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What Is Indecent Exposure?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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In the legal sense, indecent exposure would be a charge leveled at someone who exposed parts of the body thought by society to be private, such as breasts, genitals or buttocks, in a public setting. Public setting could mean anything from a person’s front lawn to a much more public venue such as in front of a TV camera or on a crowded beach. When a person is charged with this crime, which is usually, though not always, considered a misdemeanor, they might face fines or jail time. If indecent exposure has a specific sexual connotation, for example to expose body parts to minors, more significant charges including labeling the act as a sex offense could exist.

Each society determines what constitutes indecent exposure, and this can widely range, to the point where there are virtually no laws or shame in seeing any or all parts of the body. There are many native cultures that do not wear a significant amount of clothing due to custom and climate, and they may have no customs that define nakedness as indecent, though all cultures have taboos.

Even where indecent exposure as a legal charge exists or is defined, regions can have different ideas on what is considered an unacceptable level of exposure. There are many countries where it is perfectly acceptable for women to be bare above the waist on beaches. In these countries, the appearance of clothing over the breasts might be considered unusual.

Another issue regarding this charge is intent or circumstances under which exposure takes place. While it might be considered indecent exposure for a woman to bare her breasts in public for no particular reason, it might not be considered indecent for a woman to expose her breasts to breastfeed an infant, though there are arguments as to this point in many regions. Similarly, few toddlers that are changed in public, or who somehow are able to shed all their clothing, are charged with indecent exposure. Child nudity may be viewed differently than adult nudity, and the line isn’t always clear on when it is no longer acceptable for a child to be nude.

Often, what this leaves regions with are laws that say indecent exposure must be designed to shock or offend, and there are certainly many instances of this. Streaking or running naked was once quite popular as a measure of protest in places like the US. Yet others suggest that society can only be offended if it views nakedness as private or somehow inherently bad or evil, and that these laws are outdated. Clearly not all societies feel this way, but when nakedness is perceived as inherently shocking or offensive, those who commit indecent exposure are likely to face charges if they are caught.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon307480 — On Dec 05, 2012

My wife told her nephew to get under the shower at Zuma Beach. She took his towel, to get him to rinse off sand, and when he realized some other kids were laughing at him. He started clowning around (later referred to as 'playing with himself').

My wife was arrested for (his) indecent exposure. He's 9. Big kid, but still pre-pubescent.

By anon303716 — On Nov 15, 2012

The term indecent exposure is used to cause guilt about a normal, natural thing we are born with. People that bow to clothing manufactured the phrase to cause guilt.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a MyLawQuestions contributor, Tricia...
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