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In Germany, Migrant Shame And The Changing Meaning Of Groping

Groping women obviously isn't acceptable in the West, where decades of protest won more progressive cultural standards. But lost amid the furor is an understanding of refugee men's humiliation without work, money or a chance of integration

Jan. 9 protest against male violence against women in Cologne
Jan. 9 protest against male violence against women in Cologne
Till Briegleb


MUNICH — "Groping" seems to have an excellent chance of becoming 2016's Word of the Year in Germany. It has made major headlines in Cologne on New Year's Eve, in public swimming pools and night clubs in Freiburg and in towns and cities in between. In the widely reported cases, the perpetrators aren't native Germans, but typically Arabic men from Islamic backgrounds who travel in packs.

What hasn't received enough attention amid the ensuing outrage over these attacks is the collision of different perceptions of shame. Shame is responsible for regulating what's acceptable and appropriate within cultures and what's not, and we need to talk about it.

It has been predominantly women who have been fighting for freedom from repressive feelings of shame since the 1950s. But their achievements are now colliding with the normative lack of understanding among many Muslim migrants, whose own perceptions of shame don't dissuade them from touching women who clearly don't want to be touched.

Feminism would suggest that it's a case of men treating women as mere "sexual objects." The most recent events illustrate how much the West's moral standards are the result of a prolonged shift within our own culture. The groping of women actually catapults us back to post-war conditions, when waitresses were being felt up, when the naked "sinner" Hildegard Knef caused a major scandal and when married women weren't allowed to drive cars.

But if you go even further back in time, it just goes to show that the feeling of shame and the attending scandals aren't just roused when cultural and religious backgrounds clash, as it's the case now. Religious and moral influences are critical factors, but even the bourgeoisie and working class, who shared the same religious and moral codex, once had very different ideas about what was appropriate.

Detail of a leaflet distributed in Munich's mixed bathing areas in 2013 — Source: City of Munich

A rotund man with a silken neckerchief, clearly embodying status and prosperity, of course followed the accepted double standards that dictated a married woman had to adhere to the rules of devout chastity. She was allowed to have only one sexual partner — namely her husband — whereas her husband was free to keep the virulent brothel culture alive.

The circumstances most other working people found themselves in didn't allow them too much demureness or artful consideration of other people's feelings. The feeling of shame was reduced to a practical minimum. Together with their entire families, farmers and workers have lived in single-roomed accommodation for centuries. It was considered particularly considerate to send the children into the hallway when the next generation was being conceived.

Only the direct linking of shame and privacy, as well as post-war democratization and increasing prosperity, led to a socially uniform perception of shame. The architectural realization of apartments with more than one bedroom provided people with the possibility to retreat into privacy. It was from that moment on that sexual experiences did not necessarily have to be sneaked in cars, the woods or behind the barn.

Hard-won fights

The ferocity of the battles against prevailing moral codes and conventions during the 20th century doesn't disguise the fact that it was also a rebellion against the accompanying threats of shame. Feminism, homosexual movements and black civil rights movements had to fight hard against the disparagement that was aimed at their own perception of shame. To mock the dignity of a human being and make him/her feel utterly inferior was — and remains — an incredibly successful tactic applied by powerful elites. It is precisely this tactic that allows these elites to imprison large collectives within their own feeling of shame.

Poverty also belongs to this complex of shameful existence, which nurtures guilt rather than self-confidence. The liberation from shame throughout history could only succeed when large bodies of people liberated themselves from their emotional isolation through solidarity. To discover that many people were in the same situation led to the processes of change within society whose benefits we still enjoy and take for granted.

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Swimmers in Wannsee, Germany, in 1930 — Photo: Bundesarchiv

German society nowadays lives in the knowledge that everyone has a relatively good understanding of which physical contacts are welcome and which are viewed as an infringement of privacy. But this consensus, this hard-won consensus, is now under threat form a foreign system of values, a system that considers segregation of the sexes, full body veils, fully clothed public bathing for women and the laws of the patriarchy to be fundamental components of their culture.

Understanding migrant shame

What we must understand is that the gropers feel shame just as we do. Despite the hearty welcome that many received, it is nonetheless a fact that the situations in which single male refugees find themselves in are humiliating. Without money, work, social standing and knowledge of the local language, and while living in shipping containers or canvas tents on the periphery of town, these men have no chance on the dating market. And they are moreover battling our society's existing and growing dislike of Arab men. You don't have to share Islamic values or understand their sense of male honor to appreciate that theirs is a humiliating situation.

Germans should still remember how this insult to pride can turn into sexual attacks, seeing as this was the case when the first wave of Turkish "guest workers" came to stay in Germany. They too lived on the edge of cities and had no family who would join them from Turkey, and they too were notorious for groping women in night clubs.

This cycle of humiliation has to be broken if we are to live together successfully, in equal understanding and on equal footing. It did, after all, take German men a few decades too to come to the same conclusion. Which is why it is utterly absurd to think that an "improvement" of male refugees can be achieved with short-term measures. Behavioral courses, pepper spray, tighter legislation and veiling of naked statues at a state visit of the Iranian President, as happened In Rome, can't turn aggressive packs of men into good citizens.

The only solution is to take the same path of patience and conflict that we have trodden before. We have to take those humiliated people from the fringes of society and integrate them into the very heart of it, physically, economically and socially. And while we're at it, we can maybe explain to the wrongdoers why no one cries out in shock when Sangria-intoxicated, German boys rip off girls' bikinis in Majorca. If we are really honest about it, the way German shame works is still very complicated.

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