Although displaying your genitals in public is illegal in many parts of the world, a huge number of people have done it at one time or another. Countless men and women have flashed each other at Mardi Gras celebrations, and many a college fraternity and sorority have gone streaking across campus. So does this mean that the world is full of exhibitionists? Not exactly. Behaviors like this are usually fueled by alcohol and a temporary loosening of one’s inhibitions. The true exhibitionist (in the clinical sense) doesn’t require any “liquid courage” and doesn’t get naked as part of an organized social event or in a situation in which public nudity is accepted. Instead, psychologists reserve the term “exhibitionist” for persons who engage in socially inappropriate nudity for the sole purpose of sexual arousal.
From a psychological standpoint, the defining characteristic of an exhibitionist is a strong urge to expose one’s genitals to an unsuspecting stranger . Such exposure usually occurs in public places where there is an easy escape route (e.g., parks and subways). The goal of this exposure is to evoke a shocked reaction from the other person, which is what the exhibitionist finds to be sexually arousing. In fact, exhibitionists usually fantasize about this shocked reaction afterward when sexually pleasuring themselves. Exhibitionism is classified as a disorder when these urges cause psychological distress or when the individual begins to act upon them and starts victimizing others.
Like most unusual sexual interests, exhibitionism tends to be far more common among men than women. For instance, a national survey from Sweden revealed that 4.1% of men and 2.1% of women indicated that they had revealed their genitals to a stranger at least one time in their lives and found it to be sexually arousing . In addition to being more inclined to expose themselves, men are also more likely to be arrested for such behavior, probably because a female flashing victim is more likely to call the police than a male flashing victim.
Where does exhibitionism come from? We know that such behaviors begin early in life. For instance, research has found that some exhibitionists report flashing others as young as age 12, with fully half starting by age 15 . Perhaps not surprisingly, this behavior is linked to having poor social and interpersonal skills , which suggests that some individuals may turn to this behavior because they are unable to establish a more conventional sexual relationship. If the individual finds the behavior highly pleasurable the first time, it may create a very powerful psychological association that is difficult to break.
One caveat to all of this is that there are some people who identify as “exhibitionists,” but who do not expose themselves to strangers or get off on the thought of seeing another person’s shocked or disgusted reaction. Individuals who experience arousal by exposing their genitals to a willing audience (e.g., exotic dancers, people who perform sex acts on webcams) would not be classified as having a psychological disorder. Thus, keep in mind that there is a world of difference between the clinical definition of exhibitionism and how this term is used in everyday language.
 Långström, N. (2010). The DSM diagnostic criteria for exhibitionism, voyeurism, and frotteurism. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 317-324.
 Långström, N., & Seto, M. C. (2006). Exhibitionistic and voyeuristic behavior in a Swedish national population survey. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35, 427-435.
 Abel, G. G., & Rouleau, J. L. (1990). The nature and extent of sexual assault. In W. L. Marshall, D. R. Laws, & H. E. Barbaree (Eds.), Handbook of sexual assault: Issues, theories, and treatment of the offender (pp. 9-22). New York: Plenum Press.
 Emmers-Sommer, T. M., Allen, M., Bourhis, J., Sahlstein, E., Laskowski, K., Falato, W. L., & ... Cashman, L. (2004). A meta-analysis of the relationship between social skills and sexual offenders. Communication Reports, 17, 1-10.
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