What is Public Indecency?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Public indecency is a legal term regarding acts or behaviors that may or may not be illegal, but are considered private behavior that could harm the public in some fashion. Typically, actions covered under such laws are sexual in nature, ranging from public nudity to solicitation for prostitution. These laws tend to change as moral and ethical societal norms shift over time.

Urinating outside is considered public indecency.
Urinating outside is considered public indecency.

Not surprisingly, many behaviors that were once considered public indecency are no longer widely considered to be so; in the early 20th century, for example, women could be arrested or fined for wearing bathing suits that exposed their arms or knees. Although standards have relaxed over time, the aim of decency laws remains the same; they are generally meant to prevent unwanted public exposure to behaviors that might be found offensive.

Engaging in sexual activities in a public location can be considered public indecency.
Engaging in sexual activities in a public location can be considered public indecency.

Some criminal offenses covered under these laws include being nude or partially nude in public areas; engaging in sexual activities, such as masturbation or intercourse, in a public location; or exposing minors to sexually explicit images or behavior. Solicitation for prostitution may carry an indecency charge along with criminal charges for soliciting and engaging in prostitution where it is illegal. Interestingly, some regions also include activities such as adultery and homosexual behavior under such laws, even if these behaviors are conducted in private.

Public signs of homosexuality may be considered public indecency in some cultures.
Public signs of homosexuality may be considered public indecency in some cultures.

Although, in many areas, the restrictions on decency laws have waned, there are still some controversies about the right to determine and enforce these laws, as well as the classifications of certain behaviors as criminal. In California, for example, women can be charged with public indecency and required to register as a sex offender for sunbathing topless, whereas for men, toplessness is not considered a crime. Laws such as this form a basis for a legal and ethical argument that these statutes can be used to impose sexism and selective attitudes toward morality and equality.

The scope of public indecency laws depends largely on the structure of the laws governing behavior in the region. In some areas, prostitution and nude bathing are legal, whereas in neighboring regions, they are criminal offenses. More liberal areas may have few public restrictions on clothing as long as genitalia are covered, but some regions have decency laws insisting on certain dress codes and can fiercely penalize offenders with jail time, fines, whipping, and other serious punishments.

Solicitation for prostitution may carry an indecency charge.
Solicitation for prostitution may carry an indecency charge.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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O.K., question. So I'm a teen and I do side with the no nudity in public areas but in designated places. But on to my question. I'm a male. Is going in public in underwear like briefs without a shirt or pants wrong or under the indecency law?


Wow. I hope some of you don't have children. You are totally missing the point. Public indecency laws are in place to protect citizens who do not wish for themselves or their children to be exposed (no pun intended) to nakedness or sexual acts. You are aggressively defending a person's right to do this. But, what about my rights and the rights of my children?

You might be shocked to know the majority of Americans are opposed to what we call indecency. We were raised with morals, values and ethics. Take the saggy pants controversy. I have no problem if you want to wear them pulled up. But I have a huge problem with seeing your bare butt and underwear. I have every right not to see it and to protect my children from seeing it. I feel the same way about women in bathing suits -- or should I say a few threads leaving nothing to the imagination? Are these women so self-centered and ignorant that they don't care who they offend? Wear your offensive strings at a private pool or in the middle of the ocean - not public beaches and pools.

To those of you promoting nudity as "natural and acceptable," let me share this. A study was done on children once they became adults, who were raised in a nude environment. I can't go into all of the facts here, but not one person enjoyed living that way. They said they felt "dirty" "not normal" and like "outsiders". Some suffer from sexual and emotional problems, low self-esteem and body image disorder. They have a higher then usual rate of alcohol and drug abuse. Some are battling depression and are suicidal.

Another serious issue to consider with this lifestyle is pedophilia. You are practically offering your children to pedophiles. They work at earning your trust and copying your lifestyle just so they can be around your kids. I hope I've made the point that issues are not so simple. There are numerous things to take into consideration.


The devil hates what God made. That is why people are obsessed with keeping it covered. The devil does not like life. That is why the activity is called what it is called by people.


People need to be sure they are right with God, no matter what they have on their body or not. The covering does not save the soul. Why then the heavy concern with it? Why be embarrassed when it is off of the body? You are the same person with it off as you are with it on. We must be balanced in all things, even as Jesus was balanced in all things. Saying a person is or isn't is not up to us. it is up to whoever to determine that for themselves. When that happens people will not be chewing people up with their words saving their soul.


God accepts all forms of nudity. Who through us would not accept all forms of nudity?


Okay let's say by the definition of public indecency you are arrested for wearing swim shorts? How would you see the law then? The definition of public indecency any partial nudity -- legs, arms, whatever. So technically by this law you are breaking the law at the discretion of the law officer.

It's not about nudity but about non social behavior. And that's based on the idea of what the officer dies non social.


It seems most of the commentators think the issue is about public nudity. The article states in the first sentence that it is about "acts or behaviors". Here is a list. Consider whether each of the following is decent or indecent. Consider the person doing the act is male or female; infant, toddler, child, teen, adult, or senior.

Wearing only a bra and a thong: in a strip club; in a bar; in a locker room; at the public beach; at a public park; in the mall, grocery store, library, restaurant, etc.; in your living room; in your bedroom; in your bathroom; in your mother's living room; in your mother's bedroom; in your mother's bathroom; in a school; in church.

Urinate or defecate: in the above listed venues.

Frolic in complete nudity: in the above listed venues.

Enjoy the recreational drug of your choice: in the above listed venues.

Write or paint in large format obscene words on any surface: in the above listed venues; yell obscenities out loud in the above listed venues.

Describe out loud to everyone any/every sexual act in the above listed venues. Have sex, masturbate and/or engage in anal sex with anyone or anything in the above listed venues.

Running around nude, spinning your thong around, yelling and writing obscenities while explaining all kinds of sexual acts then performing said sexual acts on any male or female; infant, toddler, child, teen, adult, or senior available while enjoying the recreational drug of your choice: in a strip club; in a bar; in a locker room; at the public beach; at a public park ; in the mall, grocery store, library, restaurant, etc.; in your living room; in your bedroom; in your bathroom; in your mother's living room; in your mother's bedroom; in your mother's bathroom; in a school; in church.

My point is that some of these acts or behaviors are fine/accepted/expected in some venues by some individuals, but absolutely wrong by some individuals in other venues, while some of these acts are absolutely wrong in many venues by individuals of any age.

Having said this, any of these acts and behaviors can often be seen and admired on TV during prime-time viewing and enjoyed on the radio when listening to certain music genres.


Aren't we born nude? What could be more natural? It is these puritanical prudes with no guess what human sexuality is all about who turn something totally natural and harmless into something dirty and perverse.

The human body is a beautiful thing. If a consenting adult wants to sunbathe naked, let them! If you do not approve, simply stay away from "designated" nude-beach areas, like they do in Europe.

It's those dangerous, drunk-on-religion nuts too who are against any form of physical visibility (not sex), in public. What's next? It's illegal to shower naked if you're a good moral person?


Oh, heaven help us if children see nudity. They're only born that way.


Public indecency is illegal. And by all respects it should be illegal because in our society, our I guess modern society in general, the naked body has a sexual connotation. Showing one's nude body in public should be illegal, although it should not be seen as a harsh offense in the eyes of the law because nudity does not cause any physical damage to people.

While I must admit that the reason for nudity's illegality is hard to explain, public nudity makes others uncomfortable and should not be accepted.


I don't understand why it's OK for a woman to show her breasts or body parts to people, but why a man is so much more shamed for doing the same. It seems really sexist and generally unfair.


Why is the human body considered wrong? It is beautiful and natural. Children spend their baby years running around naked and sucking on breasts. Then as soon as they no longer need to breast feed, the breast becomes this dirty thing that they can no longer look at. It makes no sense.

Also what makes a man's nipple any different than a woman's nipple? Nothing other than the gender of the person it is on. Forcing women to cover up because their breasts are seen as dirty, indecent and wrong is degrading to women.


GreenWeaver-I totally agree with you. There was also another case in Oregon where the woman thought it was her right to walk around nude in the street.

This woman was not even thinking about children that might see her in the street and how the parents would have to explain this outburst.

It is really shame that some people choose to make a political point while offending everyone else and not thinking about the consequences of their actions.

This is not free speech. It is downright offensive.


SauteePan-I heard about that case and I would never buy any of her records as a result of this stunt. It was appalling.

There was a case where a woman was topless on a bus and she was charged with public indecency on the bus.

Many times these people are mentally ill and need psychiatric help. However, they do pose a danger to children who should not have their innocence robbed in that way by seeing something that they are not ready to see like that.


I just wanted to say that there is a big difference between a man walking around without a shirt and a topless woman.

The topless women would be charged with indecency because that form of exposure is unacceptable in our society.

For example, the singer Erika Badu was charged with public indecency in Dallas recently as she was trying to make some sort of artistic statement by the John F. Kennedy library.

What was appalling was that she walked around nude during the daylight hours where children may have been exposed to this display.

To me this is not art, but a publicity stunt in order to sell records, but she showed very poor form.

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