Indecent Exposure

Indecent exposure is the act of intentionally exposing one’s genitals in a public area. Indecent exposure is a crime, the laws of which vary by jurisdiction. In the majority of states, it is not required than someone actually observe the act, or see the perpetrator’s private parts, in order for the perpetrator to face criminal charges. To explore this concept, consider the following indecent exposure definition.

Definition of Indecent Exposure


  1. The act of intentionally exposing one’s private body parts in a way that is offensive, or which goes against accepted behavior, in a public place.


1850-1855        English

What is Indecent Exposure

While some people believe they can do nearly anything they want in the name of “freedom of expression,” it is against the law to expose certain private body parts in a place where the public can see it. Areas of the body that cannot be legally exposed or shown in public include genitals, inner buttocks, and female nipples. The law does not require than any person actually see the exposure, but considers whether the perpetrator has, or should have, a reasonable belief that the act could be viewed by others.

Examples of indecent exposure:

  • Polly lifts her shirt in a crowded restaurant to allow her boyfriend to see her bare breasts. This is indecent exposure.
  • Bob exposes himself to his wife while they’re at the lake with his wife’s friend, Samantha. This is indecent exposure, even though Samantha quickly turned her head away to avoid seeing anything offensive. If there are families on the beach with children present, Bob will likely face more serious charges, with a stiffer penalty, as most states have specific laws addressing exposing one’s self to children.

Indecent Exposure Laws

Indecent exposure laws, which define, and establish punishments for, indecent exposure, vary by state. Many ambiguously describe just what acts can be considered indecent, though many states specify that the exposure must be done willfully, with the intent to insult or offend others, or for sexual gratification. In almost all jurisdictions, the act of indecent exposure is automatically elevated to sexual assault if the perpetrator makes any type of physical contact with another person during, in relation to the act.

In most jurisdictions, indecent exposure is a misdemeanor. If an offender is charged multiple times with the act, however, it may be upgraded to a felony. Indecent exposure laws specifically protect children, with severe penalties that may vary with the age of the child.

Elements of Indecent Exposure

In order for a person to be convicted of indecent exposure, prosecutors must prove certain elements beyond a reasonable doubt. These vary by state, but generally include:

  • Exposing Private Body Parts – This often refers to male or female genitals, buttocks, or breasts. In some states, exposure of the buttocks is not enough on its own to charge a person with indecent exposure.
  • Exposure is Willful – The person exposing him/herself must act with intent. Accidental exposure is not considered a crime. For example, if Jane jumps into the swimming pool and her bathing top comes off and bystanders see her breasts, this is not intentional and not classified as indecent exposure.
  • Exposure Occurred in Public – The exposure must occur in a public place, including such areas as retail establishments, outdoor areas, public venues, and businesses. These can be either publicly or privately owned, and include any place that is accessible, or readily visible, to the general public. Locations such as inside a bedroom or other room inside a home are not considered public. However, if an individual exposes himself from within such a private location, through a window or doorway, to persons outside the home, he has committed indecent exposure.
  • In the Presence of Another – In order for an act to be considered indecent exposure, it must take place where other people are within sight, or there is a high likelihood that others would be within sight.

Urinating in Public

Urinating in public is illegal in all states, though the specific charges it results in varies. While some states have laws that specifically make urinating in a public place a criminal offense, others may charge the individual with disorderly conduct, or being a public nuisance. Most consider the circumstances. For example, if Allen steps behind a dumpster in an alley to relieve himself on a dark night, he is unlikely to be charged, even if he is caught. Opening up on a lamppost, would definitely be considered indecent.

Penalties for Indecent Exposure

Generally speaking, because indecent exposure is usually a misdemeanor for first time offenders, a fine of $1,000 or more, community service, and probation or a few months in the local jail can be expected. An individual charged with felony indecent exposure will be subject to much harsher penalties, often including:

  • Imprisonment in the state prison for more than one year
  • Requirement to register on a sex offender registry

Indecent Exposure Case

Erick Williamson, a Fairfax, Virginia resident was charged with indecent exposure in 2009 when he apparently spent an entire morning walking around inside his home nude. One woman complained that, as she drove down the street, she heard singing and looked toward the sound, to see Williamson standing in a full-frontal pose behind a large picture window. Shortly after that, another woman, walking down the street with her 7-year old son, heard a loud rattling sound and, when she looked, saw Williamson standing naked, again in a full-frontal position, in a side doorway.

Williamson’s attorney argued that, in the state of Virginia, simply being nude, especially in one’s home, is not a crime, and that Williamson had not met the requisite “obscene display or exposure.” The prosecutor pointed out, however, that Williamson purposefully made himself visible for long periods of time in both the doorway and the window. Additionally, the second witness testified that Williamson had made eye contact with her as he stood in the doorway, then moved back to the picture window by the time she looked back, it was clear he intended to be seen.

While the prosecutor sought jail time for the man, the judge imposed a suspended sentence, which means he would not have to go to jail as long as he stays out of trouble.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony; generally those punishable by a fine, probation, community service, or imprisonment of less than one year.
  • Perpetrator – A person who commits an illegal or criminal act.
  • Victim – A person who is injured, killed, or otherwise harmed as a result of a criminal act, accident, or other event.

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