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How Illegal Is It to Have Sex in Public?

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Photo: Damian Pankowiec (Shutterstock)

You probably vaguely know that getting frisky in public could get you in trouble, which is why articles about or viral videos of people doing so tend to get major attention. It’s just so out of the norm, right? Well, not really. There are levels to these things, after all. Young people who live with their parents, for instance, know all about backseat hookups—but are they illegal? What about peeing in public, which requires the use of the same body part? And if you do get in trouble, how bad is it really going to be for your criminal record and your future? These are good questions to explore before the next time you and a partner find yourselves tipsy in a hotel elevator and think you can cop a feel before anyone discovers you.

Is it illegal to urinate in public?

Peeing isn’t sexual (though if you think it is, we’re not yucking your yum)—but if you do it in the street, you are exposing yourself to some degree. Depending on a few factors, it may be a serious crime. Per defense attorney Janet Portman, urinating in public is illegal pretty much everywhere, though you could be charged under a specific law banning it or something a little broader, like a law against being a public nuisance or engaging in disorderly conduct, depending on where you live and the prosecutor you get. Then again, in New York City, police officers were instructed in 2017 to start using their discretion to issue civil summonses, not criminal ones, when dealing with petty crimes like—you guessed it—public urination. The consequences you may face are broad and depend on a number of factors, from who might witness you relieving yourself to where you live.

According to FindLaw’s Andrew Lu, you’ll get a misdemeanor charge in most states—but if there are kids around, you do run the risk of being charged for a sex offense.

Is it illegal to have sex in public?

Can you have sex in public? Legally, not really, no—but we all know people who haven’t been stopped by that little detail. What are they risking, exactly? According to litigator Deborah C. England and attorney Rebecca Pirius, public sex could lead to charges of public lewdness, indecent exposure, or disorderly conduct.

Again, in most states, laws that criminalize sex make it a misdemeanor, but the kinds of laws that regulate this behavior vary from place to place. In some states, public sex is outright banned, while in others, you could be charged for indecent or lewd conduct. Here’s an example from Stephen G. Rodriguez, a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles: Sex in public isn’t explicitly a crime in California unless someone sees it (or was likely to see it) and was offended by it. Typically, public sex falls under two laws in the state. The first is the law against indecent exposure and the second is one against lewd conduct in public. So while it would take a series of circumstances to even be arrested there and you wouldn’t be outright charged with violating a law prohibiting public sex, you could still be charged under those.

Check the laws governing indecency, lewdness, disorderly conduct, and being a nuisance in your state—and also consider what is and is not “public.” England and Pirius noted that based on case law, you should assume public restrooms and facilities, recreational areas (like beaches and parks), stores and businesses open to the public, schools, public streets and highways, and public transportation vehicles are all “public.” Basically, if someone happen upon you, you should assume that counts as a public place, at least when considering whether or not to hook up there.

Can you have sex in a car?

All of that said, per England and Pirius, whether or not your vehicular hookup is illegal depends on whether the car qualifies as a public setting. Consider the location of the car. A public street in daytime? That’s probably going to count as public. A deserted street at nighttime? That’s more of a gray area. A court in New York actually ruled that sex in a car wasn’t in “public” unless passersby could see what was going on. The couple in that case, according to England and Pirius, took care to park on a more deserted street when it was dark and overcast outside, which ultimately led the court to rule they weren’t in “public.”

Still, it’s not going to be fun to go to court over a quickie, even if you were to end up winning, like that couple. If you insist, your best bet for staying free of the long arm of the law is to be as invisible to casual observers as possible.

What about masturbating in public?

Generally speaking, you can’t masturbate in public either. The laws vary location to location, but it’s not a great idea no matter where you are. In Texas, for instance, according to Houston-based lawyer Ned Barnett, you can be charged with indecent exposure. In Washington, D.C., there’s a specific law that bans the whole shebang: “It is unlawful for a person, in public, to make an obscene or indecent exposure of his or her genitalia or anus, to engage in masturbation, or to engage in a sexual act” as defined by the law.

Even places where you think it might fly can be iffy. Back in 1991, Pee-wee’s Playhouse star Paul Reubens was arrested for masturbating at an adult theater in Florida. He was charged with exposure of a sexual organ. Even in a dark theater showing actual pornography, you may not be legally safe. Again, check all the applicable laws in your area, but assume it’s not allowed.

    

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