Exhibitionism, also known as an exhibitionistic disorder, is a paraphilia in which a person derives sexual arousal from the act or fantasy of exposing their genitals to nonconsenting strangers. In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrators of exhibitionist acts are men and the victims are women. However, new research suggests that there are women who also use exhibitionism as a way to rebel against societal expectations that women should be sexually passive and receptive.² Though most instances of exhibitionism are never reported to authorities, the act itself qualifies as an incident of “indecent exposure,” a misdemeanor crime whose punishment varies greatly by region.¹
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Forms of Exhibitionism
One common form of exhibitionism is “flashing.” A typical “flasher” will set themselves up in a public place where there are many people. They will conceal their genitals with a trench coat, newspaper, book, or similar object. When they see a suitable victim, they will enter the victim’s line of vision and expose their genitals to the victim. At this point, the flasher revels in the reaction of the victim, perhaps fantasizing about a sexual relationship with the victim as well. The flasher may masturbate at the scene to the point of ejaculation, or they may later masturbate to the memory of the event.¹
In many cases, exhibitionists are “hypersexual” in that they exhibit high rates of various sexual behaviors, which may explain their desire to participate in this behavior. However, studies show that exhibitionists are no more aroused by self-exposure than they are by other sex acts. In fact, exhibitionists often misinterpret their victim’s shocked reaction as a form of reciprocated sexual interest. This interpretation fits into the theory of courtship disorder: a possible framework for explaining paraphilias as warped expressions of ordinary sexual behavior. Within this framework, exhibitionism is the paraphilic equivalent of flirting: a “hands off” display of sexual attraction aimed at inspiring reciprocal attraction from the other person. In addition, exhibitionism may be a “gateway” to more severe sexual crimes, such as sexual assault and rape.¹
Exhibitionism accounts for over one-third of all sex crimes reported to the police. However, many cases are never reported to the police due to embarrassment or a lack of desire to be involved in an investigation. Although exhibitionism rarely involves any coerced physical contact, it is still nothing to be taken lightly. In some cases of exhibitionism, survivors develop a deep fear of experiencing similar sexual crimes in the future–especially if the victim is a child.¹
What is Scatolophilia?
Scatolophilia, also known as telephone scatalogia, is a paraphilia in which a person derives sexual arousal from the act or fantasy of making obscene phone calls to unwilling recipients, who are typically strangers. As with exhibitionism, sexual pleasure from scatolophilic behavior is usually derived from the reaction of the victim, whether the caller enjoys the shock or perceives the victim to have liked the phone call. Scatolophilia is very similar to exhibitionism in that it has to do with nonphysical, but coerced, sexual behavior. Scatolophilia involves auditory exposure and stimulation while exhibitionism is a visual experience.¹
The Influence of Technology on Exhibitionism
As modern technology progresses, reaching more people has become an asset. Unfortunately, exhibitionism has found a place in this digital realm as well and “cyberflashing” has become an increasingly large problem. “Cyberflashing,” involves flashers sending pictures of their genitals to unsuspecting people online.4 Forms of media like Snapchat and Instagram have become popular avenues for this content. Considering that “cyberflashing” is more commonly done by men, the term “unsolicited dick pics” has emerged. These flashers, often men, send these pictures as a form of flirting.4 However, the unexpectedness of these photos is often not welcomed by the victim. Some researchers have even claimed that this phenomenon is “indicative of an electronic manifestation of a paraphilic disorder.” 4
People often see “cyberflashing” as less disturbing than flashing because the exhibitionist is not physically in front of the victim. However, many dating apps and other social media introduce people through proximity by GPS, meaning that the senders may be nearby and have access to the victim’s location.4 Therefore, it is always crucial to give and receive consent when exchanging private photos. If you receive this kind of content without consent and find yourself a victim of “cyberflashing,” you should report the flasher to the police — it is a form of sexual harassment.
Despite these issues, modern technology has made some promising progressions, which is evidenced by the popularity of webcam sites like “Chatroulette” and “Chaturbate.” These have become increasingly common forms of exhibitionism. However, these avenues are healthy because both parties involved are consenting. The exhibitionist is willingly performing and those accessing the sites are doing so on their free will. Moreover, this avenue of exhibitionism has been applauded by the sex-positive community; it is seen as a form of sexual liberation and empowerment. In fact, many webcammers even receive income from performing. By allowing paid access to certain shows and/or photo galleries, webcammers can capitalize on this market.6
What to do if You’re a Victim
Studies show that about half of all women have been a victim of exhibitionism at some point in their lives. A natural reaction for the victim in these scenarios is shock. However, it is important to remember that the perpetrators themselves derive pleasure from horror-ridden reactions. The victim’s emotional reaction may unintentionally reward the perpetrator and encourage them to continue the practice. It is best to stay calm and walk away if faced with an exhibitionist. If the victim feels comfortable enough, they should report the incident to the police so that similar incidents will not occur with other potential victims.¹ With “cyberflashing,” victims should also not respond because this may be seen as showing interest.
When is Exhibitionism Not a Disorder?
There is another definition of exhibitionism that does not describe a paraphilic disorder. In the context of pornography and kinky sex, “exhibitionism” can refer to the act of exposing oneself or engaging in sex play in front of a camera and deriving extra sexual arousal from the camera’s presence. If carried out between consenting adults, this form of exhibitionism is perfectly safe and, in most cultures, legal. Many people even consider it a fun and easy way to spice up their sex lives!³
Are You Having Exhibitionist Thoughts?
It is normal to have exhibitionist thoughts. These can be forms of sexual exploration and excitement. However, once these thoughts become distressing to you or start affecting the lives of others is when it becomes a problem. If this becomes an issue, looking into psycho and behavioral therapy could be helpful. It would also be helpful to discuss your thoughts and concerns with a therapist and figure out avenues that would be safer and healthier than exhibitionism. Moreover, finding communities of exhibitionists may prove beneficial, as well. You could engage in roleplay with willing individuals – therefore, both getting the experience and excitement while also not disturbing the lives of others.
Exhibitionism is a paraphilic disorder that threatens the lives of nonconsenting people. Technology has added new dimensions to this paraphilia and now creates danger in the digital realm, as well. It is important for people that are dealing with exhibitionistic interests to find safe and respectful outlets to practice their fantasies.
- LeVay, Simon, Janice I. Baldwin, and John D. Baldwin. Discovering Human Sexuality. 2nd ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2012. Print.
- Kelly, Brian C., David S. Bimbi, Jose E. Nanin, Hubert Izienicki, and Jeffrey T. Parsons. “Sexual Compulsivity and Sexual Behaviors Among Gay and Bisexual Men and Lesbian and Bisexual Women.” Journal of Sex Research 46.4 (2009): 301-08. JSTOR. Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 2009. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
- Tomassilli, Julia C., Sarit A. Golub, David S. Bimbi, and Jeffrey T. Parsons. “Behind Closed Doors: An Exploration of Kinky Sexual Behaviors in Urban Lesbian and Bisexual Women.” Journal of Sex Research 46.5 (2009): 438-45. JSTOR. Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 2009. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
- Hayes, Rebecca M., and Molly Dragiewicz. “Unsolicited Dick Pics: Erotica, Exhibitionism or Entitlement?” Women’s Studies International Forum, 71, Nov. 2018, pp. 114–120., doi:10.1016/j.wsif.2018.07.001.
- Hopkins, Tiffany A., et al. “Varieties of Intrusion: Exhibitionism and Voyeurism.” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, vol. 23, no. 1, 2016, pp. 4–33., doi:10.1080/10720162.2015.1095138.
- Sanders, Scoular, Campbell, Pitcher, Cunningham, Scoular, Jane, . . . Cunningham, Stewart. (2018). Internet sex work : Beyond the gaze (Palgrave pivot). Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Last Updated: 3 December 2019.