Wake Up Germany, You've Got A Serious Sexual Harassment Problem

Both men and women must change their attitudes

60% of women said they had experienced sexual harassment, according to a German survey
60% of women said they had experienced sexual harassment, according to a German survey
Alexandra Borchardt and Tanja Rest


BERLIN - There’s no way Stern magazine would have picked up on the story if it had involved some middle management Lothario; scenes like this are way too routine in Germany to constitute “news.”

What was news, however, was that the protagonist of this case was Rainer Bruderle, a top German politician. Over an after-work drink with journalist Laura Himmelreich, he stared at her neckline and commented: “You can also fill a dirndl.” (A dirndl, for those who haven't been to Oktoberfest, is a low-cut traditional Bavarian dress).

Every woman in Germany will either have herself been, or seen others be, at the receiving end of remarks like these, or provocative stares, unwelcome hugs and arm-stroking not to mention groping. It’s a frequent topic of conversation between women, and the cause of much mocking and laughter. These jerks with their inflated egos! Eyes riveted on necklines and legs, sultry compliments, dirty jokes, wandering hands – will they never learn?

Most often though, the subject is no laughing matter. Many women will remember being so startled when a male supervisor placed his arm around their waist that they stood there paralyzed and didn’t say a thing, or remember being so aghast when the big boss made a remark about their breasts in public that they were literally rendered speechless.

Women also tend to beat themselves up about such incidents, for having just stood still or laughed with the others at the boss’s comment. They feel bad about not wanting to get on the wrong side of a hierarchical superior. They feel angry because it is socially expected of them to be “cool” about things like this.

When the term “sexual harassment” is used, many think it refers to blatant acts such as hand-in-blouse, forced-kiss-on-mouth, even attempted rape. But the German General Act on Equal Treatment (AGG) that went into force in 2006 defines sexual harassment as "unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, including unwanted sexual acts and requests to carry out sexual acts, physical contact of a sexual nature, comments of a sexual nature … that take place with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person concerned.”

A lot of this is up to interpretation: where does flirting stop? Just where does the fine line to harassment begin? For women the less obvious things are more difficult to deal with than full-on explicit incidents, and men have enough leeway in this grey zone to claim they meant no harm. They will quickly brand any woman who says they did as inhibited, uptight or prudish – and women know this, so it acts as a deterrent to speaking up.

Add that to the fact that tolerance levels differ – remarks about personal appearance that some women might take as a compliment is overstepping the bounds for other women.

But one thing is sure – we have a right to expect men to be sensitive to women’s reactions. Within seconds, a man who puts his arm around a woman’s waist can tell if she likes it – or not. Importantly, he has to want to be sensitive. The Bruderles of this world, so full of themselves, have a lot to learn.

A majority of women are victims

In 2010, a survey by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth stated that 60% of women said they had experienced sexual harassment in public, at the workplace, or socially. Out of those, one out of two women said she had feared for her own safety and one woman in ten reported actual physical violence.

In 22% of cases, the incident took place at work or school. A few were traumatized by what happened, and had panic attacks at the thought of returning to where it took place. "In most cases, there is a big discrepancy in power between the perpetrator and the victim, and the former often abuse the latter’s dependence," the report said.

Men in power are used to getting what they want. They tell others what to do and generally get obedience and agreement back. And the behavior of too many women has confirmed to them that women find power and money a turn-on, to the extent that many powerful men believe they are irresistible. Wouldn’t every woman be honored to even be noticed, much less courted, by them? Who can forget the outrage and incomprehension on the face of Dominique Strauss-Kahn when he was accused of rape by a hotel housekeeper?

Sexual harassment is also a means of establishing or enforcing power dynamics. A man who treats a woman like a Playboy bunny is making sure she stays at the bottom of the totem pole.

Two things need to be said here: many men don’t behave like this. It is also true that wherever adults interact, there is bound to be some erotic tension – and the closer the situation, the more hormones are going to be all over the place, and that can easily lead to misunderstandings. This is particularly true in professional situations to which women are new, for instance the military.

But men in upper management also have to get used to the fact that with women in the group certain word choices or the after-work activities will have to change. Some men resent this, and yet if women go along with the boys’ rude ways it’s often negatively construed. Uncertainty levels are high for both men and women.

Another factor is generational – what a 65-year-old man, used to exchanging dirty jokes with the guys and showering women with “compliments,” thinks of as mild flirtation can come across to a 25-year-old woman as grounds for immediate complaint. Men can no longer be sure today that a woman will go along with it and keep her mouth shut. Women increasingly have more self-confidence, some recount their experiences on the Internet or Twitter, and they have more legal options available.

Germany’s AGG makes it mandatory for employers to protect employees from sexual harassment. There is a procedure to be followed in cases of harassment, and even though judges tend to decide in favor of harassed women, this does not spare the women from being unattractively branded in others’ minds.

There are of course women whom one would like to advise to keep the net stockings or the flimsy spaghetti-strapped top for their leisure time activities, or to go home after that second after work drink instead of hanging around until the end. Some women like using their sexuality as a means of exercising their own power. In fact some of them are so full on it is them – and not their male colleagues – who are guilty of sexual harassment.

Can men and women be relaxed with each other in this context? Do any of us want to live in a world where harmless flirting is subjected to the harsh glare of “Professionalism” and “Political Correctness?” Certainly not, particularly in view of the statistics that tell us 30% of Germans meet their future life partners at work. But we have to remember that flirting takes two – harassment is one-sided.

Men at all professional levels are going to have to get used to being surrounded by more – and very different kinds of – women. They are going to have to learn to understand what women are saying, especially when the woman is a subordinate. Women have to stop putting up with it – they have to set boundaries and find the courage to speak up when certain behaviors are unacceptable to them. And the learning curve doesn’t have to be unpleasant for anyone.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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