From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Indecent exposure is the deliberate exposure in public or in view of the general public by a person of a portion or portions of his or her body, in circumstances where the exposure is contrary to local moral or other standards of appropriate behavior. The term "indecent exposure" is a legal expression. Social and community attitudes to the exposing of various body parts and laws covering what is referred to as indecent exposure vary significantly in different countries. It ranges from outright prohibition to prohibition of exposure of certain body parts, such as the genital area, buttocks or breasts.
Decency is generally judged by the standards of the local community, which are seldom codified in specifics in law. Such standards may be based on religion, morality or tradition, or justified on the basis of "necessary to public order". Non-sexual exhibitionism or public nudity is sometimes considered indecent exposure. If sexual acts are performed, with or without an element of nudity, this can be considered gross indecency, which is usually a more serious criminal offence. In some countries, exposure of the body in breach of community standards of modesty is also considered to be public indecency.
The legal and community standards of what states of undress constitute indecent exposure vary considerably, and depend on the context in which the exposure takes place. These standards have also varied over time, making the definition of indecent exposure itself a complex topic.
It is generally accepted, at least in western countries, that a naked human body is not in itself indecent. That principle is reflected, for example, in depiction of the human form in art of various forms. Nevertheless, as a general rule, it is also commonly expected that people when they appear in a public place will be appropriately attired. Inappropriateness is viewed in context, so that, for example, what may be appropriate on a beach may be inappropriate in a street, school or workplace. Depending on the context, some degree of inappropriateness may be tolerated, and perhaps described as eccentric, but in extreme cases of inappropriateness it may be regarded as "crossing the line". Besides the social disapproval of such a state of dress, most jurisdictions have laws to "maintain social order", variously described as public nudity, indecent exposure, as an affront to public morality, public nuisance, besides others. What is an inappropriate state of dress in a particular context depends on the standards of decency of the community where an exposure takes place. These standards vary from time to time and can vary from the very strict standards of modesty in places such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, which require most of the body to be covered, to tribal societies such as the Pirahã or Mursi where full nakedness is the norm. There is generally no implication that the state of dress objected to is of a sexual nature; and if such an allegation were to be made, the act would generally be described as "gross indecency".
The standards of decency have varied over time. During the Victorian era, for example, exposure of a woman's legs and some extent the arms, was considered indecent in much of the Western world. Hair was sometimes required to be covered in formal occasions as in a form a hat or bonnet. As late as the 1930s and to some extent, the 1950s, both women and men were expected to bathe or swim in public places wearing bathing suits that covered above the waist. An adult woman exposing her navel was also considered indecent in the West into the 1960s and 1970s, and even as late as the 1980s. Moral values changed drastically during the 1990s and 2000s, which in turn changed the criteria for indecent exposure. Public exposure of the navel has been accepted during the 1990s, such as in beaches, while in the 2000s, the buttocks can be exposed while wearing a thong. Today, however, it is quite common for women to go topless at public beaches throughout Europe and South America and even some parts of the United States.
Although the phenomenon widely known as flashing, involving a woman exposing bare nipples by suddenly pulling up her shirt and bra, may be free from sexual motive or intent, it nonetheless is public exposure 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, attention-getting, sexually arousing, or separately, as in a public policy protest, inappropriate and to show disrespect to the enemy side. The effects (including negative consequences) may be enhanced by intended or unintended publication of a photograph or film of the act, which would also include mooning.
Breastfeeding in public 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.
In Scandinavia, people generally have a relaxed attitude towards nudity, and genitals and nipples are usually not considered indecent or obscene. Hence, laws and societal views on public nudity are generally relaxed. In Finland, it is very typical for patrons to bathe nude in the intense heat of saunas. Finnish university students, especially medical school students, have their own traditions when it comes to "indecent exposure".
In the Netherlands, public nudity is allowed at sites that have been assigned by the local authorities and "other suitable places." On nudist beaches, in unisex saunas and in swimming pool changing rooms, remaining partially clothed is frowned upon and the social norm is to undress. Nudity in the Netherlands is less sexualized than in surrounding Western-European countries.
In Barcelona, public nudity was a recognised right. However, on 30 April 2011, the Barcelona City Council voted a by-law forbidding walking "naked or nearly naked in public spaces" and limiting the wearing of bathing costumes to pools, beaches, adjacent streets and sea-side walks.
In the United Kingdom during the 19th and 20th centuries, indecent exposure was prosecuted under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, a piece of legislation that made it an offence to sleep rough or beg. It contained a provision for the prosecution of:
- every person wilfully openly, lewdly, and obscenely exposing his person in any street, road, or public highway, or in the view thereof, or in any place of public resort, with intent to insult any female...
This provision was repealed by section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 which replaced the offence of "indecent exposure" and other sexual offences with legislation that is more specific and explicit. Current laws apply only to genital exposure with intent to shock those who do not want to see them. The maximum penalty is two years' imprisonment, but this is extremely rare as most cases are dealt with by a fine or through community service. People convicted of exposure contrary to section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 must sign the Violent and Sex Offender Register if they are sentenced to a term of imprisonment or a community order in excess of 12 months.
Public nudity in England and Wales can also be punished as "disorderly behaviour" under the Public Order Act 1986, sections 4A and 5.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland the situation is more complex, as some sections of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 extend to these places and some do not. Under Scots law, indecent exposure is considered to be a form of public indecency and is regarded as a crime of indecency. Scots law has been known to respond differently from English and Welsh law in cases of indecent exposure. Stephen Gough, a man known as the "Naked Rambler" who hikes across Britain wearing only shoes, has been arrested in both jurisdictions with different consequences in each. The Northern Ireland Assembly has considered the introduction of new legislation.
- Clothing laws by country
- Intimate parts (Islam)
- Islam and clothing
- Nudity and children
- Public nudity
- Public sex
- Public urination and Open defecation
- Sex crime
- Social nudity
- Wardrobe malfunction