Under the patriarchy, women’s sexuality is not seen as a source of power. It is seen as a source of shame. And that’s why verbal abuse directed at women very often picks on their sexuality. It therefore does not come as a surprise that when German Green politician Renate Künast became a victim of online hate speech earlier this year, the people who targeting her among other things called her “dirty cunt” and “whore”.
As a result of an outrageous court judgement on the case, Künast together with net activists and other feminists has launched a cross-party call “against digital violence”. The call encourages “an open debate about the gender-specific aspects of digital violence and hate speech” as well as their “connection to racism, anti-semitism and ableism”. Amongst other things, the authors ask for special prosecution offices against hate speech, better equipment and training of police, law enforcement agencies and courts as well as the dismantling of legal hurdles for civil lawsuits. Social media providers should be made more responsible, for example, by contributing to the cost of advice centres dealing with the topic of hate speech.
Normalising Digital Violence against Women
What is the background? Künast had wanted to take the authors of the social media abuse to account. But the judges in her court case chose to nonchalantly link the gendered aspects of the abuse to the topic of paedophilia, setting a dangerous precedent for normalising digital violence against women.
The story: In March this year, right-wing populist figure Sven Liebich posted on Facebook about an article of German magazine ‘Welt’ referring to a debate in the Berlin chamber of deputies in 1986, which Künast was a member of. Back then, some German Greens had taken views on ‘sex’ with children which nowadays are unacceptable. (In 2013, this was discussed nationwide, with the federal chairwoman presenting an excuse).
It remains to be seen if the appellate procedure launched by Künast and her lawyer will rectify the decision of the Berlin district court, and which effect the call “against digital violence” will have in Germany.
The debate in 1986 centred on domestic violence. While a Green politician was speaking, a deputy of the conservative CDU party threw in the question if she stood by the decision of the Greens of the region of North Rhine-Westphalia to advocate for decriminalising intercourse with children. Künast then interposed: “comma, if no violence is involved.” Liebich in his post ‘completed’ this quote stating “… then sex with children is actually ok.”
According to Künast’s lawyer, however, the “Welt” article had presented the context of Künast’s comment only in a fragmentary way, as Künast “never […] approved of paedophilia or sexual intercourse with children”, “never supported relevant resolutions of the Green party” and simply had “wanted to rectify the purposely wrong rendition of the resolution by the CDU party deputy.”
“Calls for sexualised violence of the worst kind”
The verbal abuse against Künast followed in the comments on Liebich’s post, which has meanwhile been deleted. As a reaction, Künast filed a lawsuit for Facebook to be allowed to hand over personal data of the commenters, so she would be able to take civil proceedings against them. But according to the judges, the statements of the commenters were not verbal abuse, but ‘opinions’ in the context of an ‘argument’. The judges went as far as stating that comments like “maybe she wasn’t f* enough as a child” or “f* her good until she gets normal again” were ‘referring to the context’ and therefore ‘admissible’. Künast was told that as a politician, she needs to “put up with vastly exaggerated criticism”.
Reactions were quick to come: Politicians from all democratic parties strongly condemned the judgment: Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, for example, a deputy of the liberal FDP, stated: “This judgement, which is shameful for a state founded on the rule of law, affects us all. […] If this culture [of living together based upon mutual respect] is not legally protected anymore, then it is only a question of time until the words will be followed by violence.” According to the conservative politician Patrick Sensburg, the judgment is a “low point of wrong decisions by courts. No one needs to tolerate [the comments in question], also and especially not public figures.”
…the fact that a judgement of this kind has been possible in the first place is a dangerous development. It will make feminists and other activists even more reluctant to speak up, online and in the “offline world”.
The leader of the leftist party, Katja Kipping, said that “this type of violence is still played down too often”. Naturally, representatives of the Greens also rushed to Künast’s side, with party leader Robert Habeck explaining that the social media comments were “calls for sexualised violence of the worst kind”: “We need to fight more vigorously against the brutalization of language in politics and also in society.”
Künast herself has announced she will file an appeal: “The decision of the district court sends a devastating signal, in particular to all women on the net, on what kind of tone women should put up with”, she said.
A Dangerous Development
Meanwhile, a Berlin law firm has brought criminal charges against the district court judges for “perverting the course of justice”. But Künast has distanced herself from this move, tweeting “not my law firm” and retweeting a tweet calling the attempt “self-PR” – a view which has been contested by other Twitter users.
The Berlin judgment calls to mind another case of a female politician, this time in Austria: Sigi Maurer, also a member of the Green party, had published obscene messages on Twitter which had been sent to her. She is now for the second time facing charges of libel writ, and it is her responsibility to prove that it was the innkeeper she accuses who sent the messages, even though there is evidence they were sent from his computer and the Facebook account of his pub.
It remains to be seen if the appellate procedure launched by Künast and her lawyer will rectify the decision of the Berlin district court, and which effect the call “against digital violence” will have in Germany. One thing is for certain: the fact that a judgement of this kind has been possible in the first place is a dangerous development. It will make feminists and other activists even more reluctant to speak up, online and in the “offline world”. They cannot be sure anymore to be legally protected from verbal abuse and hate speech targeting their sexuality.