Life, as a Woman in Germany, Compared to the U.S.: Discussing My Experience with Sexual Assault
After I moved to Germany in January of 2016, I received a lot of questions. Most people were simply curious about my new life, asking what the beer was like, if people actually wear traditional trachten (clothing) and if the language barrier was tough. These were all easy to answer, but the questions that caught me off guard were the more serious ones.
“Do you feel safe, as a woman, living in Germany with all the refugees around?” one right-winger asked me, seeming desperate to collect dirt on the open door policy.
Another, a Trump supporter, made comments about how if Hillary would have won the U.S. election, we would turn into Germany, with an “out of control rape frenzy on our hands” (her words, not mine). She commented how scary my life must be, living in constant fear of being assaulted by a refugee.
Fear of assault in Germany? Me, scared? I scratched my head, deeply confused by these questions. There hasn’t been a day since I moved to Germany when I have felt uncomfortable being a woman. In fact, I feel more comfortable being a woman here than I ever did back home. So, how could anyone living in the U.S. possibly think assault is not a serious daily issue in our own country? I understand that the media can create a frenzy, but to completely disregard the huge problem we have at home and give in to fear, just seems ridiculous. If right-wingers, or anyone for that matter, are worried about the increase in sexual assault at the hands of an open-door policy, shouldn’t they, and we as a nation, be worried about the countless sexual assaults happening daily at the hands of natural born U.S. citizens? Shouldn’t we focus on fixing our national rape and assault crisis before we go pointing fingers at anyone else’s problems? I mean, our current president, who is a natural born citizen elected to power, boasts about rape and assault! He is much more terrifying, to me as a woman, than any of my new neighbors here in Germany.
Let’s ask ourselves why the idea of assault at the hand of a foreigner is so much more scary than acknowledging assault by a natural born neighbor, friend, co-worker, loved one or person of power in our own country?
I’m not going to deny the fact there was an increase in sexual assault in Germany during 2016. There was, and assault should never be brushed over lightly. I do, however, express shock that someone would think Germany has bigger issues compared to The United States, because they don’t. (Statistics are presented at the end of this piece.)
Disclosure: I can’t speak for every woman in Germany, but I can speak for myself, as a female living in Munich and a survivor of sexual assault in The United States. This is a reflection on my personal experiences.
I grew up in Alaska, the state with the highest rate of rape of any other state in the U.S., according to FBI crime estimates. As an adult female living there, I was subject to constant sexualized and derogatory comments. I honestly can’t remember many days in my adult life where someone did not make an unwanted comment or advance toward me.
I’ve been to several parties and events where I later heard of women, and friends, getting drugged and raped. We had major businesses shut down in Anchorage due to sexual assault scandals by the owners. I heard the story of a girl who was raped on one of our college campuses twice in one night, once by a “friend”. I have personally experienced traumatic assaults and I can’t think of many of my close female friends who haven’t been victim of some form of harassment or assault. The toxic sexualized culture in the Alaska is one that taints my fond memories of an amazing life in the Last Frontier, with those of pain.
I moved to Las Vegas when I turned 26 and as you might imagine, things were hardly better there. As an active member of the electronic music and clubbing scene I grew exasperated rather quickly that I couldn’t go out and enjoy music in a nightclub without butt grabs, unwanted grinding and disgusting comments. My friends joked that I developed a dance move called the “aggressive elbow” to ward off unwanted attention.
In Vegas, I have had men look me in the face when I told them I had a boyfriend and say, “Well, if he liked you he wouldn’t let you out in Vegas on your own. You must not be in a good relationship.” “Well, no that actually means he likes me, and I am in a healthy relationship,” I responded to blank stares.
Working in Vegas wasn’t much better. The hospitality industry is hyper sexualized and I never felt I was treated as an equal at my job. On top of that, every day when I left work and walked down The Strip, where drunk sexual comments from partygoers would come at me like projectile vomit. I often felt scared to walk to my car after work at night.
After years of enduring this type of behavior, women tend to go a bit numb, sure we fight it, but eventually it just becomes part of our daily struggle.
When I first moved to Munich, I began to explore my new city. My days usually included trips to the the local immigration office to sort out my visa, a coffee shop to get some work done, going to the gym, attending German language classes or a night out to a local club. These activities weren’t that different from what I’d be doing back home, yet something about my daily life felt out of place. It wasn’t the language or the food, but something that had been with me for a long time, and was now gone. I knew some heavy burden had been lifted, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Then it hit me, at a standup show where the comedian was saying the only time Germans make eye contact with you is when they’re judging you on the U-Bahn (the subway). I realized that what was missing, was the eye contact, unwanted cat-calls and aggressive advances.
There was no one saying, “Hey babe, why don’t you come home with me,” and no one asking, “Why don’t you smile a little more?”
In Germany, I can frown all the damn time if I want to, and it’s amazing! I can dance in freedom when I go out. Finally, I’m dancing to the beat of my own drum and not some sweaty crotch being thrust up upon me. There is silence, sweet silence. I can go to the coffee shop and focus on my work with out horrible stares, awkward advances and unwanted conversations. I walk home in the dark frequently and don’t have the urge to check over my shoulder every few minutes.
I have a good friend, also from The United States, who came to visit me at Oktoberfest. When I told her about my observations she stopped and thought, “Wow, you’re right! I wasn’t harassed, even with so much drinking going on.”
When someone flirts with me here in Germany, I politely turn them down, as I am in a relationship. When I do, there is no anger or hate toward me, ushering a response such as, “well, you’re ugly anyways.” There is respect for myself, my significant other and my decision.
This experience has made me realize that years of sexual harassment in the U.S. affected me more than I ever thought it had.
My first reaction to this silence in Germany was, “Am I not attractive here? It’s probably because I forgot my makeup today.” These are terrible things for anyone to think, but it was beaten into me to associate harassment with feeling attractive.
I had to figuratively slap myself in the face when these thoughts came through and I told myself, “This is it Susanna, this is what you, as a woman, have been striving for your entire life.” I now feel more safe and confident as a woman, living here in Germany than I ever did back home.
I’m a firm believer that opinion should be based on fact, so before I sat down to write this piece I did some research. I was curious as to what the comparison actually is between the two countries in terms of rape and assault. In 2010 the U.S. was ranked 14th globally for the occurrence of rape while Germany was 43rd. (Source: Nation Master) According to US department of Justice, 173,610 cases of a sexual assault occurred in the U.S. in 2013; while according to Germany’s Crime and Safety report there were 7,539 cases in 2011. That’s a BIG difference. If Germany were to move up 29 notches to compare to the U.S.’s numbers, there would have to be a lot of sexual assault happening since the influx of refugees.
The BKA, which is a government entity that reports crime in Germany, has crime statistics on refuges in the first quarter of 2016. It notes that under 70,000 would be or actual crimes were committed by refugees. Of all those crimes immigrants committed in the 1st quarter in Germany, only 1.1% of those crimes were sexual. The study also showed that the increase in assault is disproportionally low compared to the size of population increase. More so, there has been an 18% decrease in crimes since January as the government responds to these incidents. So yes, Germany is dealing with some increased crime since enacting their open door policy, but probably inline with any such large population increase, and their numbers are still far better from The United States.
Germany isn’t a perfect Utopia. They did an honorable and gracious thing by opening their doors to hundreds of thousands of displaced people, and some problems have arisen. However, Germany has begun to take a long hard look at their outdated rape laws and is taking action on changing these laws to protect women. They acknowledge the issue and are combating it, while it seems like back in the States we’re busy electing known perverts to office, allowing (rich, white male) rapists to run free, and many deny the very existence of a problem. I’m not defending the crimes that happen in Germany, as every case is a serious case, but my life as a woman, has been substantially improved since I moved to here.
If the U.S. stands a chance to be a little more like modern day Germany, then that is something to strive to achieve. It’s too easy to ignore the issues we have at home and let fear of the unknown take hold. America, we have many of our own problems to fix before we start worrying about potential problems arising form an open door policy.