Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
It’s no secret indecent exposure has become a serious problem at the University of Maryland. It’s easy to make jokes about something like this, but some of the reported indecent exposures are truly horrifying. For students, another UMD Alert about an indecent exposure can seem like a meme — but what is often forgotten is indecent exposures are a form of power-based sexual violence.
Indecent exposures can also lead to criminal charges. In Maryland, indecent exposures are considered misdemeanors, and a conviction can result in a large fine, up to three years in prison and potential registration as a sex offender.
Maryland law defines indecent exposure as someone who exposes themself in public with the willful intent of doing so. This is where the definition gets muddy: Does the “intent” to expose oneself come from the exposure itself, or from the intent to expose oneself to a specific individual?
When the law can implement such a serious punishment for a particular crime, it is important those punishments only apply when the crime may warrant it — such as indecent exposure that insults, offends or threatens someone. Laws should account for more nuance to protect indecent exposure victims but should avoid treating every instance as equal to another.
The spirit of the law against indecent exposure is to protect individuals from being accosted in a sexually violent and threatening manner. So what happens when an individual does intentionally expose themselves, but doesn’t intend for it to be seen by or affront another person? Should the intent be considered the same under the law?
I argue it should not. One person’s intent to confront another person in a sexual, harmful or forceful manner is entirely different from someone who is trying to urinate in a private area of a public place while inebriated or simply too far from a bathroom.
An example of an action that wouldn’t match the charge would be public urination. While there is certainly a difference between doing so on a busy street in broad daylight and doing so in a secluded area because the circumstances deemed it necessary, the latter shouldn’t warrant an indecent exposure charge. When an individual takes steps to protect their actions from possibly offending someone, this is different from an individual who either doesn’t care or does so with the very intent of offending someone. While all of these aforementioned actions are inexcusable, they should be addressed differently under the law.
However, it is also true that, even absent the intent of an individual, these actions can still have detrimental impacts. These cases are incredibly difficult to address, but making the law more nuanced might help.
While, often, instances of public urination result in a charge of disorderly conduct, it is possible in some states that public urination could result in an indecent exposure charge. In Maryland, a man was nearly charged with indecent exposure simply for standing next to urine in public. For that reason, the distinction has to be made clear in the law that the two offenses are different. In California, for example, the prosecution must prove the accused exposed themself with the intent to insult or offend someone. Amending Maryland law or setting forth a similar precedent would help clarify the intent needed for indecent exposure.
With that said, I want to be extremely clear: Indecent exposure of any sort is undoubtedly wrong, and can be immensely traumatic for victims. Such a thing should never happen and when it does, victims deserve justice. But if there isn’t a victim, and if there isn’t intent to make someone a victim to indecent exposure, then justice doesn’t happen when people are punished disproportionately.
While, like in any legal case, an outcome will depend on the circumstances, it’s time Maryland law changes to allow room for these nuanced circumstances, and distinguish between two very different types of intent.
Rebecca Scherr is a junior English and government and politics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.