Actress exposes herself — and a flaw in German decency laws | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.12.2018
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Actress exposes herself — and a flaw in German decency laws

A German actress known for playing a nun on TV has been ordered to pay a fine because she revealed her private parts to undercover police agents. The case shines a light on the odd gendering of German exhibitionism laws.

Antje Mönning, who played a stripper-turned-nun on the popular German TV show Um Himmels Willen (For Heaven's Sake), has said in multiple interviews that she enjoys being naked. In June 2018, she gave a performance of sorts in a parking lot in rural Bavaria in front of an audience of three. Mönning posed in a see-through shirt and lifted up her skirt, at which point a truck driver and two other men could see that she wasn't wearing underwear. 

Unbeknownst to Mönning, the other two men were plainclothes police officers, who filmed her performance with a cellphone and accused her of indecent behavior. On Tuesday, the 40-year-old had her day in court. While the judge rejected the indecent behavior charge, he sentenced her to pay a misdemeanor fine of €300 ($340)

"I cannot believe it's a crime to show your body as a woman," Mönning said.

German media had a field day with the story, focusing on the contrast between the actress's role as a nun and the charges against her.

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A vague law

Indecent behavior is indeed a crime according to paragraph 183a of the penal code. It is defined as "engaging in sexual behavior in public and thereby causing offense on purpose" and can be punished with a fine or up to one year in jail. 

But nailing down what exactly falls under this law is tough.

"It is highly contentious what is legally considered indecent behavior and what isn't. The main factor is the severity of the act in question," the lawyer Steffen Lindberg told DW. "Kissing in public isn't severe enough to qualify. People who run across a soccer pitch naked during a Bundesliga game don't get slapped with this charge either."

That raises the question of how the indecent behavior charge would apply to what Mönning did. Revealing your private parts in public usually falls under paragraph 183, which deals with exhibitionism. But the police officers couldn't use this law against Mönning for a simple reason: It only applies to men.

"A man who harasses another person with exhibitionist behavior will be punished with a prison sentence of up to one year or a fine," the penal code states.

"I am under the impression that what she did falls squarely into a loophole in the penal code: the gap between paragraphs 183 and 183a," Lindberg said. "If she merely lifted her skirt and moved around a little, without performing sexual acts on herself, that wouldn't be indecent behavior. It could fall under [the exhibitionist paragraph], but that can't be applied to women."

Lindberg called the combination of the two paragraphs "inherently faulty" and has only one word for the gender specificity of the law: absurd.

"Sooner or later, this paragraph will end up on the scrap heap of legal history," Lindberg said. "After all, the question will come up eventually of how this would apply to persons who are neither male nor female."

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'Striptease without music'

Mönning's lawyer, Alexander Stevens, would like to do away with the charge of indecent behavior altogether. He points out that morals in society have changed since the 1970s, when the law in its current form was introduced.

"You cannot lock someone up in prison for a year for something that you can see on regular TV after 9 p.m.," Stevens said.

Stevens said his client's actions were a piece of performance art.

The truck driver who was present when Mönning lifted her skirt would agree with that classification. He testified during the trial that he didn't have any problems with the performance, adding that his friends initially didn't believe him when he shared his story.

"We're out in the country here, no one has ever experienced anything like it," he said. "It was striptease without music. I'm floored that I was allowed to witness something like this."

Mönning herself apologized to the police officers, but also announced after the trial that she would continue to draw attention to the issue.

"Being naked is not a crime," the actress said.

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