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.

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"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.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

A 'free body': Germany's nudist culture

It's a part of German culture, just like techno music and "Spargelzeit," the asparagus season. Even though the practice of Freikörperkultur (FKK), which translates as "free body culture," is dwindling among the younger generations of Germans, you'll still find lots of FKK areas on beaches as well as nude culture enthusiasts in spas — and even parks.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

The healthy hobby

By the late 19th century, many Germans believed it was healthy to strip off and bathe "textile free" at one of the country's many lakes. At the time there was a move away from polluted industrialized cities to nature in pursuit of good health. Some people also enjoyed hiking or doing exercise in the nude. This picture dates back to 1933 and shows two women at Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

A culture promoted in film

Increasing health through free movement in nature was an ethos featured in the 1925 film Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty). Starring controversial German actor and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, it was one of the country's most popular educational films of the silent era. It contained scenes of physical exercise such as dance and bathing.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

FKK and the Nazis

Leni Riefenstahl later became Hitler's favorite filmmaker, and glorified the Aryan athletic physique in her two-part film Olympia, based on the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin. While the Nazis initially banned FKK, nude swimming was once again allowed in 1942, if done discreetly in remote areas. Many promoters of the FKK movement were however leftists.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

A strong tradition in the former GDR

While FKK in the GDR was initially promoted by avant-gardists in the 1950s, it became widespread and tolerated by the 70s. As life in the GDR was so tightly controlled in other ways, bathing nude could be seen as a rare liberty — and people made full use of it. In this picture from 1986, dozens of nudists bask in the sun at Müggelsee, a lake in the suburbs of East Berlin.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

FKK on the Baltic coast

FKK was also particularly strong on Baltic Sea beaches. However, the practice didn't spread to the Polish side of the coast. After Poland joined the EU, it became easier to walk from one country to the other's beach, but nudism was a cause of tensions between the localities on both sides of the German-Polish border.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

Getting into the FKK spirit

At this beach in Leipzig in 1980, nudists hang out together on a hot day. The FKK spirit is about celebrating the body and being free from clothes. According to FKK enthusiasts, the practice is not connected to sex; it's about freeing yourself from social constraints. And it's certainly one way to make sure that you don't get any pesky tan lines from wearing a swimsuit.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

Not only in the east: Munich's designated spots

While public nudity is generally forbidden Munich, there are various specific areas where FKK is allowed, for example in the English Garden and along the Isar River, including the Flaucher beach area, a popular destination for nudists, as this picture on a hot day from 2002 shows. FKK areas usually have a clear sign, and people chilling there do not want to be seen as a tourist attraction.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

Berlin's park life

The practice is not as strong as it used to be, but some parks still have a certain FKK tradition — so you might come across more flesh than you were expecting on an afternoon walk. While public nudity is illegal, sunbathing naked is tolerated in different Berlin parks, such as the Mauerpark, Volkspark Friedrichshain (picture, from 1999) and Tiergarten — as long as it's not disturbing anyone.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

A passion for millions of Germans

Angela Merkel was famously taking a sauna the night the Berlin Wall came down; it was her Thursday ritual. Figures show that around 30 million people in Germany visit the country's 2,300 saunas regularly. The majority of spas are open to both genders and require users to be textile-free. Remember: these public saunas are different to so-called FKK saunas or clubs, which are used as brothels.

Naked facts: Germany's nudism movement

Bare all in the wild

It may not be for everyone, but if you really want to get in touch with nature you could try going for a hike — au naturel. Deep in Germany's Harz mountain region is where you'll find an 18 kilometer naked hiking route. Stretching from the town of Dankerode to the Wippertal reservoir and back, the route welcomes FKK aficionados. Just watch out for nettles!

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