Could you be arrested for going topless? Even as women have launched a global Free the Nipple campaign to challenge the bias they see in exposure laws, the answer seems to depend on where you live. Or where you disrobe.
The issue recently made national headlines after a Utah woman was arrested for indecent exposure. According to CBS News, she and her husband had taken off their shirts while they were working in their garage. When her stepchildren entered the garage, the woman didn’t immediately put her shirt back on. Instead, she explained that people should feel okay to walk around their homes showing their skin. For that, if she’s convicted, she could have to register as a sex offender.
What are the lewdness laws in Washington?
It might seem outrageous to make someone register as a sex offender for taking off her shirt while she worked in her garage, but the woman’s fate won’t come down to whether she was being reasonable. It will come down to the law and whether the courts find it constitutional. That is an issue being debated across the nation.
As CBS notes, challenges to the nation’s indecent exposure laws have met with mixed results. Courts sided with women in Colorado and San Francisco but favored the indecency laws in Missouri and New Hampshire.
Part of the confusion may owe to the way laws change from place to place. In Utah, bare-chested women could be guilty of “lewdness involving a child.” Washington’s laws are quite different. And it matters where you are:
- State law. A person commits indecent exposure when he or she “intentionally makes any open and obscene exposure” that would likely “cause affront or alarm.” Notably, there’s no mention of body parts such as genitals or female breasts. Instead, it cites intentionality and a level of obscenity that rises above mere nudity.
- Municipal codes. Nudity means different things in different cities. The Seattle municipal code contains no mention of indecent exposure. Urinating in public and public displays of erotic materials are illegal. Mere nudity is not. But travel to Everett or Tacoma, and both cities ban the display of female areolas or nipples.
Why does it matter?
Charges of indecent exposure are relatively rare, but they’ve increasingly become secondary charges in the age of #MeToo. Also, as you might imagine, it’s possible to envision an angry parent trying to seek revenge against an ex by challenging a stepparent’s nudity.
Your best defense? For now, it’s simplest just to keep your clothes on, but if you’re going to take them off, make sure you know the laws for your specific location.