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 commonly accepted 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.
Even within a community, 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, and the like 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.
Exposure by a woman of her breasts is not an offence in most and perhaps all European countries. It is also considered that any such prohibition would be a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In England and Wales the offence of 'indecent exposure' and other sexual offences were replaced by the more specific and explicit Sexual Offences Act 2003. The Act does not refer to nudity as such. The new law was carefully worded so as not to apply to skinny dipping, nude sunbathing and similar activities. It only applies to aggressive exposure such as flashing. Section 66 provides that 'a person commits an offence if (a) he intentionally exposes his genitals, and (b) he intends that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress.' The provision applies equally to men and women. The maximum penalty is 2 years imprisonment.
The situation in Northern Ireland is complex as some parts of this Act apply but others do not and the Assembly is considering new legislation [mid 2008].
In Scotland, a Bill with more repressive wording is currently proposed [mid 2008].
In the early 1900s, women were expected to wear cumbersome dress and pantaloon combinations when swimming. In 1907, Annette Kellerman, an Australian swimmer, was arrested on a Boston beach for public indecency for wearing her trademark one-piece swimsuit. After a public outcry at the arrest, the style had become generally acceptable by the 1910s.
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. Public place is any place where the conduct may reasonably be expected to be viewed by others.
The offense is variously titled "indecent exposure", "sexual misconduct", "public lewdness", or "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 IndexSpecific 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 exempt breastfeeding mothers from prosecution under these 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."
In Australia, it is a summary or criminal offence prohibited by laws of some States and Territories to expose one's genitals (also referred to as - 'his or her person' ) in a public place or in view of a public place. In other States and Territories the exposure of the genitals alone does not constitute an offence unless accompanied by an indecent act, indecent behaviour, grossly indecent behaviour, obscenity, intention to cause offence or deliberate intention. The applicable law is different in each jurisdiction and in several jurisdictions the offence of indecent exposure does not apply.
Penalties for the various offences vary between jurisdictions and are summarised below. For specific state Acts see:
Definition of Person:
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 Regina v Eyles Matter No 60305/97 (1997) NSWSC 452 (1 October 1997) the offender was seen masturbating in his front garden and charged with Obscene Exposure under the Summary Offences Act 1988 - Section 5