A question worthy of a Zen master

We have probably all seen someone make a rude silent gesture to another person who could not see it. The question is whether something is rude even if no one sees it. In other words, does an act become rude simply by virtue of the intent of the actor or by the response of the audience? This happens sometimes in intercultural exchanges where a gesture or a statement that is not at all rude in one culture is offensive in another.

An interesting variation of that conundrum is described by Jonathan Turley in an interesting case where someone exposed himself to a woman at a bookshop of a county association for the blind.

It is not clear from the story whether the woman was sighted or there were sighted people also present but the interesting question is whether if everyone present had been blind, whether legally an offense could have been said to have been committed at all. Turley says that the relevant statute is not that clear on this point. The statute says,

A person commits indecent exposure if that person exposes his or her genitals in any public place or in any place where there are present other persons under
circumstances in which he or she knows or should know that this conduct is likely to offend, affront or alarm.

Of course, if no one could see, then no one would know it happened to even complain. But what if, hypothetically, the person announced that he was exposing himself? Would the mere knowledge that a person had exposed himself in the vicinity be sufficient to cause someone offense or alarm even if they could not see?

My own feeling is that he would still have committed a crime since the relevant fact is whether the exposer knows or should know that such an act would cause offense and alarm.


  1. August Pamplona says

    Or turn it around. What if he announced that he was exposing himself but did not actually commit the act?

  2. stonyground says

    My problem is with the kind of people who get offended, affronted or alarmed just by seeing someone’s willy. What kind of pathetic, brainless, naive, infantile, prude do you have to be to take offence at this kind of thing?

  3. Jackson says

    Context matters, man. In a non consensual situation like this, it’s scary, creepy, and threatening.

  4. Stacy says

    1) A child?

    2) A grownup who doesn’t enjoy being the target of the aggression inherent in some stranger using them as a random, non-consenting masturbatory aid?

  5. Maverick says

    A person commits indecent exposure if that person exposes his or her genitals in any public place or…

    From that wording, forget no one seeing/caring, you can be guilty of indecent exposure if no one is even there (as long as it is a public space).

  6. jamessweet says

    As Jackson said, it’s all about context. In general I agree with you that people are way too squeamish about nudity. But that doesn’t mean that nudity can’t be used in a way that is offensive or threatening or demeaning.

    Let’s take a hypothetical future society where people just totally don’t give a shit about nudity, at all. In fact, even in a professional office environment, if you want to sit at your desk naked, hey, knock yourself out. Perhaps on days when the air conditioning is down, it’s even commonplace to see a lot of people hanging out by the water cooler in the nude.

    And let’s say in this office environment, I’m sitting there, clothed, and my female boss comes into my office to ask me something. I immediately stand up and take off my pants and underwear, then sit back down to answer her question. And I do this every time she comes in my office.

    That would be sending a pretty clear message, wouldn’t it? Even in a setting where nudity was no big thing, that would still be some pretty severe harassment.

  7. stonyground says

    I think that all who responded to my question are right. It is not nudity itself that is the problem but unwanted sexual advances. I should have thought about this a little more before posting.

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