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The war on upskirting in Germany

Victor Weitz | Julia Lasica
August 27, 2019

Loopholes in Germany's penal code allow upskirting — the act of secretly taking images under a person's clothes without consent — to go unpunished. Now two women have decided to take action.

Models standing for a symbol photo of upskirting
Image: picture-alliance/Captital Pictures/R. Gold

The case of a 53-year-old man accused of upskirting over 550 women in Madrid has made headlines across Europe. Still, upskirting is not illegal in many European countries, including Germany. Two women from the southern German city of Ludwigsburg, Ida Marie Sassenberg, 25, and Hanna Seidel, 28, have decided to fight for its criminalization. Seidel herself is a victim of this form of harassment.

"The most disgusting thing about upskirting is that you might not even realize it has happened," Seidel told DW. "You could be standing on an escalator in a supermarket, in the metro or at a concert. And you don't know what will happen to the photographs — whether they'll be uploaded to a porn site, an internet forum or if someone will just satisfy themselves by looking at them."

Seidel was just 13 when she was first upskirted by a teacher from another school on a trip to a nature reserve. The second time was at a concert when she was 16. The man took a photograph up her skirt and then escaped through the crowd.

Hanna Seidel and Ida Marie Sassenberg standing back-to-back
Seidel and Sassenberg launched an online to make upskirting illegal in GermanyImage: David Lampe

Back then, just as today, it was difficult to fight back. Bringing a criminal to justice requires reacting on the spot, grabbing the phone from the offender's hand and calling the police. It's a daunting task, particularly for a teenager.

In some countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Scotland, victims of upskirting are protected by law. The act was also criminalized earlier this year in England and Wales due, in large part, to an online petition. A conviction can now carry a two-year prison sentence.

When Sassenberg and Seidel heard about the development, they set up a similar online petition in Germany. Currently, the number of signatures stands at around 89,000. "We need wide support from the public if we want to change the situation," the women said.

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A gap in German law

The petition has helped spark a wider discussion in German society and attracted support within the legal world. According to lawyer Christian Solmecke, paragraph 184i of the German penal code — which focuses on sexual harassment — is relatively new. It was only introduced after the 2016 New Year's Eve violence in Cologne, when hundreds of sexual assault reports were recorded in one night.

A composite of four photographs of Spanish police arresting a man for taking illicit upskirt photos in Madrid
Police in Madrid earlier this month arrested a man suspected of taking illicit photos of more than 500 womenImage: AFP/Spanish Police

But this particular part of the penal code only comes into effect when direct contact is made with an intimate part of a person's body. This doesn't happen during upskirting, so perpetrators are only accountable for violating a general rule of conduct and fined.

The amendment followed a separate one in 2014 that found people who photograph or distribute images showing intimate body parts are liable for criminal prosecution — but only if the images were taken in private spaces, such as a toilet. It doesn't, however, apply to photographs taken in other public spaces. 

Solmecke illustrated the pitfalls of the penal code while speaking to Germany's Stern TV, highlighting the case of a mayor of a small Bavarian town who would take photos up women's skirts while on escalators. More than a hundred of these images were found in his possession by the police. The then-mayor was fined €750 ($830) for harassing the public.

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Upskirting 'not linked to nationality'

Sassenberg and Seidel want to ensure offenders are punished more harshly. "We get lots of letters from different women who support what we are doing," Sassenberg said. "A lot of them say that after complaining of being upskirted, they are told to wear trousers or jeans instead of short skirts."

The petition has sparked backlash and harassment on social media — but Sassenberg says that is not the feedback that motivates her. 

"Quite the opposite — I never manage to stay indifferent when I get a message from a 14-year-old girl who tells me that she has been upskirted at school," she said. "Teachers just advise their students not to wear skirts. I care most about the victims in this situation — they are the ones who have no support at all."

Should upskirting be a criminal offense?

The petition has also attracted attention from politicians within the far-right Alternative for Germany party. They claim that it is migrants, not Europeans, who perpetrate this crime. "We completely disagree with this hypothesis," Sassenberg and Seidel stressed. They note that there are no official statistics supporting these claims, and the messages the women received don't point to the problem being prevalent in any particular ethnic group.

"Just to note, both men who upskirted me were German," Seidel said. "The first was a former teacher. The second didn't even attempt to mask his far-right views."

Just how many signatures are Seidel and Sassenberg hoping to get to pressure the German Ministry of Justice to change the criminal code? "There isn't a specific point at which politicians and officials start to pay attention," the women said. "But 100,000 would be enough to help us start knocking on the doors of those who could defend the victims of upskirting. We are going to keep fighting — until we win."