Sex crimes are awful things.
This should go without saying, but my point is that, beyond being awful on their face, they keep being awful long after they’ve happened; they can leave a victim traumatized for the rest of their lives, not only because of the acts themselves, but because of the way the people targeted by them are treated by society, by law enforcement, by the courts, and by many others. People who suffer rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are often disbelieved, distrusted, and further degraded by the very people who, normally, would play a large part in aiding the victims of crimes.
Making the whole thing even worse is the fact that rape and other sex crimes are notoriously difficult to prove, leaving little physical evidence and often coming down to merely one person’s word against another; and, in a sexist society (that is, in pretty much any society), where many people are not acclimated to thinking of any kind of sex as a crime, where men often feel entitled to access to women’s bodies, and where the reputation of men is often more highly esteemed than the claims of women, the benefit of the doubt is often given to male aggressors over female victims. This fact, combined with the way a woman’s sexuality is felt to be subject to the judgment of (male) society, often makes women reluctant to report rapes when they occur, to not press charges when they are reported, to not testify when charges are made, or to wait just long enough for valuable evidence to be lost. One needs look no farther than the latest headlines to see this dynamic in action; it is called patriarchalism, and the struggle to lessen its hold on our culture to make women safer has been long, difficult, and painful. It is not yet complete.
There are, however, other struggles and other oppressions. Disbelief and doubt exist everywhere that crime occurs, and sexual assault has long been a political battleground as well as a criminal act. The idea of protecting women from unwanted sexual predation is a noble and righteous one, but it is very easily taken hold of and channeled into ugly directions by the very patriarchy that normally ignores it. This isn’t as simple as claiming that false rape allegations are damaging; no one denies this, even as it’s important to recognize their rarity. Murder is still rarer than rape, but everyone instinctively shudders in horror at the idea of being falsely accused of murder; and yet no one uses this horror to claim that murder should not be taken seriously, that the families of victims should not be believed, or that justice for the murdered is part of some kind of ideological conspiracy. It is possible to tender those who claim to be the victims of sexual assault the maximum of comfort, understanding, and attention without abandoning our belief in innocence under the law. What I’m referring to here is the often depressing history of kyriarchal clashes between the way the male establishment minimizes crimes against women to protect patriarchal dominance and the way the white establishment exaggerates crimes against women to protect Anglo-Saxon dominance.
We have seen this again and again, especially but not exclusively in American history. Accusing the political bugaboo of the moment — almost always a dark-skinned ethnic group — of rape, sexual impropriety, unstrained lasciviousness, and general beastliness towards “our women” has been a hallmark of political conversation in this country since its founding. Historical examples of African-American men being oppressed, attacked, and outright murdered because it was believed they had stained the virtue of a white woman are as common as the penny; such scenarios were often used as an excuse for lynching. The story carries forward into history, as new enemies are found and feared: after a scandalous assault at the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York 15 years ago, a huge moral panic ensued. The facts that the attacks were real and that arrests were made (albeit much later, after much incompetent lollygagging and foot-dragging by the police) was offset by a huge degree of racist fear-mongering by the same people who usually benefit from making white people believe that every dark face is an existential threat. Today, there is the reality that women in some Muslim countries are treated abominably, the reality that women in other Muslim countries have the same rights and protections that women have throughout the western world, and, in the middle, the same old panic profiteers who want you to believe that the first reality is universal and the second reality is nonexistent.
This dynamic, a virtual textbook on intersectionality and the way it is both ignored and exploited, is playing itself out in a breaking story out of Cologne, Germany. According to early reports, during a large New Year’s Eve celebration in that city, a large number of women were attacked and harassed by an even larger number of men, reported variously as being Arabic or North African in appearance. Many were robbed, and at least one was raped. If I seem vague about the details, it’s because the details are vague: almost every aspect of the story is in dispute, from the ethnicity/religion of the attackers to the number of the victims to the details of the assaults. Most stories do not even agree on the number of people in attendance at the celebration, or the number of attackers, but the police — who have once again been accused of intolerable delay — are calling the event, if it is true as reported, unprecedented.
The dynamic we have seen a thousand times is already at work, as can be seen from the comments virtually anywhere the story has been reported. Those inclined to be protective of the treatment of women are outraged that more is not being done, that reporting on the event is not as vigorous as they would like, that the accusers are being disbelieved and the attackers being coddled; those inclined to be protective of the treatment of minorities are outraged at the tarring of all immigrants with a broad brush, that the trial is already taking place in the media, that the accusers are being believed and the accused being scapegoated. Neither side is right or wrong, and the usual caveats should be applied: this is an even that took place mere days ago, and any stories in the press so soon after a major crime — especially one as chaotic as this — should be taken with a grain of salt; what may seem like inaction on the part of the authorities may merely be caution, or calculation; and no matter what its imperfections, it is always best to let crime be dealt with by law enforcement. But there are other things to consider now. One is that when something seems unprecedented, it is often because it is not what it appears to be; there is sometimes something new under the sun, but sometimes it’s something extremely old. Another is to tread lightly in situations like this, because when mistakes are made, they can have extreme consequences. Another is that no crime justifies bigotry; if this assault happened the way it is being told, that is no more of an excuse to practice racism and discrimination against Muslim immigrants than it would be to practice sexism and discrimination against women if it did not.
It is this final point that is extremely critical right now, and one that I would urge everyone — the women wondering who will protect them from mass predation by men and the Muslims wondering who will protect them from harm at the hands of enraged vigilantes — to remember right now. The second this case hit the presses, the usual suspects, the typical right-wing fear hucksters and race haters, the anti-immigrant parties who would rather see thousands die in desperation than have their flag’s colors darken even a shade, began spinning the narrative of refugees gone wild, of Muslims as deranged, drunken sexual predators, of open borders as a form of national suicide. Even if this series of attacks happened as we are being, even if a pack of beer-saturated Syrian madmen engaged in a titanic gang-rape at year’s end in the city of Adenauer and Offenbach, even if no details are exaggerated or muddied or ignored, this must not lead us to think they were right.
Because they don’t care if they were right. They have no interest in being right, because they don’t care about the truth of the situation; they were simply casting about in the dark for a tool to beat on one of their favorite targets — the immigrant population — and the news gods handed them a sharp and deadly one. Once they’ve used it, they’ll turn on women just as fast, because they care about the rights of women just as much as they do the guilt of Muslims — which is to say, not at all. They care only about themselves and their own power. None of this is to say that the events didn’t play out as we are being told, or that if they did, the men accused are innocent, or that if we do what is wise and let the police handle it, the guilty parties shouldn’t be punished or that the victims should be ignored. It is only to say that those using this as a wedge to drive between one marginalized group and another must not be given a victory here, because that is exactly what they want. They have thrown down an unexpectedly loaded gauntlet; we must not pick it up.