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Sexual Offences Articles

A Guide to Indecent Exposure Laws in the UK

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Although nudity is natural, it can land you in a lot of trouble in the wrong circumstances. Indecent exposure is a crime under English law and can come with some serious consequences. It is important to know what counts as indecent exposure and what you can do if you are charged with the offence. This article explains exactly what indecent exposure is, the sentence you could receive, and the available defences to a charge of indecent exposure. It also explains where to get more help if necessary.

What is classed as indecent exposure?

Indecent exposure is defined in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. It is an offence for a person to intentionally expose their genitals with the intention for someone to see them and be alarmed or distressed. This is the main indecent exposure offence.

There are two parts to the offence, both of which require ‘specific intent’. Specific intent means intentional exposure and intention that one’s genitals will be seen and cause alarm or distress.


The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has published guidelines on how they deal with cases of naturism and nudity in public. Naturism is the practice of incorporating nudity into one’s everyday life. In these instances, prosecutors will seek to balance the ‘right to freedom of expression and the right of the wider public to be protected from harassment, alarm and distress.’ In other words, the prosecutors will look for any indications of a sexual nature in the nudity or where there was any intention to cause alarm or distress. If these are absent, they could take no action against the nudist unless there was actual alarm or distress caused.

Examples of indecent exposure

  • It will be indecent exposure if a person walks around ‘flashing’ their genitals in public to random strangers
  • Streaking at a football game may qualify as indecent exposure
  • Masturbating in public will be a serious case of indecent exposure
  • It will not be indecent exposure if someone sees a person urinating in public, but the perpetrator thought they were hidden from view
  • It will not be indecent exposure if a person exposes their genitals accidentally

There are other offences that are like indecent exposure that could apply in cases where the Sexual Offences Act does not apply. These include public disorder and public indecency offences.

Public Order

Under the Public Order Act 1986 it is a crime to use words or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm, or distress. This offence applies regardless of the intention of the person who exposes themselves and rather applies when the ‘victim’ is caused harassment, alarm, or distress in fact.

Public indecency

It is a crime to outrage public decency. This is when a person does anything that is lewd, obscene, or disgusting in public. It is a more serious offence than mere ‘indecent exposure’. Because it is so serious, it is a requirement that the behaviour be shocking to reasonable people. And because the standard is so high, it is more likely that one will be charged with indecent exposure rather than outraging public decency.

What is the maximum sentence for indecent exposure?

The maximum sentence for being found guilty of indecent exposure is two years’ imprisonment. However, this is the maximum sentence – the worst-case scenario. On what is known as a ‘summary conviction’, the maximum sentence is a six months’ prison term, a fine, or both. More detailed sentencing guidelines can be found here. If one is found guilty of outraging public decency, there is no maximum jail sentence, which is why it is so serious an offence.

That said, it might be that a person can avoid court altogether – that the police will caution someone for indecent exposure rather than charging them. This will depend on the circumstances and past criminal behaviour. Similarly, judges have non-imprisonment options, too.

The seriousness of the offence is the starting point in determining the appropriate punishment. Depending on the seriousness of the offence, a court may require community service rather than jail time. Community service orders can require 40 to 300 hours of unpaid work, and even rehabilitation. This will happen where a court thinks that community service is enough punishment for the crime committed, and that imprisonment would be too severe a punishment.

Jail time will only be required when the court is satisfied that a certain threshold has been met. Generally, it’s limited to the most serious instances of indecent exposure. Even then, a sentence may be suspended.

In deciding on the sentence to give a person, the court will consider aggravating factors, as explained in the sentencing guidelines. This includes whether the victim was a child, whether masturbation was involved, whether the victim was threatened in order to stop them reporting the incident, or threatening the victim in general, or whether it was biased on the grounds of race, religious, sexual orientation, transgender identity, or disability. On the other hand, the court will consider mitigating factors, such as whether the guilty person had any previous criminal behaviour, whether they showed remorse for their actions, the age of the offender, and whether they had a mental or learning disability.

Indecent exposure is a sexual offence, falling under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This means that a person found guilty may have to be listed on the register of sex offenders. Being listed as a sex offender can affect your job opportunities and even where you can live. Being a sex offender means you are monitored by the police and have to re-register annually. And if you plan to leave your home for more than seven days, you must inform the police.

What types of evidence are used in indecent exposure cases?

In modern times, exposure itself will not be that difficult to prove. The prosecution can use the victim’s statement, the statement of eyewitnesses, video or CCTV footage, and social media.

Proving the intention to cause distress and alarm would be more difficult. The court will look to the surrounding circumstances to establish this specific intent but may also take into account the alleged perpetrator’s version of events.

What are the applicable defences against indecent exposure?

Indecent exposure is a ‘specific intent’ offence. This means that there must be a certain kind of intention, which is defined by the law. This, as already mentioned, is the intention that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress. It is therefore a full defence if it can be proven that a person did not have that specific intention. A good example is where someone has been caught urinating in public and is charged with the offence of indecent exposure. In such a case there is unlikely to be the intention for their genitals to be seen or for it to cause alarm or distress.

In the case of public disorder, it is a defence to prove that the accused person had no reason to believe there was any person nearby who was likely to be caused harassment, alarm, or distress, that the accused person was in a dwelling such as a home and had no reason for thinking that anyone outside that home would see them, or that they were reasonable in the circumstances.

General defences

There are also what is known as ‘general defences.’ These relate to all crimes generally and their application depends on the circumstances of the case. Some are explained below but the list is not exhaustive.

  • If someone threatened you unless you exposed yourself, you may have a defence.
  • If you were so drunk or drugged you did not have control over your actions, you may have a defence. However, courts are very hesitant to allow this – getting too drunk voluntarily and then getting undressed will unlikely be a defence.
  • If you had a mental illness at the time of the alleged crime – something that took away your control of your actions – you may have a defence, but if it is successful, you may still be detained at an institution and deemed a danger to the public.

These are just some of the defences that may be available. A good legal team can help you identify which might apply, or if others might be available.

What happens if a defence to indecent exposure is successful?

A successful defence to a charge of indecent exposure means that you will be acquitted of the crime. Therefore, you will not face any prison time and not receive a fine, unless you are charged with one of the other offences also discussed.

Where to find help with indecent exposure charges?

Being charged with indecent exposure can be a stressful and frightening time. It is important that you find legal help you can trust. Stuart Miller Solicitors have years of experience in defending indecent exposure cases and other offences. Defence lawyers can assist you in dealing with the police and the courts. For an offence such as indecent exposure, instructing the right lawyer can make a huge difference to the outcome of your case. To arrange a friendly no-obligation consultation, get in touch today.


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