Observing Sexual Violence: Strategies of De-Legitimizing the Cologne Sexual Assaults

Monday, 16 July 2018: 16:15
Oral Presentation
Laura WOLTERS, Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung, Germany
The New Year’s Eve sexual assaults during mass-gatherings in the center of Cologne in 2015/16 marked a turning point in German public discourse about sexual violence. Before the events, many of the acts of groping and harassment that occurred in Cologne would not have been perceived as violent, but would have been understood to fall into the gray area between consensual sexual interaction and blatant sexual violence, i.e. rape. After the news coverage caught up with the events, a broad consensus emerged that what happened was indeed and undoubtedly violence. It was, in other words, the act of observing that transformed certain practices into violence. However, the particular discursive and interpretative processes in this case can only be understood in light of the so called European “refugee crisis” and the alleged perpetrators’ North-African origin, which provided a crucial resource for drawing attention to the assaults and, at the same time, transformed political interpretations and notions of legitimacy.

The paper will look into these dynamics with particular focus on the various observers’ strategies to draw attention to specific aspects of the events and de-legitimize them as violent. Drawing on media coverage as well as on NGO and official statements, this paper analyzes how the sexual violence discourse has changed after the events and whose narratives became dominant. It will show that the whole discourse was formed by the competition between two interpretations of the incidents – one focused on the origins of the perpetrators, the other on the gaps in culpability – which now determines new perceptions of sexual violence.