What can the reporting of the Cologne attacks tell us about men’s violence against women?

Picture of Kolner Dom (Dome of Cologne)Pictured licensed through Creative Commons.

by guest blogger, Tanita Louise Maxwell

As part of our ongoing work to promote good writing about violence against women, we'll be occasionally featuring paid pieces by guest bloggers to showcase writers in Scotland tackling gender inequality and VAW. Our most recent guest blogger in this series is Tanita Louise Maxwell. Tanita reflects on the media coverage and response of the recent attacks in Cologne.

While many people around the world started 2016 like any other – celebrating with family and friends, making New Year’s resolutions and watching fireworks – women were being harassed, assaulted and groped by groups of men on the streets of Cologne. According to recent figures, German authorities have received one hundred complaints, including one allegation of rape. Worryingly, the Mayor of Cologne has been reported saying that as a precaution, women should stay in groups and always try to stay an arms length away from men they do not know. Reker’s comments have cause an uproar on social media and many have used #einarmlaenge (an arm’s length) to condemn her suggestions. Feeding into myths about sexual assault, the Mayor of Cologne, Henriette Reker, perpetrates victim-blaming. Her comments imply that women are in some way responsible for sexual assault and should amend their behaviour accordingly. Research tells us that women are more likely to be sexually assaulted in the home and by men they know, rather than strangers on the street. Reporters should make use of international statistics to place the attacks in Cologne in a wider social context which will help readers make sense of the story.

Although it is important to note that many forms of violence against women go un-recognised and unreported by the press, these attacks were reported – but why? As the perpetrators of the sexual assaults were of North African descent, this is significant when it can be used as part of the anti-immigration and anti-refugee rhetoric from politicians and right wing groups. Politicians across Europe have seized on the opportunity to demand stricter border controls and far right groups have intensified racial tensions by using these incidents as a campaigning and propaganda tool. It is politically convenient to ‘other’ the men involved in these attacks against women, by making the Cologne attacks about race, religion and global politics but these attacks form part of a broader global issue: namely men’s violence against women. Sexual assault and rape occurs in all countries around the world - it may take different forms because of the specific economic, social and political structures in a country but sexism and misogyny are endemic.

Furthermore, reporting of the Cologne attacks has been particularly problematic. Details of the attacks have been sensationalised, which can be best illustrated through headlines such as ‘Group of 20 men surround young woman and put their hands down her pants’. Details such as attackers, ‘grabbed breasts and buttocks’ and ‘pulled down her pants’ are not necessarily helpful when these incidents are not situated within the broader context. Instead of focusing on whether these men are refugees or immigrants and why that is politically significant, I suggest that we focus on how we can better support organisations and institutions to tackle the root cause of violence against women through education and public awareness campaigns.

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