Indecent exposure

Indecent exposure is the deliberate exposure by a person of a portion or portions of his or her own body under circumstances where such an exposure is likely to be seen as contrary to the local prevalent standards of decency, and may in fact be a violation of law. In some countries a breach of the standards of modesty may constitute public indecency.


What constitutes indecent exposure depends on the standards of decency of the community where the exposure takes place. These standards can vary from the very strict standards of modesty imposed on women by the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, which imposed the wearing of the Burqa . In Pakistan, exposure of any part of an adult woman's body is considered indecent except for ?arms up to elbows, feet and head including neck; however, wearing half sleeves and ?keeping the head uncovered are considered liberal and modern rather than the norm.

Even within a communities, what will be seen as indecent will also depend on the context in which the exposure takes place. For example, it would be a reasonable expectation to see a naked person on a designated nude beach. However, even on that beach it may not be expected to witness explicit sexual activity. Indecent exposure is normally understood to be exposure of an adult's genitalia, but it may also involve masturbation, sexual intercourse, etc. in a public place.

The standards of decency may also vary over time. During the Victorian era, for example, exposure of a woman's legs was considered indecent in much of the Western world. As late as the 1930s, both women and men were largely prevented from bathing or swimming in public places without wearing bathing suits that covered above the waist. An adult woman exposing her navel was also considered indecent in the West up through as late as the 1960s and 1970s. Today, however, it is quite common for women to go topless at public beaches throughout Europe, South America, Australia and New Zealand. ?

What qualifies as indecent exposure varies with the authority having jurisdiction. Indecent exposure is often prohibited as a criminal offense. For example, before the Labour Party of the United Kingdom revised the law, "indecent exposure" was defined exclusively as a man exposing his erect penis to the public.

Although the phenomenon widely known as flashing may be free from sexual motive or intent, it nonetheless requires the public exposure of the genitals and/or breasts and is therefore defined by statute in many states of the United States as prohibited criminal behavior.

The motivation of the exposure is sometimes based on it being unusual and/or inappropriate, such as when it is for fun, as a protest, or to show disrespect; the effects (including negative consequences) may be enhanced by intended or unintended publication of a photograph or film of the act. See also mooning.

Breastfeeding does not constitute indecent exposure under the laws of the United States, Canada, Australia, or Scotland. In the United States, the federal government and the majority of states have enacted laws specifically protecting nursing mothers from harassment by others. Legislation ranges from simply exempting breastfeeding from laws regarding indecent exposure, to outright full protection of the right to nurse. However, mainstream ambivalence towards breastfeeding may prevent many women from exercising this right. Laws protecting the right to nurse aim to change attitudes and promote increased feelings of freedom and entitlement to breastfeed in public.

Legal Status in the United Kingdom

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is an offence to indecent exposure oneself. Indecent exposure is defined as someone, male or female, exposing their genitals intending another person to see them and thereby to cause alarm or distress to them. The offence is covered by section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, with the maximum penalty being imprisonment of two years.

Legal Status in the United States

In the fifty states of the United States indecent exposure is defined by state law as exposure of the genitals and/or the female breast in a public place and may in some states require evidence of intent to shock, arouse or offend other persons. The act is prohibited by state laws titled variously as Indecent Exposure, Sexual Misconduct, Public Lewdness, and Public Indecency. It is a criminal offense in all fifty states and is punishable by fines and/or imprisonment, and in some states a conviction results in having to register as a sex offender.

Links to state criminal codes may be found at the Cornell Law School Index.

Specific state statutes on indecent exposure:

Indecent exposure is also defined as a crime by the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice Sec. 552. regarding rape, sexual assault, and other sexual misconduct.

Exemption for breastfeeding of infants

A majority of states have enacted statutes specifically permitting the exposure of the female breast by women breast-feeding infants, or exempting such women from prosecution under applicable statutes.

U.S. Public Law 106-58 Sec. 647. enacted in 1999, specifically provides that "a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a Federal building or on Federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location."

Note: the application of state and federal statutes in the US may be modified by judicial precedent.

Legal Status in Australia

In Australia, it is a summary and indictable (either at common law or by statute) offence prohibited by laws of each State and Territory to expose one's genitals (in New South Wales and the Northern Territory - 'his or her person' ) in a public place or in view of a public place.

The maximum penalty can range from 6 months up to 2 years imprisonment.

For specific state Acts see:

It has been noted that a term such as "exposing one's person" relates back to the United Kingdom Vagrancy Act 1824 and Evans v Ewels (1972) where it was said that the word "person" was a genteel synonym for "penis". However, the word "person" in s5 of the (NSW) Summary Offences Act is not limited to "penis". The section applies equally to females as well as males. This term is used in New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. In the other States the exposure refers to one's genital area. In a sense, therefor, the term "person" can be wider than "genitalia".

In the case of both males and females, the parts of the body which are capable of being employed for the purpose of obscene exposure are limited. The concepts of obscenity and exposure in a practical sense restrict the potential operation of the provision. There is a question as to whether there is any further restriction to be found in the word "person". The Crown Advocate has submitted that there may be circumstances in which the exposure of the breasts of a woman is capable of being regarded as obscene, and that it is not difficult to imagine circumstances in which the exposure of a person's buttocks could be obscene.

However -

It is unnecessary and inappropriate to decide in the present case whether her submissions in that regard are correct. The jurisdiction which this Court is exercising is a jurisdiction confined to determining questions of law which arise in the case before the District Court. No question arises in the present case as to whether there are any circumstances in which the exposure by a female of breasts, or by a female or male of buttocks, could involve a contravention of s5. The prosecution case against the appellant was that he obscenely exposed his penis and other genitals. It is sufficient for resolution of the present case to say that this was capable of constituting exposure of "his person" for the purposes of the proceedings against him. (per Regina v Eyles NSWSC 452 (1 October 1997))

See also

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