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Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas
Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Exhibitionism occurs when a person displays his or her naked body or genitals in order to achieve sexual gratification and assert sexual power. It can be defined as both deviant and socially acceptable, based on the motivation for displaying oneself and the intended audience. As a deviant act, exhibitionism is the act of publicly exposing one's genitals to an unwilling audience for the purposes of sexual gratification. Exhibitionism is considered a perversion because it is typically an end in itself and not linked to subsequent sexual activity.

Almost all legally prosecuted and psychoanalytically treated exhibitionists are men, although female exhibitionists also exist. General explanations for male exhibitionists note that these men display themselves for hostile and aggressive reasons, subjecting unwilling viewers, who are often women or children, to a shocking sight that asserts the man's feeling of power. Little information is available about the behavior and motivations of female exhibitionists, because legal and psychological studies overwhelmingly focus on men. Female exhibitionists may also have aggressive motivations, but their most common motivations are to boost their self-esteem and assert control over the viewing of their bodies.

Typical behaviors of all exhibitionists include: public masturbation; dressing or undressing in front of a window; flashing, or briefly removing clothing such as an overcoat to afford a brief glimpse of the genitals; and calling attention to one's exposed genitals from a semiprivate place such as a car or doorway. More socially acceptable forms of exhibitionism include stripping, posing for explicit photos or films, and posting images of oneself on the Internet.


All exhibitionism is motivated by the cultural power inherent in the act of looking and the cultural taboos placed on nudity that make showing oneself in public a transgressive act. For those acts of exhibitionism treated as a perversion or crime, a dominant motivation is a need to assert one's power over others. Generally, such exhibitionists are insecure and socially inept, receiving little validation in their daily lives. They reverse this dynamic when they display their genitals. They often choose to show themselves to women or children who seem weak and easily frightened or repulsed by the sight of the exhibitionist's body. The strong reaction thus provoked validates the exhibitionist's sense of authority and dominance. For men, this reaction is particularly appealing because it also helps confirm their masculinity as a strength, in line with stereotypical definitions and representations of the ideal man. It may also compensate for a psychological fear of castration or impotence.

Other motivations for exhibiting that are more socially acceptable also hinge on power dynamics. Strippers, porn stars, and some sex industry workers claim that they enjoy taking the initiative to offer their bodies to a willing audience, feeling a sense of empowerment. Because many of these exhibitionists are women, Page 490  |  Top of Articlethis act constitutes a reversal of typical power dynamics that render women passive objects of desire and men as active and dominating viewers. When a woman controls the way in which her body is viewed, she shares in some of the pleasure of viewership and often returns the gaze of the watching spectator. While the woman may be asserting her sexual power, it is rare that she intends to make herself a threatening display; instead, these women intend to give the viewer pleasure.

Feminist theorists and others have argued about whether exhibitionistic acts, such as stripping, are truly empowering for women. Some argue that women who exhibit their bodies in ways as subtle as wearing tight-fitting clothes or performing private striptease scenarios for their sexual partners are embracing their natural sexual power in a positive way. However, others note that many of these women unknowingly mimic cultural or patriarchal norms of feminine beauty and that many strippers perform out of economic necessity instead of self-directed pleasure. In these latter cases, the male gaze is still objectifying the woman.


Exhibitionists receive part of their pleasure from a displaced voyeuristic pleasure; they identify with the viewers and imagine how their genitals appear to them. The pleasure comes from the recognition of power that exhibitionists imagine to take place and from an intrinsic interest in both their own genitalia and that of others. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) argues that exhibitionists and voyeurs have overlapping motivations, so exhibitionists display their genitals in the hopes of getting a reciprocal viewing of the other person's genitals. The desire to see results in the act of showing, or exhibitionism. Likewise, the desire to be seen results in active looking, or voyeurism. However, exhibitionists and voyeurs can differ, as the latter typically derive sexual pleasure from observing sexual acts or organs whereas they remain unseen, possibly due to a sense of shame or disgust that they attach to these sights. Exhibitionists clearly know they are being watched and take a certain pride in their genital display.

Psychological connections between exhibitionism and voyeurism may develop in childhood, when exhibitionist tendencies result from a period of active voyeurism linked both to the genitals in general and to the mother's body. Children's discovery of and natural curiosity about their own genitals produces a desire both to show themselves and to see the genitals of others, often other children. In the mother-child interaction, the young boy enjoys watching the mother's body, particularly the breast from which he likely fed as an infant. When he reaches an age at which family nudity is no longer deemed proper, he is suddenly denied access to this scene, and his voyeuristic impulse is directed internally as a desire to act the part of the mother and display the breast (penis). The pleasure initially associated with viewing the mother's body becomes connected with the act of showing what he wants to see.


Since the beginning of the twentieth century, exhibitionism has constituted one-third of all sex offenses reported in the United States, England, Wales, and Canada. It is much less prevalent in Africa and Asia. Exhibitionists can be prosecuted for indecent exposure, an act of lewdness defined by exposing one's genitals in a public place and intentionally aimed at getting an unwilling audience who is likely to be affronted by the act. Indecent exposure also includes other acts, such as public urination. Women's breasts are generally not included in this definition, as they are not considered genitals, and their display seems less offensive.

Other laws to which exhibitionists may be subject include those prohibiting lewd or indecent conduct and, occasionally, sexual psychopath laws that punish mentally disordered individuals who pose a danger to the community. Although exhibitionists have a high recidivism rate, it is rare for them to commit more severe crimes, such as violent acts. Because indecent exposure can be understood so broadly, there are some limitations on the enforcement of these laws. For example, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has been used to protect freedom of expression that may include displays of nudity.

Legal prosecution of indecent exposure did not occur until the nineteenth century, when new legal and psychoanalytical practices identified certain sexual acts as normal and others as perverse. This shift both allowed for increased analysis and documentation of the wide range of sexual activities and responded to a perceived threat to patriarchal authority. A new cultural need to define masculinity as a stable and dominant identity category arose for many reasons. Women posed a threat with their increasing demand for social and political equality. White male authority was also challenged by the demise of the strictly tiered class system, brought about by industrial revolutions, a gradually increasing middle class, and a general distribution of property and wealth. At the same time in Western Europe and the United States, various social patterns converged: Sexual practices were newly defined by the limiting terms of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality; clothing for men became more modest, no longer accenting the crotch with tight-fitting pants; sexual activity and displays Page 491  |  Top of Articleof nudity were relegated to the private arena of the household; and acts of sexual or bodily deviance were considered no longer immoral (affronts to God) but indecent (affronts to society).

As a result, the always-present activity of publicly exposing oneself to others became a crime and a psychological perversion distinct from the restrictive norms established by social regulations. Ironically, it also became a way to show conformance with stereotypical gender norms of a naturally powerful masculinity. From this period until the late-twentieth century, exhibitionism was defined almost exclusively as a perversion limited to male practitioners.


Pornography provides an opportunity for exhibitionists to display themselves in a forum that is gratifying and relatively socially acceptable. Whereas the deviant exhibitionist subjects an unwilling audience to his or her genitals to humiliate or demand recognition of sexual potency, strippers and porn stars receive that recognition from an audience who has sought out this display. In this scenario, it is possible for an exhibitionist to find a willing voyeur so that both receive sexual satisfaction. Some theorists have argued that because this reciprocity is possible, neither variety of sexual preference is harmful or perverse on its own. It becomes problematic only when such reciprocity is missing and an unwilling person becomes a victim to a sexual act he or she does not enjoy or desire.

Certain peep shows feature booths that separate performers from viewers with transparent glass or plastic, so that both parties can see each other. This layout satisfies the doubled voyeuristic and exhibitionist desires of both performers and viewers. Viewers often masturbate or reveal their genitals under the watchful eye of the performers, who take pleasure in this display of sexuality.

SEE ALSO Voyeurism .


Cox, Daniel J., and Reid J. Daitzman. 1980. Exhibitionism: Description, Assessment, and Treatment. New York: Garland STPM Press.

Day, Gary, and Clive Bloom, eds. 1988. Perspectives on Pornography: Sexuality in Film and Literature. London: MacMillan.

Freud, Sigmund. 1962 [1905]. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, ed. and trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books.

Hunt, Lynn. 1993. The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500–1800. New York: Zone Books.

MacDonald, John M. 1973. Indecent Exposure. Springfield, IL: Thomas Books.

McLaren, Angus. 1997. The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870–1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Queen, Carol. 1995. Exhibitionism for the Shy: Show Off, Dress Up, and Talk Hot. San Francisco: Down There Press.

Rickles, N.K. 1950. Exhibitionism. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

                                            Michelle Veenstra

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896200213