It may have started in Hollywood, but when the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment crossed the Atlantic earlier this month, it found fertile ground in Germany. The country was already in the midst of a sexism media storm.
As accusations of sexual abuse leveled at Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein piled up and outrage mounted in the film industry, a German politician caused a stir after venting online about a recent incident. “I’m shocked,” Sawsan Chebli’s Facebook post began. The junior minister in Berlin’s state government went on to write that after she introduced herself onstage at a business forum, her interlocutor, a former German ambassador, blithely replied, “I didn’t expect such a young woman. And you’re very pretty too.”
The controversy had been raging for two days when social media users in Germany tuned in to the #MeToo Twitter campaign and started sharing the original post of founder Alyssa Milano, a US actress, or their own stories of sexual assault, under the hashtag. In a matter of days, tens of thousands of stories had sprouted up on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
As in the US, many German celebrities spoke up. Nina Brandhoff, an actress featuring in several popular TV series, gave newsmagazine Der Spiegel a chilling account of how a big-name actor once forcibly removed her T-shirt to ogle her breasts. “He molests almost every woman on the set,” said Ms. Brandhoff, who stopped short of naming and shaming the predator. “Everybody’s aware of it. And everybody keeps their mouths shut, because he is extremely important to the show.”
“As a female and an Asian, I get lots of disrespectful comments from men.”
However, the thousands of German women from all walks of life who added their voices to the social media discussion are probably just the tip of the iceberg. “The overwhelming response to the #MeToo campaign shows the huge extent of sexual violence against women and children,” Johannes-Wilhelm Rörig, who heads an independent commission against child abuse, told German media.
The problem is a big one in Germany. A 2015 survey by Germany’s anti-discrimination watchdog found 49 percent of female employees had suffered sexual harassment or assault at work at least once. Katrin Rössler, an employee with a DAX-listed multinational, is one of them. When she was 20, Ms. Rössler’s supervisor coerced her to sleep with him during a business trip. Since her tormentor was about to leave the company – and crucially, because she was a young, vulnerable intern – Ms. Rössler never pressed charges against him. She resolved to never mention the incident again and embarked on a successful career with the company. This month’s online backlash against sexism encouraged the now 30-year-old to tell her story, but she does not want her real name to be published. “Speaking up would ruin my career,” she told Handelsblatt Global.
Most forms of harassment, however, are usually more insidious. In the 2015 survey, one in five women reported colleagues getting too close to them physically. Around 13 percent have experienced unwanted hugs and kisses. Remarks with sexual innuendo or “awkward” jokes are the most typical incidents, with 47 percent of the surveyed male employees also saying they have experienced it.
Ex-pats are at risk of harassment too, and are sometimes less prepared for it than their German counterparts. Sophie Chung, the founder and CEO of Qunomedical, said her Berlin-based healthcare start-up had a strict “no assholes” policy and discouraged the “bro culture” that’s rife in Berlin’s male-dominated tech scene. This may be the reason why so far, no serious incident has happened between co-workers since Qunomedical was set up two years ago. But no policy can prevent unwelcome behavior by investors or other business partners. “As a female and an Asian, I get lots of disrespectful comments from men,” said Ms. Chung, an Austrian entrepreneur of Cambodian descent.
She’s not alone. A French real-estate professional recounted that once, during a recent job interview, her male interviewers quipped that her accent would sound sexy to their customers. “I wonder just what they would have told me if I were, say, a naïve 22-year-old undergraduate,” the 37-year-old said, adding that at first she did find the joke funny.
She also noted cultural differences, complaining that her German colleagues tend to touch her more than she would like them to. But being a foreigner she’s not sure how much of it is simply down to culture and what is truly inappropriate. “The Germans do that hugging thing a lot,” she said. “That allows less personal space and much more physical contact than the French peck on the cheek.”
While the #MeToo backlash still rages on, some dissenting voices have been heard too. Hannelore Elsner, a distinguished 75-year old TV actress, dismissed the campaign as “phoney” and “reveling in voyeurism.” Conservative commentator Birgit Kelle blasted the “feminism industry” for manufacturing outrage over mere gallantry while overlooking sexual assaults committed by immigrants – a favorite trope of Germany’s xenophobic right since the Cologne New Year ’s Eve attacks of 2016.
It remains to be seen what the outcome of the current controversy will be. Earlier this week, two leading Social Democrats chimed in. Former Labor Minister Andrea Nahles and Katarina Barley, the outgoing minister for family affairs, denounced macho behavior in politics and called for stricter measures against sexism. But their calls are likely to fall flat: Their party, the SPD, is about to join the opposition, and the pro-business Free Democrats, who are in talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel to enter the future government, are unlikely to support additional legislation. FDP politician Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former justice minister, said new laws weren’t the answer to all of society’s ills.
“Abuse can be defeated, but not with the meager resources we’ve been fighting it with for years.”
After several sexism and sexual abuse controversies in recent years, Germany’s laws on sexual assault were updated this year. In addition to making it easier for rape victims to bring charges, the new law makes sexual harassment punishable with a fine or by up to two years in prison. That includes unwanted groping or kissing. The bill passed in June 2017 and had an almost immediate result: A man was sentenced to four months behind bars after grabbing a woman’s rear on the street, despite her repeated protests.
With or without tougher rules against harassment, child abuse commissioner Mr. Rörig called on Germany’s new government to up its game. “Abuse can be defeated, but not with the meager resources we’ve been fighting it with for years,” he said.
But there’s hope attitudes might be slowly changing in Germany. Just like Donald Trump in the United States, the country has had a prominent politician whose election campaign was dogged by accusations of sexual harassment. Half a year before the 2013 federal election, Rainer Brüderle, the Free Democratic Party’s nominee for chancellor, became embroiled in a furore. The trigger was an article by a journalist who revealed that the former minister told her she would nicely fill out a dirndl – a traditional, cleavage-revealing southern German dress. The report caused an outcry on social media, under the Twitter hashtag #Aufschrei, which means just that. The hashtag was shared over 65,000 times. Unlike Mr. Trump, however, Mr. Brüderle’s political career did not survive the campaign.
As for Ms. Chebli, despite critics – male and female – accusing her of being an attention seeker who misread a compliment, she ended up receiving an apology from the former ambassador.
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: email@example.com