When Henriette Reker, the mayor of Cologne, Germany, was asked by reporters Tuesday about how women could be better protected from sexual assault, she probably shouldn’t have suggested that they travel in groups and stay away from strangers.
Reker’s comments, which came in the wake of roughly 100 reports of sexual assault and harassment during New Year’s celebrations in the western German city, implied that it is women — not the men who attack them — who control whether or not they are sexually assaulted. The remarks also strongly implied that female victims bear some responsibility for any potential crimes committed against them.
“There’s always the possibility of keeping a certain distance of more than an arm’s length — that is to say, to make sure yourself you don’t look to be too close to people who are not known to you and to whom you don’t have a trusting relationship,” she said at a press conference in Cologne.
Some 1,000 men are thought to have been involved in the attacks reported to police in recent days, which included at least one alleged rape as well as multiple other forms of sexual assault. Victims described the men as drunk, aggressive, and of North African or Arab descent.
The BBC reported that one man said both his partner and 15-year-old daughter were attacked by such a large group that he was unable to defend them. “The attackers grabbed her and my partner’s breasts and groped them between their legs,” he said.
Reker, who was a major advocate for Berlin’s decision to welcome hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, said this week that many of the men involved were not asylum-seekers. In response, many Germans have accused the government of trying to cover up the men’s identities to protect the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel from criticism over her lenient — and increasingly unpopular — refugee policies. Reker herself was violently attacked in October when an anti-immigration protester stabbed her in the neck.
Regardless of who the perpetrators were, Reker seemed to ignore the fact that the attacks were described by victims as coordinated and extremely violent — and suggested that some of the perpetrators might not have known that what they had done was wrong. “We need to prevent confusion about what constitutes happy behavior and what is utterly separate from openness, especially in sexual behavior,” she said.
Reker’s suggestion for a “code of conduct” for women living in Cologne was immediately condemned on social media, where #einarmlaenge (“at arm’s length” in German) began trending.
— Edwina Ball (@Edwina_Humanist) January 6, 2016
It is not women's responsibility to keep men from assaulting them. It is men's responsibility not to assault. #einarmlaenge
— Jeff Fecke (@jkfecke) January 6, 2016
— Marcel Sardo (@marcelsardo) January 5, 2016
Photo credit: Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images