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Decriminalizing nudity in California
Exposing injustice around exposure laws as a tool for criminalizing homelessness in the 31st state
In the eight years I have called Los Angeles home, I have encountered probably a half dozen nude or semi nude individuals in public, on city streets. Before you go asking for the juicy details, understand that in zero of these cases was the nude person a famous model or Hollywood starlet. Exactly none of them were porn actors who had wandered south from the San Fernando valley. Not once was it a scandalous, lewd, or sexual encounter. In fact, every one of them was an unhomed individual, apparently lacking the basic privacy and space to be nude behind the comfort of a wall. The majority of these sightings were women. About half of them appeared to be suffering from mental illness or addiction. Most were downtown where I worked for multiple years just a few blocks from Skid Row, “one of the largest stable populations (about 9,200–15,000) of homeless people in the United States”1 where scenes of this nature are actually not all that uncommon. In fact, just this week a SoCal homeless encampment made news headlines when a business owner complained about viewing nudity from her storefront.2
For obvious reasons, homeless individuals are particularly vulnerable to laws prohibiting nudity. A human being surviving on the streets often lacks access to basics like clothing, shelter, or private spaces such as restrooms. Their circumstances make them much more likely to be nude or semi-nude in public than a housed person, putting them at higher risk of arrest or fines for violating public decency or exposure laws.3 California penal code 314 defines the crime of indecent exposure as willfully exposing your naked body or genitals in a public place to others who would be offended or annoyed. That’s right, annoyed. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that simply peeing behind a dumpster in an alleyway might land someone in handcuffs.
There’s a third condition which must be met for an indecent exposure conviction in California, which is a vital one. It requires that when the defendant exposed him or herself, “he or she acted lewdly by intending to direct attention to the naked genitals with the purpose of sexually arousing themself or another, or sexually offending the other person.” This condition theoretically protects someone who is urinating in public from a 314 PC conviction. However, while it may prevent a conviction, it may not always prevent an arrest. And if the Indecent Exposure charge doesn’t look to arresting officers like it will stick, the alleged urinator may still be charged with creating a public nuisance according to California Penal Code 372.45 I have had to pee while walking around downtown LA before. There are no public restrooms. Faced with buying a $6 latte at a Starbucks just to get their bathroom door code, I’ve almost resorted to peeing behind dumpsters myself.
In California, an Indecent Exposure conviction comes with a mandatory minimum of ten years on the sex offender registry, on top of jail time and hefty fines. If it’s an Aggravated Indecent Exposure charge—meaning the act was done while also entering a home, trailer or building with residents in it, without the permission of said residents—it can treated as a felony and may come with three years in state prison. Obviously, if you are unhoused and charged with one of these crimes, you are not likely able to afford bail, let alone secure competent legal defense to fight the charges. Needless to say, these penalties can severely exacerbate the already immense challenges faced by homeless individuals, such as finding employment, securing housing, or accessing essential services.
Of course, it’s worth clarifying that many indecent exposure arrests and convictions are for much worse than mere nudity, and I think it’s important to differentiate mere nudity from criminal acts which involve nude exposure, such as flashing, public sex/masturbating, or other power-based acts of sexual violence. These criminal behaviors are forms of sexual assault and should remain illegal. Indeed, when the law is interpreted correctly, these are the only individuals who should be arrested under this code—not people who are merely nude in the presence of the irritable. Only conduct can be criminal. Crimes are physical acts one must commit with intent. Mere nudity is not an act. It is a state of being; our most basic and elemental state of being, and it should not be criminalized. Not in Skid Row, not anywhere.
Let’s also take a moment to distinguish the notion of decriminalization from legalization. Decriminalizing nudity entails removing criminal penalties for being nude in public. While legalization involves permitting and regulating public nudity, thereby making it lawful under specific conditions. Nudity should be legalized in certain contexts, such as on sanctioned beaches or park land, or during certain events like parades or protests. It would not be sensible to legalize nudity in other contexts, such as in schools, hospitals, public buildings, or other places where public nudity may cause disruption, discomfort, or violate certain norms or ethics. However, just because it is not legalized in those spaces does not mean it should be considered criminal. Decriminalizing nudity would be a positive step towards reducing the harm caused by… well, the criminalization of nudity, which can result in unnecessary arrests, fines, and legal consequences for individuals who may not pose a threat to public safety. Law enforcement, courts, and jails could focus their resources on more pressing public safety concerns. Naturally, decriminalizing nudity could also alleviate some of the challenges faced by homeless individuals who are more likely to be penalized for violating exposure laws. Although, one cynically suspects that the criminalization of nudity is a convenient tool for criminalizing homelessness.
I believe that any efforts to normalize nudity are futile without decriminalization. Normalization aims to change societal attitudes towards nudity and make it more acceptable, but without removing criminal penalties, the stigma surrounding public nudity persists, and is sanctioned and stamped by the government. Only by treating nudity as a non-criminal matter can societal attitudes towards the naked human body really see a significant shift toward true normalization. Decriminalization is a crucial step in fostering broader societal acceptance of nudity as a natural human state, and creating a more inclusive and empathetic society. 🪐
For more information on nudity laws in California, check out this excellent resource put together by the Southern California Naturists Association
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‘Skid Row, Los Angeles’ (2023) Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skid_Row,_Los_Angeles (Accessed: Apr 14, 2023)
Cordero, C; Hayes, R. (2023, Apr. 12). Beverly Grove area business owner says ‘nude homeless encampment’ is negatively impacting business. ABC7. https://abc7.com/amp/nude-homeless-encampment-site-beverly-grove-los-angeles-la/13119979/
Glaser, D; Gordon, M. (1990, Apr.) Exposing Indecent Exposure Offenses and Their Adjudication. US Department of Justice. https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/exposing-indecent-exposure-offenses-and-their-adjudication