Reframing Germany’s “No Means No” Debate: Migrants, Sexual Transgressions, and Gender Politics in Public Places

By Lucia Volk
Submitted to Session P4904 (From the Bedroom to the Street: Projecting Gender and Sexuality in Public Places, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
As Germans were celebrating New Year’s Eve in public plazas across the country in 2015, groups of men sexually assaulted women, setting off one of the fiercest public debates on sexuality and gender in recent German history. German media was initially attacked for not reporting accusations of sexual transgression in Cologne, accused of shielding the alleged perpetrators, North African migrants, from blame. At the same time, German women were accused of careless behavior. As time went on, the debate shifted, as reports of sexual assault arrived from other New Year’s Eve celebrations, and as it became clear that North African men were not the only alleged perpetrators.
German feminist organizations shifted discussion from demands for limiting migration to demands for a strengthening of sexual assault legislation, which was debated and passed in the summer of 2016. Media began debating responsible coverage of migrants and migration issues amidst heightened sensitivities over Germany’s acceptance of an unprecedented number of refugees, predominantly from Syria. The Ministry of the Interior debated more effective security measures without resorting to racial profiling. Migrant and feminist organizations debated proper language to debate gender and sexuality in culturally sensitive ways, both among migrants and Germans. A multi-cultural and multi-lingual online sex education program went online, promoting a discourse of sex and sexuality as part of a public health campaign.
Based on a reading of news coverage, online material by migrant advocacy organizations, migrant opponents, and the government, as well as interviews conducted in Germany, this paper shows a reframing of migration politics in public debates in Germany in the first half of 2016. As cultural difference became more narrowly defined as gendered difference, government agencies argued more forcefully that they needed to protect both women and the nation. As a result, women’s groups who fought for more rights for women made tangible gains, but only at the expense of further restrictions of migrants’ rights.