Disclaimer: this article uses the pronoun “he” to refer to exhibitionists because exhibitionists are statistically more likely to be male gendered. Likewise, this article uses the pronoun “she” to refer to victims of exhibitionism, as they are statistically more likely to be female gendered. However, not all exhibitionists are male and not all victims are female.
What is Exhibitionism?
Exhibitionism, also known as 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 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
One common form of exhibitionism is “flashing.” A typical “flasher” will set themselves up in a public place where there are many people. He will conceal his genitals with a trench coat, newspaper, book, or similar object. When he sees a suitable victim, he will enter the victim’s line of vision and expose his genitals to her. 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 he 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, as mentioned previously, 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
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 him to continue the practice. It is best to stay calm and walk away if faced with an exhibitionist. If the victim feels comfortable enough, she should report the incident to the police so that similar incidents will not occur with other potential victims.¹
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
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.
Last Updated 21 April 2014.