Our view: Gray areas for topless sunbathers

Herald pull quote, 7/12/19

A woman in Minnesota pushed the limits of what is considered traditional Midwest decency, and she possibly has a valid point.

Michelle Bennett was sunbathing on a beach near Duluth and decided to remove her top. Soon, she was asked by another woman – who had children there – to cover up. Police arrived and reminded Bennett the area is not a nude beach.

Bennett’s response?

“I said no one here is nude,” Bennett told the Duluth News Tribune.

And that’s where Bennett might be legally right, since Minnesota’s laws on public nudity seem especially ambiguous. The state’s law on indecent exposure deems it a misdemeanor to willfully and lewdly expose a “person’s body, or private parts thereof.”


And thus begins the debate: What, exactly, are “private parts”?

Here’s North Dakota’s law: “A person, with intent to arouse, appeal to, or gratify that person’s lust, passions or sexual desires is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor if that person exposes one’s penis, vulva or anus in a public place or to a minor in a private place.”

By pure definition, that apparently means topless sunbathing is not illegal in North Dakota.

However, be warned: Grand Forks city code bans topless sunbathing in public places. According to local law, it is unlawful to appear “on any street, avenue, highway, road, park, sidewalk, bike path, beach, beach front or waterway located in the city, or appear in any public place, store or business in a state of nudity.” The code notes that it includes “female breasts.”

Whether or not one agrees with the law, Grand Forks’ code is refreshingly specific. That’s good.

City code does not disallow nude sunbathing in a person’s own backyard. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean a police officer won’t respond to a complaint if a neighbor finds it offensive.

Ambiguous laws are the problem. It’s difficult to decide if an act of nudity is done so with lewdness or “with the intent to arouse.” Laws shouldn’t be susceptible to subjective definitions and arguments.

In Bennett’s case, she was neither arrested nor cited by police. Even that adds confusion.


To us, the problem isn’t necessarily the actual nudity. Most of us around these parts, after all, trace our roots to Scandinavia, where residents take rather progressive views on nudity. It is not unusual to see a topless woman in places like Norway, Sweden and Denmark because people there simply do not oversexualize above-the-belt body parts.

We do sympathize with those who are uncomfortable with public nudity, and especially when children are present. It’s just plain awkward.

Most troubling, though, is the prevalence of ambiguous and subjective laws that lead to gray areas and confusion.

If topless sunbathing is illegal, firmly declare it in laws and ordinances. Otherwise, allow it – and people uncomfortable with such displays will either have to learn to live with it or go someplace else when it occurs.

Either way, make the laws clear, concise and rock solid.

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