Exhibitionism, often called indecent exposure, refers to behavior in which an individ – exhibitionism
ual (almost always male) exposes his genitals to an involuntary observer (usually an the act _ of exposing ones genitals to
adult woman or a girl) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Marshall et al., 1991). an unwilling °bserver.
Typically, a man who has exposed himself obtains sexual gratification by masturbating shortly thereafter, using mental images of the observer’s reaction to increase his arousal.
Some men, while having sex with a willing partner, fantasize about exposing themselves or replay mental images from previous episodes. Still others have orgasm triggered by the act of exposure, and some masturbate while exhibiting themselves (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; de Silva, 1999). The reinforcement of associating sexual arousal and orgasm with the actual act of exhibitionism or with mental fantasies of exposing oneself contributes significantly to the maintenance of exhibitionistic behavior (Blair & Lanyon, 1981). Exposure can occur in a variety of locations, most of which allow for easy escape. Subways, relatively deserted streets, parks, and cars with a door left open are common places for exhibitionism to occur. However, sometimes a private dwelling is the scene of an exposure, as revealed in the following account:
One evening I was shocked to open the door of my apartment to a naked man. I looked long enough to see that he was underdressed for the occasion and then slammed the door in his face. He didn’t come back. I’m sure my look of total horror was what he was after. But it is difficult to keep your composure when you open your door to a naked man. (Authors’ files)
Certainly, many of us have exhibitionistic tendencies: We may go to nude beaches, parade before admiring lovers, or wear provocative clothes or scanty swimwear. However, such behavior is considered appropriate by a society that in many ways exploits and celebrates the erotically portrayed human body. That legally defined exhibitionistic behavior involves generally unwilling observers sets it apart from these more acceptable variations of exhibitionism.
Our knowledge of who displays this behavior is based largely on studies of arrested offenders—a sample that may be unrepresentative. This sampling problem is common to many forms of atypical behavior that are defined as criminal. From the available data, however limited, it appears that most people who exhibit themselves are men in their 20s or 30s, and over half are married or have been married (Murphy, 1997). They are often shy, nonassertive people who feel inadequate and insecure and suffer from problems with intimacy (Arndt, 1991; Marshall et al., 1991; Murphy & Page, 2008). Their sexual relationships are likely to have been unsatisfactory. Many were reared in atmospheres characterized by puritanical and shame-inducing attitudes toward sexuality.
A number of factors influence the development of exhibitionistic behavior. Many individuals have such powerful feelings of personal inadequacy that they are afraid to reach out to another person out of fear of rejection (Minor & Dwyer, 1997). Their exhibitionism is thus a limited attempt to somehow involve others, however fleetingly, in their sexual expression. Limiting contact to briefly opening a raincoat before dashing off minimizes the possibility of overt rejection. Some men who expose themselves may be looking for affirmation of their masculinity. Others, feeling isolated and unappreciated, may simply be seeking attention, which they desperately crave. A few feel anger and hostility toward people, particularly women, who have failed to notice them or who they believe have caused them emotional pain. Under these circumstances exposure can be a form of reprisal, designed to shock or frighten the people they see as the source of their discomfort. In addition, exhibitionism is not uncommon in emotionally disturbed,
Atypical Sexual Behavior
intellectually disabled, or mentally disoriented individuals. In these cases the behavior reflects a limited awareness of what society defines as appropriate actions, a breakdown in personal ethical controls, or both.
In contrast to the public image of an exhibitionist as a person who lurks about in the shadows, ready to grab hapless victims and drag them off to ravish them, most men who engage in exhibitionism limit this activity to exposing themselves (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Yet the word victim is not entirely inappropriate, in that observers of such exhibitionistic episodes may be emotionally traumatized by the experience (Cox, 1988; Marshall et al., 1991). Some feel that they are in danger of being raped or otherwise harmed. A few, particularly young children, can develop negative feelings about genital anatomy from such an experience.
Investigators have noted that some people who expose themselves, probably a small minority, actually physically assault their victims (Brown, 2000). Furthermore, in some cases men who engage in exhibitionism may progress from exposing themselves to more serious offenses, such as rape and child molestation (Abel, 1981; Bradford et al., 1992).
What is an appropriate response if someone exposes himself to you? It is important to keep in mind that most people who express exhibitionist behavior want to elicit reactions of excitement, shock, fear, or terror. Although it may be difficult not to react in any of these ways, a better response is to calmly ignore the exhibitionist act and go about your business. Of course, it is also important to immediately distance yourself from the offender and to report such acts to the police or campus security as soon as possible.