Indecent Exposure Laws

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 What Are Nudity Laws?

Public nudity laws as well as public sex act laws prohibit nudity in public. Nudity laws are laws that make it illegal for individuals to be in public without clothing.

This lack of clothing is illegal if it is lewd or is designed to arouse sexual gratification. If an individual is naked in a public place, it may only be illegal if the individual wants others to be attracted to them.

Public decency and nudity laws vary by state in the United States. Although the majority of states prohibit showing genitals or female nipples in public places, other states permit simply nudity.

Even in these places, if there is evidence of an intent to shock, arouse, or offend other individuals, or lewd conduct, that is evidence of prohibited conduct. These are criminal offenses that are punishable by fines or imprisonment in the majority of states, in addition to requirements and restrictions that are associated with registering as a sex offender.

What Are Some Examples of Nudity Laws?

There are certain states that allow local governments to set the local standards. For example, in California, public nudity itself is not a crime based on a 2000 appellate court ruling, making prosecutions and convictions rare.

The State of Vermont prohibits only “open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior.” This means that various forms of public nudity are considered legal.

Indecent exposure is defined as a crime in the United States Armed Forces under Article 120c, Uniform Code of Military Justice. In the 2012 edition of the Code, there were changes to Article 120c that were incorporated into the Manual for Courts-Martial.

In 2021, a law in Texas broadened the scope of indecent exposure to online activities. This includes the act of sending unsolicited sexual or nude images to another individual.

Texas law classifies this offense as a lesser misdemeanor than in-person indecent exposure. Incidents of public nudity have increased recently.

In some cases, these instances are considered innocent fun, including naked bike riding events around the work and ritual moonings in Orange County, California. There are other situations that are less innocent, such as when an individual exposes themselves for sexual gratification against the will of others.

Somewhere in the middle are public flashing that occurs at events such as Mardi Gras, concerts, and motorcycle events.

What Is Considered an Indecent Exposure?

Indecent exposure is the criminal offense of an individual exposing their private parts to other individuals. This crime includes the specific intent of the perpetrator to offend individuals or for sexual gratification.

This offense does not involve touching another individual or a threat of violence. It is typically charged as a misdemeanor crime.

There is a Latin term, mala prohibita, that refers to a crime being considered wrong because the underlying action is prohibited. What makes the action prohibited is a statute instead of a moral repugnance to the conduct.

Mala prohibita crimes are typically considered to be victimless crimes. The types of crimes that are classified as mala prohibita typically include, but may not be limited to:

In general, a classification of mala prohibita is not important in terms of sentencing. Instead, more weight will be placed on the defendant’s:

  • Criminal history;
  • Reason for committing the crime or actions behind the offense;
  • Category of crime committed, for example, a misdemeanor versus a felony; and
  • Degree of committing the offense.

This classification, instead, has more bearing on whether the crime is classified as a felony or as a misdemeanor. In general, crimes that are classified as mala prohibita crimes do not carry the same severe sentences that mala in se, or crimes against society, crimes do.

Typically, they will carry misdemeanor sentences that may include less than one year in jail, criminal fines, or both.

What Is Considered a “Public” Place?

In general, in the United States, the law prohibits nudity in public places. In general, nudity is also illegal on an individual’s own property if the nude individual is visible to the public, for example, sunbathing naked in the yard or through an open window.

Although most state laws are clear regarding nudity around children and nudity that is meant to arouse, other laws may be vague. This means that violations are commonly an issue based on community standards or indecency.

There may be situations in which these laws conflict with constitutional protections for the freedom of expression. This is especially the case if the nudity is part of a political demonstration or an artistic performance.

In general, a public places is defined as any location that is:

  • Visited by the public;
  • Likely to be visited by members of the public; or
  • Where the public would be expected to observe or visit.

Public places may include private businesses, for example, restaurants or bars, as well as private events, such as music festivals. Typically, public places do not include restrooms, physician’s offices, or other locations where privacy may be expected.

Is Urinating in Public Considered Indecent Exposure?

Whether or not urinating in public is considered indecent exposure will depend on where the urination occurs and the public urination laws in the state.

An individual who is urinating outside of the direct view of the public, for example, behind a bush, might not be committing indecent exposure. This is because they would not have the intent to expose themselves and the element of sexual gratification is not present.

Is Breastfeeding in Public Considered Indecent Exposure?

The majority of states have a breastfeeding exemption in their indecent exposure laws. This exemption allows mothers to breastfeed their babies in public with or without their breast being partially shown.

The State of New York does not allow breastfeeding for the purpose of show, exhibition, play, or entertainment.

How Do Indecent Exposure Laws Differ from State to State?

Indecent exposure laws by state will vary and they may also use different language. For example, in Alabama, it is a crime for an individual to expose themselves with the intent to arouse or sexually gratify themselves or others.

In West Virginia, indecent exposure is defined as the intentional exposing of an individual’s sex organs or anus to another individual that involves engaging in overt sexual acts or offensive harm. In Montana, indecent exposure is purposely or knowingly exposing an individual’s genitals to:

  • Abuse;
  • Humiliate;
  • Degrade;
  • Harass; or
  • Gratify.

How Are Indecent Exposure Laws Prosecuted?

The state laws governing indecent exposure also vary regarding how the crime is prosecuted. Most state laws, however, require that the prosecution prove intent.

In California, for example, the prosecution has to prove that the defendant intended to sexually offend, arouse, or gratify.

What Is the Penalty for Indecent Exposure?

The penalties for indecent exposure in the majority of states is a few months served in the county jail in addition to a criminal fine for a defendant’s first offense. If a defendant is convicted of indecent exposure a second time, it will typically result in a felony conviction, which typically results in time in prison and heftier criminal fines.

Should I Contact a Lawyer about Indecent Exposure Laws in My State?

If you have been charged with indecent exposure, it is essential to consult with a criminal lawyer. A conviction for indecent exposure may subject you to a lifetime of registration as a sex offender or even a felony on your record. A criminal lawyer can guide you through the legal process and inform you of your rights.


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