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On the Political Dimension of the Cologne Sexual Assaults

Gender
Political Violence
Feminism
Laura Wolters
Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung
Laura Wolters
Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung

Abstract

Over the last decades, the thesis of the political nature of sexual violence has gained enormous popularity and momentum. On closer examination, there are two quite different approaches on how sexual violence is political or politicized. The first draws on classical feminist thought and stresses the point that sexual violence is inherently political because gender relations and sexuality, i.e. patriarchy and the private, in itself are (much of this idea can be found in current discussions about #metoo). The second approach evolved around the atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda in the early 90s and is best captured by the phrase “Rape as a weapon of war” and its variations. At the core of this narrative lies the notion of planning and strategicness, i.e. that sexual violence in war is a means to achieve a political end (like being part of an ethnical cleansing campaign). Political (sexual) violence in this sense is basically instrumental violence. As we have seen over the years, rape as a weapon of war is not only a factual phenomenon, but a very powerful claim in public discourse that can be used to (de-)legitimize or scandalize acts of violence and to influence interpretations of sexually violent events. These two interpretations of political sexual violence stand side by side, sometimes complementing each other, sometimes standing in blatant opposition. With this in mind, this paper seeks to shed light on the question whether or not the Cologne sexual assaults – where, on New Year’s Eve 2015/16 during mass gatherings around Cologne’s central station and Cathedral, hundreds of women were encircled, groped, stripped and sometimes raped by several hundred perpetrators – can be considered political. Drawing on public discourse as well as legal and criminological reconstructions of the events, the paper’s aim is twofold: First, it seeks to show how, throughout the public debate following the assaults, both versions of political sexual violence were stressed and pitted against each other in order to gain interpretative predominance. Second, to contrast this with what, according to public inquiries and research, has actually happened and how this can still be described as political. These findings are quite different from early interpretations of the events and they can help to uncover the pitfalls and difficulties as well as the analytical potential in politicizing sexual violence.