Lena has been attending football matches for years.
One Saturday, while finding her place in the stands with a group of friends, sipping her beer and having a chat, she felt something grabbing her from behind. At first, she thought it was an accident. “I thought someone probably just made the wrong move.”
But then she was groped for a second time. And a third. There was no longer mistaking what had happened. “I wasn’t sure who it was, but I shouted in the direction of a group of male spectators that they should stop doing it,” she says.
One of them mocked her for “making a scene.” Others looked passively in her direction. Apart from her group of friends, no one stood up for her, despite her drawing attention to the situation. Some even pointed fingers and laughed.
“It was difficult,” says Lena, whose name has been changed upon her request. “I felt like I was in the spotlight. I felt angry and hurt.”
After the game, Lena wrote about what had happened to her online. She recalls how, while the vast majority of responses were supportive, there were also other types of reactions. “Some were questioning whether this really happened? Is she exaggerating?”
No official numbers
Asked about the frequency of such occurrences at football matches, Lena paints a damning picture of the situation in Germany’s football stadiums.
“I can only speak for my circle of friends, not for all women. But every single woman in my football circles has experienced sexism of some sort. I have stories about the vast majority of games I go to,” she tells DW.
Official figures regarding the prevalence of sexual violence in the context of football in Germany do not exist. The German police office for sports operations (ZiS), which is responsible for recording criminal offences related to football, publishes an annual report which includes a wide range of offences, from bodily harm to vandalism and the use of pyrotechnics. Sexual violence, however, isn’t on the list.
Antje Grabenhorst is a member of the Network Against Sexism and Sexual Violence, a collective of female fans and employees in the educational fan projects across Germany dealing with sexism and sexual violence in football.
“The general statistics on how often women experience sexism or sexual violence suggests it exists in football, too,” Grabenhorst tells DW. German government statistics suggest every third woman in Germany is to experience an act of physical or sexual violence at least once during her life.
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According to Grabenhorst, a match-going Werder Bremen supporter, football is a “closed system” in which “a classic form of masculinity” is at play. All the more reason for sexual violence at stadiums to be taken more seriously.
“I, too, have experienced it and have heard many stories,” she says, adding that sexual violence and sexism are expressed in different forms “from the crossing of physical boundaries to actual rape.”
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‘Not apparent she was not interested’
One high-profile case took place in April 2018. A special train for Borussia Mönchengladbach fans was making its way back to the western German city from Munich after an away game against Bayern, with 750 fans on board.
At some point, police received a report of an alleged “sexual offence” on the train. The train was stopped at the small town of Flörsheim, where the affected person was met by police. Witnesses said the 19-year-old woman was seen shaking outside one of the train toilets. One witness said the woman couldn’t even walk properly. “I was raped,” she said.
In court, it was heard that both the woman and the 31-year-old man accused of raping her had drunk alcohol, with the woman being said to have drunk “a lot.”
The court heard how the pair had kissed and gone to the toilet together. “She didn’t think about what was about to happen there,” said one of the judges in the first hearing. The woman admits she made the first contact with the man but, at the same time, she insists she did not consent to having sex with him.
After being found guilty of both rape and grievous bodily harm against another fan on the train, the man was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. But, on appeal, he was acquitted of having raped the woman. “It was not apparent that the woman did not want to have sex with him,” the court concluded.
Grabenhorst says the verdict contributes to the feeling of “demotivation and lack of security” for victims of sexual violence, and says that many people affected by sexual violence don’t think going to police will achieve anything.
“This verdict is difficult for the affected person. She went all this way, she told the police she said no, and the court even agreed with her in the first instance,” says Grabenhorst, adding that the case was one of the reasons the Network Against Sexism and Sexual Violence has become more active.
SC Freiburg are also considered one of the more progressive Bundesliga clubs when it comes to sexism and discrimination
Concept against sexual violence in football
In November 2019, the network published guidelines for dealing with sexual violence in the context of football. The concept, which revolves around the support offered to those affected by sexual violence, suggests how clubs, associations, the authorities and fellow fans should deal with such cases.
“Our concept strongly orientates itself around the affected person, their needs and their wishes,” explains Grabenhorst, the core message being: “We believe them.”
“It is often the case that people affected by sexual violence don’t know who to turn to and who can provide them with support and help,” she says, adding that it’s “important to talk about the topic openly, rather than tabooing it.”
Several clubs in Germany have already started taking action. In January 2019, Fortuna Düsseldorf announced a dedicated helpline for women while second division side Darmstadt’s fan department offer a contact point for female fans, clearly visible at the club’s home games.
Borussia Dortmund are planning on installing a safe space for people “feeling threatened or harassed,” under the code name “Panama.” The space will be located underneath the Westfalenstadion‘s famous South Stand and will be advertised throughout ground.
Long way to go
Grabenhorst acknowledges, however, that there’s a long way to go in dealing with sexual violence in football, and Lena agrees.
“If you look at how women who speak out are being attacked on social media, and the levels of sexist comments they receive, I think it’s a sign the topic still isn’t being taken seriously,” she says.
Talking about what bystanders can do to handle cases of sexual violence and sexism at stadiums, Grabenhorst says it’s about listening to the people affected and, more than anything, believing them.
“Things will only change when everyone talks about these issues, not only those affected.”