German student sheds light on mainstream sexual assault | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 16.01.2017
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German student sheds light on mainstream sexual assault

A student from Jena has been harassed, groped and kissed against her will in nightclubs. In an open letter, she describes what many women are familiar with - and confronts the clubs and the public with her experiences.

"You walk through a club and all of a sudden there are hands on your body, your bottom and your breasts."

That is how 19-year-old Alina Sonnefeld describes a situation that she has often experienced since she started going out three years ago. One time, a man kept pressuring her even though she pushed him away many times. Suddenly, he kissed her. In an open letter, the young woman criticized the clubs in the eastern German city of Jena. "You don't make me feel safe at night," she wrote.

Sonnefeld "actually really likes" the alternative music clubs in her hometown. But there is one thing that goes too far for her: "After a certain hour, I am often groped, kissed and harassed against my will."

"At first I thought it was normal," Sonnefeld said. But only when she started learning about sexism did she realize that it is not acceptable. "A lot of things that happened to me are unbelievably unpleasant and not at all ridiculous or harmless," she said. She decided to go public with her experiences because she has noticed that many women have been through the same thing. "Then I thought, 'I can't believe this; we have to do something.'" Six of Sonnefeld's friends also signed the letter, which was published in the daily Ostthüringer Zeitung.

Sonnefeld and her friends did not immediately report the harassment to security staff in the clubs. Today they regret not doing so, she said. In her open letter, however, she blames the clubs in Jena in part for not creating an environment where she felt comfortable to. "You did not send out safe vibes; it did not feel like someone would lend me an ear."

The clubs Sonnefeld and her friends addressed responded positively. Sara Gassen, of Rosenkeller, a venue popular with university students, said women were very hesitant about discussing sexual harassment with strangers. "Many think that they would cause us trouble," Gassen said. "But that is not at all the case."

Porträt Alina Sonnefeld (Gianina Morgenstern)

Sonnefeld says it is important for people to speak up when harassment occurs

Fears and inhibitions

Gender research shows that sexism benefits from the existing balance of power in relationships - like the imposed inequality of men and women. If women are sexually harassed, then they find themselves thrown back to an inferior position. That makes it even more difficult for those affected to turn to the police, bosses or security staff at a club.

The social scientist Monika Schröttle, from TU Dortmund University, has conducted several representative studies on violence against women. About 60 percent of women and girls say they have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lives, according to the professor. Schröttle said some women might avoid reporting mild harassment because they fear that the men might get ejected from the venues, which they consider too harsh a punishment. Another reason women might not repeat harassment is that they do not have faith their complaints will bring about any reactions.

Men who harass or assault others have different motives, Schröttle said: "Some of them are in a position of power in society and do not accept women setting boundaries. Others see themselves as inferior, but they do not feel this status is compatible with their idea of masculinity and they make up for it by degrading women."

Rosenkeller's Gassen said harassers "exist in every class, and, whether male or female, they do not accept the personal needs of others and behave inappropriately."

Perhaps out of ignorance, perhaps fearing negative reactions, women publicly condemn sexual harassment even less often than they report it to the police. In the past, women who made such reports were often accused of being cowards or intending to defame the men who had harassed them.

"It was very hard for me to realize that I cannot move about freely in places where people share my political ideas and philosophies," Sonnefeld said.

Trolls come out

Sonnefeld's letter did not only attract positive responses. "My greatest fears, which did not allow me to go to security staff, have come true," she said. On the internet, Sonnefeld has been exposed to comments that ridicule her appeal or dismiss sexism as irrelevant. Then there are some people who say she alone is to blame for being harassed and groped. Some accuse refugees of caring out the harassment. Sonnefeld she wasn't groped by refugees, however.

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Despite some of the heated discussions, Sonnefeld is glad that she publicly shared her experiences so that "maybe more 16-year-old girls think 'I can and must defend myself.'" Clubs announced that they have agreed to create information flyers and make security staff easier to recognize.

"I know I dared to raise my voice and now something is changing," Sonnefeld said. "It is really a great feeling."

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