The Celebrity Rape Case That Could Bring "No Means No" to Germany

Gina-Lisa Lohfink

A model and reality TV star has become an unlikely feminist icon after a German court dismissed her claims of sexual assault and fined her $27,000.

Until very recently, the arc of Gina-Lisa Lohfink's career had been a familiar one. Born in a small town in rural Germany, she was a beauty queen (Miss Frankfurt, 2005) who leveraged her looks into celebrity, first as a contestant on Germany's Next Top Model and then as C-lister on various other reality shows, including Germany's version of Big Brother and Farmer Wants a Wife. Her personal life, from various cosmetic surgeries to a string of broken relationships, is the stuff of regular tabloid fodder.

But in the past month, Lohfink has become something else: a feminist icon and symbol for those who want to change Germany's laws on sexual assault and make “no means no” the legally binding standard for sexual consent.

Lohfink claims she was raped by two men in 2012 following a night of drinking in a Berlin club. The men filmed the encounter and posted a video of it online, where it was viewed more than 1 million times before being taken down. In the video, Lohfink, who told police she may have been drugged before the assault, can be heard repeatedly saying "stop it, stop it" and "no."

But a Berlin court ruled against her, saying there was no evidence of rape. More than that, the court found Lohfink guilty of making false testimony and ordered her to pay her alleged attackers $27,000 (€24,000) in damages. The two men in question argued in court that the sex was consensual. Lohfink's protestations were in reference to a specific sexual act only, not to sex in general, their lawyers argued. The men were found guilty of distributing the video online without Lohfink's permission.

The case has ignited a fierce debate in Germany about how sexual assault cases are handled. It has parallels to the Stanford University case in the U.S., which attracted attention and outrage after a judge gave Stanford swimmer Brock Turner a lenient six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman he had met at a fraternity party.

But the Lohfink case could potentially have a much greater impact in Germany, which is in the midst of rewriting the statutes governing sexual assault. If the changes are approved, the concept of “no means no” could become part of German law. Activists and politicians in favor of the changes have called the Lohfink case an example of how the current system often fails, and even punishes, rape victims who come forward to testify.

Lohfink has become the face of the “Nein heisst nein” (German for "no means no") campaign, and even Germany's family minister, Manuela Schwesig, has become an official supporter of the online support group #teamginalina.

“When someone says, ‘no,’ that has to mean ‘no'; when someone says, ‘stop it,' that ought to be clear enough for anyone.” Schwesig told German TV. “ We need to tighten up the laws on sexual crimes to protect everyone’s own sexual determination without conditions.”

Under German law as it now stands, saying “no” or “stop it” is not enough to prove sex was non-consensual. Unless a victim is unconscious or otherwise incapacitated, the law requires either violence, or the threat of violence, for an assault to be judged as rape.

The drive to change the law got substantial political support in the wake of widespread sexual assaults on women on New Year's Eve, mainly in the city of Cologne. Hundreds of assaults, including at least five rapes, were reported, sparking outrage and a demand for stricter, more punitive laws. There has been opposition, however, largely from the ranks of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, to including “no means no” in the wording of the new law.

The Lohfink case could change that. On Friday, German justice minister Heiko Mass told news site Spiegel Online that he was still open to a “practical, effective solution including 'no means no.' ” The coverage of the case, particularly online and in social media, has put pressure on German legislators to back “no means no.”

Demonstrators will show their support for Lohfink with a march outside the Berlin court when the case resumes on June 27. What started as a tabloid celebrity trial has become a precedent-setting case, both for how Germany deals with violence against women and for the impact social media campaigns can have on the country's justice system.