Indecent exposure in the United States

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Public urination is sometimes regarded as an act of public indecency; as illustrated in this cartoon print by Isaac Cruikshank from 1799
Man and woman in swimsuits, ca. 1910; she is exiting a bathing machine
Annette Kellerman, early 1900s, in swimwear which she wore when arrested for public indecency

In the United States, indecent exposure refers to conduct undertaken in a non-private or (in some jurisdictions) publicly viewable location, which is deemed indecent in nature, such as nudity, masturbation or sexual intercourse in public view.[1] Such activity is often illegal. The legal definition in a given location may not specify all activities that would be covered.

Indecent exposure may also be referred to as "sexual misconduct" or "public lewdness".

Legal status in the United States[edit]


The issue of flashing or indecent exposure can be traced back in the United States as early as the 1870s as demonstrated in this 1874 Sacramento Daily Union article which reads:

A Shameless Fellow Shot in San Jose San Jose, California December 2d. [1874] For several days past, an Italian, who refuses to give his name, has been in the habit of standing on the corner of Fourth and Julian Streets in the city, and making an exposure of his person to school children. This morning complaint was made at the police office, and the officers Keane and Vance were detailed to arrest him. About 4 o'clock this afternoon, after the officers had arrested him ...[2]

In some areas of the United States of America in the early 1900s, women were expected to wear cumbersome dresses 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.[3]


In most states of the United States, state law prohibits exposure of the genitals and/or the female nipples in a public place, while in other states simple nudity is legal, but evidence of intent to shock, arouse or offend other persons (lewd conduct) is evidence of prohibited conduct. For example, in most states, it is a criminal offense punishable by fines and/or imprisonment, and/or registered sex offender requirements and restrictions. Some states permit local governments to set local standards. Public nudity itself has not been a crime throughout California since a 2000 Appellate Court ruling, and prosecutions and convictions are unheard of, but arrests do still occur, though they also are unusual,[4] and Vermont only prohibits "open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior"[5] so many forms of public nudity are legal.

Indecent exposure is defined as a crime in the United States Armed Forces by Article 120c, Uniform Code of Military Justice. The changes to Article 120c became part of the Manual for Courts-Martial in the 2012 edition.[6]

Exemption for breastfeeding of infants[edit]

Most states exempt breastfeeding mothers from prosecution under these statutes.[7] 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."[8]


Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc. 501 U.S. 560 (1991) is a landmark decision of the Supreme Court of the United States on freedom of speech and the ability of the government to outlaw certain forms of expressive conduct. The issue was whether Indiana's public indecency law prohibiting total nudity in public places violated the First Amendment. Chief Justice Rehnquist said that the law was clearly within the State's constitutional power because it furthered a substantial governmental interest in protecting societal order and morality. Public indecency statutes reflected moral disapproval of people appearing in the nude among strangers in public places, and this particular law followed a line of State laws, dating back to 1831, banning public nudity.

A 21-year-old woman was ticketed in 2003 for appearing naked in a bar in Lincoln, Nebraska and posting the pictures on the Internet.[9]

Six male riders were charged with public indecency during the 2005 World Naked Bike Ride Chicago ride and later prosecuted with sentences ranging from fines and non-expungeable conviction to three months court supervision.

In a 2003 case out of Massachusetts, three thirteen-year-old girls who were leaving a Catholic school reported that a man, in a nearby car, pulled down his pants, and revealed his bare posterior and a red thong. The man was arrested and read his Miranda rights. The police reported that he waived his rights and spoke to the police. He reportedly stated, "You stupid mother fucker, you don't have indecent exposure. I did not pull my prick out. I only pulled down my pants. It's not against the law to pull your pants down and show people your thong." The case was referred to higher courts for clarification of the law. The Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled that the law could refer to sudden, unexpected exposure of the buttocks, but that the defendant did not have fair warning that his conduct was prohibited.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "2907.09 Public indecency". LAW Writer® Ohio Laws and Rules. Retrieved 31 October 2017.
  2. ^ Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 48, Number 7384, 3 December 1874
  3. ^ "Annette Kellerman". The Dawn. No. 54. March 2004. Archived from the original on 18 November 2005.
  4. ^ Phillip Matier; Andrew Ross (22 September 2004). "Au naturel is natural for Naked Yoga Guy". SFGate. Retrieved 8 December 2010.
  5. ^ "Title 13: Crimes and Criminal Procedure, Chapter 59: Lewdness and Prostitution, 13 V.S.A. § 2601. Lewd and lascivious conduct". The Vermont Statutes Online. Retrieved 31 October 2017.
  6. ^ "Manual for Courts-Martial United States (2012 edition)" (PDF). USAPD. Military Legal Resources. Retrieved 31 October 2017.
  7. ^ "Breastfeeding Laws". Breastfeeding State Laws. NCSL. September 2015. Retrieved 1 October 2015.
  8. ^ Treasury and General Government Appropriations Act 2000, Pub.L. 106–58, enacted September 29, 1999
  9. ^ O'Hanlon, Kevin (29 December 2003). "Tech". USA Today. Associated Press.
  10. ^ "QUINN, COMMONWEALTH vs., 439 Mass. 492". Retrieved 1 November 2017.