What Is Indecent Exposure?

Indecent exposure refers to the criminal act of someone exposing their private parts to unconsenting parties in a public place. Acts of indecent exposure include masturbating, urinating, or having sex in public. If you have been the victim of indecent exposure, there are legal measures you can pursue to punish the perpetrator.

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When you go out in public, you have the right to do so without being forced to witness another person’s sexual activity. If a man walking down the street suddenly unzips his pants or a woman on a bus begins touching herself, they are guilty of indecent exposure.

What is indecent exposure, exactly? This type of sex crime gets overlooked sometimes because it doesn’t involve physical violence, but it is harmful and illegal. It’s possible to experience a sexual assault without ever being touched by another person. This is the case with indecent exposure, which can be distressing and traumatic for victims whose personal freedoms have been violated.

What is considered indecent exposure?

Indecent exposure occurs when a person exposes their genitals in a public place in a way that is likely to offend others. Assuming that the person in question could reasonably believe that other people might see the act, indecent exposure is also against the law. For example, if someone exposes themselves in front of an open window facing a street or in a public area, such as a store or park, the act would likely qualify as indecent exposure. 

In most cases, indecent exposure is considered a sex crime. In some states, indecent exposure laws overlap with similar crimes, including: 

  • Public indecency
  • Lewd conduct
  • Lewd, indecent, or obscene acts

In each of these crimes, unwilling participants witness or experience sexual acts performed by the perpetrator. This serious violation of individual rights can be punishable with jail time. 

In the past, indecent exposure has sometimes been treated as an inconvenience or an embarrassment, and it is often casually referred to as “flashing.” However, as with any other form of sexual assault, indecent exposure is a punishable crime that is in no way victimless. 

Depending on state laws and the circumstances surrounding a person’s behavior, several activities can qualify as indecent exposure. They include: 

  • Public urination
  • Public masturbation
  • Sex in public 
  • Public nudity

It’s important to note that most states do not require someone to actually see the other person’s private parts for a criminal act to have occurred. For example, if someone in a restaurant suddenly exposes themselves, but the rest of the patrons turn or cover their eyes so that they do not see anything, the act of knowingly exposing oneself may be enough for a criminal conviction.

How can you prove indecent exposure?

To convict someone for indecent exposure, prosecutors must prove certain aspects of the crime. Specifically, prosecutors must show that an act involved the following elements:  

  • Exposure of private parts: Although definitions sometimes vary by state, “private parts” generally refer to male and female genitalia. 
  • Willful exposure: Exposure must be intentional. In other words, a person whose bathing suit falls off at a public beach is not guilty of indecent exposure.
  • A public place: Stores, libraries, public transportation, and parks are all public places, regardless of whether they are privately or publicly owned.
  • The presence of another: At least one other person must be present at the time of the incident to prosecute for indecent exposure. 

If any one of these criteria is not met, it may be difficult or impossible to convict a defendant on indecent exposure charges.

public place

Are there laws against indecent exposure?

Indecent exposure is a serious crime that causes significant discomfort for victims. It is illegal in the United States under Title 25 Section 11.408 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Regardless of whether the act is intended as a joke, to offend someone, or to create a sensation of sexual arousal, it violates the law, and the perpetrator can be prosecuted. 

While most states generally classify indecent exposure as a misdemeanor, the classification and penalties can be more severe if a child is present when indecent exposure occurs. In addition, someone who has already been convicted of indecent exposure may be charged with a felony for repeated offenses.

It’s important to note that there are variations in indecent exposure laws between states. For example, according to Indiana state law, a woman exposing her breasts can be found guilty of indecent exposure. However, states that include breasts in these laws often provide exceptions for women who are breastfeeding infants. In other states, women’s breasts are not considered private areas under indecent exposure laws.

What qualifies as a public place?

The term “public place” is slightly misleading because it suggests that a space must be publicly owned to qualify. Indecent exposure can occur even if the perpetrator or the victim is on private property. For example, if someone stands in their front yard in clear view of their neighbors and exposes themselves, they may be charged with indecent exposure. 

Public places can also include: 

  • School campuses
  • Libraries
  • Public transportation
  • Retail establishments
  • Restaurants 
  • Government buildings 
  • Private residences
  • City streets

For example, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man was arrested for approaching and exposing himself to people on the street near the University of North Carolina campus. 

There are limitations to indecent exposure laws. If a person exposes themselves in an empty public place, like a closed store, indecent exposure most likely has not occurred. By law, at least one other person must be present to view the exposure when it happens for it to constitute a criminal act.

What are the penalties for indecent exposure?

As a misdemeanor, most indecent exposure convictions will not carry significant jail time. Typical penalties for the first conviction for this kind of crime include: 

  • Fines: In indecent exposure cases, courts may penalize defendants with fines of $1,000 or more. 
  • Incarceration: First-time offenders may face a year or more in jail, depending on the circumstances and state where the crime occurred. 
  • Probation: A person convicted of indecent exposure may be sentenced to probation, which involves regularly meeting with a probation officer and meeting certain conditions, such as maintaining steady employment. 
  • Community service: An indecent exposure conviction may also result in a community service assignment with a court-approved organization. 
  • Registration as a sex offender: Many states require criminals convicted of indecent exposure to register as sex offenders. 

Convictions for subsequent indecent exposure offenses can carry more substantial fines and sentences to serve time in state prison.

man taking out the trash

What can you do if you are a victim of indecent exposure?

If a person exposes themselves to you in a public space, it’s important to react quickly. This will help to ensure your safety and increase the likelihood that the perpetrator will be caught and prosecuted. Promptly remove yourself from the situation by walking away or asking for help from another person nearby. Once you are safe, immediately contact the police and describe the suspect and the location where the exposure occurred. 

You can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800-656-4673) or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center for support. These organizations can provide information about counseling, crisis centers, and local resources.