and Arab origin, right-wing commentators and AfD politicians blamed Merkel’s immigration policy and demanded stricter deportation laws and tight borders on behalf of German women.
First, however, the German government had to update its sexual crime legislation, which was so far behind the times that some of the Cologne crimes were not legally punishable. A new law was quickly drawn up by the justice ministry and after rushed touch-ups, it was passed by the Bundestag on July 7, 2016, to take effect on November 10. It introduced sexual harassment as a criminal offence and established a “no means no” principle when it comes to sexual crimes. Rita Vavra, a legal scholar at Humboldt University, stresses the importance of the new law: “In combination with the anti-discrimination portion of labour law, women are now much better protected. The 2016 changes closed a big gap.”
However, like many feminists, Vavra regrets that the debate that led to the positive changes was so tainted by racism. Also, as part of the new legislation package, an addition was made to Germany’s residency law, stating that asylum seekers convicted of sexual crime under the new regulations would be deported.
Wizorek and others publicly criticised the new law under the hashtag #Ausnahmslos (“without exception”), protesting that the punishment for a crime should not diff er depending on nationality. Germany had finally acted in favour of women, but the circumstances and motivation left a bitter taste among liberal feminists at a time when movements such as Pegida and AfD were instrumentalising women’s rights in their crusade against Islam.
Heike Pantelmann, gender and diversity coordinator at the Free University, has been following the German #MeToo debate closely and believes that sexism and racism go hand in hand: “In comments on online articles and social media, the people who after the Cologne events worried that Islam would do away with women’s rights are now the same ones denying the existence of sexism in Germany.”
For these mostly white, male Germans, the only actual sexism in their country is that imported by Muslims. Pantelmann stresses that women of colour, as well as gay, handicapped and trans women, are especially likely to become targets of sexual violence, and that men who don’t conform to traditional stereotypes are also affected. “After all, sexual violence is not as much about sex as it is about power structures in the global capitalist system.”
Breaking Germany’s sexist structures
Meanwhile, German politicians – including Merkel herself – have been slow and hesitant in addressing structural gender inequalities. Since 2016, there is a 30 percent female quota for companies’ supervisory boards, but it only applies to the country’s top 100 largest market-listed corporations. Meanwhile, women still make up a miserly 6.7 percent of executive boards at the top 160 companies, and only 26 percent of bosses in the private sector and 34 percent in the public sector are women. A new income transparency law is meant to address the pay gap:
As of January 6, 2018, women have the right to know how much their male colleagues get paid (for now, an outrageous 20 percent more), and to sue their employer if they’re earning less for the same job. An increased budget for daycare and measures promoting equal parenting are supposed to support working mothers. Inspired by #MeToo, SPD family minister Katarina Barley has been pleading in the press for stricter laws against sexual harassment, suggesting that placing a hand on someone’s knee without consent should be made illegal.
Wizorek welcomes those steps in principle, but finds that many of them still place the ball in women’s courts: “So once women know how much men make, it’s still up to them to take further measures. Why not prescribe equal pay once and for all?” Thinking about quotas, Hartmann says: “I could sit on that executive board and still have someone stare at my boobs or catcall me in the street. Ultimately it’s mentalities that we need to change.”
Pantelmann, who has been petitioning for more gender-sensitive education, agrees. As does Vavra, who concludes: “It’s not possible to change society by law. The state can’t control everything. That’s why we need this broader debate to foster a new, less sexist culture.” Perhaps one day it will even be possible to name and prosecute Germany’s Weinsteins.
Facts: Germany’s new sex laws
No means no: Non-consensual sex is punishable with up to five years of prison, even if no physical violence is used.
Sexual harassment is a crime: Unwanted groping is now punishable by fine or up to two years in prison; catcalling remains legal.
Deportation: Asylum seekers may be deported if they violate the “No means no” principle.
Sexual crimes by the numbers
Rape: An average of 600 women per year have reported to the Berlin Police for rape and sexual assault over the past decade. In 2016, rape and sexual assault in Germany went up 12.8 percent.
Domestic violence: 14,490 cases were reported in Berlin in 2015 (2000 more than in 2005). About 75 percent involved physical injury, and over 75 percent of the victims were women.
Sexual harassment: 43 percent of surveyed German women said they’d been sexually harassed at least once in their lives (Yougov for Deutsche Presseagentur, October 2017),
Higher education: While about half of Berlin’s university students are women, only 31.4 percent of professors are female, above the German average of 22.8 percent.
The workplace: There is still a 20 percent pay gap between men and women. There are only 6.7 percent women on the executive boards of market-listed companies; 26 percent of bosses in the private sector are female; and the number of female bosses in the public sector went down from 38 percent to 34 percent between 2012 and 2015.
Politics: 33.1 percent of representatives in Berlin’s city parliament, and 31 percent of parliamentarians in the Bundestag, are women.