Exhibitionism is sometimes confused with exhibitionistic disorder, but the former is unlikely to cause harm.
Sex can be a touchy topic — especially when it comes to discussing the details of what you like to engage in.
When it comes to anything that may be considered kinky, questioning whether your desires are “normal” is common. The stigma surrounding “unconventional” sex practices, such as exhibitionism, may play a role.
In reality, if your sexual engagement involves consenting adults and does not harm you or anyone else, then it’s fair game.
However, there are some potential downsides to be aware of, so it can be helpful to know the difference between safe kink practices versus disordered behavior.
Exhibitionism is described as the sexual desire to be watched, particularly during sexual activity.
Exhibitionistic desires fall under the category of kink, which can be defined as “unconventional” sex and sexual desires.
“Exhibitionism is the act of wanting to be seen by other people,” says sexologist Marla Renee Stewart, MA. “You love being sexual and you love being seen being sexual.”
Because of the continued presence of stigma around sex that is viewed as “unconventional” or “kinky,” there can be misunderstandings around behaviors and desires rooted in exhibitionism, partially due to the lack of open communication.
Exhibitionism vs. exhibitionistic disorder
Interest and engagement in exhibitionistic activities is not the same as exhibitionistic disorder.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) defines exhibitionistic disorder as “recurrent and intense sexual arousal from the exposure of one’s genitals to an unsuspecting person, as manifested by fantasies, urges, or behaviors.”
Criteria for exhibitionistic disorder include uncontrollable behavior that lasts for at least 6 months. This particular behavior is harmful because the individual incorporates strangers into their desire without consent.
In addition, these behaviors and desires impact an individual’s ability to engage in their day-to-day life.
Symptoms of harmful exhibitionistic behaviors
Examples of behaviors that may fall into the harmful exhibitionistic category include:
- sexual assault
- nonconsensual sadistic behavior
- nonconsensual voyeurism
Keep in mind that sexual interests are not always the sole drivers for those who engage in harmful exhibitionistic behaviors, nor are they always what drives those who may be interested in kink-adjacent activities.
The DSM-5 categorizes exhibitionistic disorder as a paraphilic disorder. Research from 2016 describes paraphilic as the antithesis of normophilic (socially accepted sexual interests).
Because of the harmful impacts that some paraphilic disorders may have on others, placing exhibitionism within this category may lead to stigma around the behavior.
For instance, older research previously described masturbation as a disease. Until 1973, homosexuality was listed as a paraphilia, implying that engaging in sex outside of perceived cisgender, heteronormative couplings was “deviant” behavior.
Still, some current research continues to label nonheterosexual relationships as harmful, even going so far as to draw parallels to pedophilia. Studies like these show there’s still room for increased understanding and inclusion of varied sexual and pleasure-related interests and orientations.
As society’s general and accepted understanding of sexuality has changed, so have our understandings of “deviant” sexual behavior.
While psychology guides much of how we navigate our world and interact with each other, it can also assist in supporting cultural boundaries, regardless of the exclusion that could potentially occur.
Paraphilias like exhibitionism are often attributed to individuals who identify as male.
Sex experts like Stewart challenge this idea, as these assumptions are likely connected to gender roles and societal expectations around sex and sexuality.
Stewart says that overt sexuality is embraced more with men and masculine folks, which may cause women and feminine folks to be less outspoken about their sexual experiences and desires, especially if they engage in kink.
“I think if you go to a swingers club or a sex club, you’ll see it’s pretty even,” Stewart says.
“People are showing up and showing out, and I think that just goes to showing you that, as far as sex-wise, gender-wise, gender identity-wise, people are open to it no matter who they are.”
Many forms of healthy exhibitionism exist. Examples may include:
- Recording a video. Someone records themselves doing a sensual dance for their partner and sends it to them digitally. The process of recording the video and giving it to someone else to view can be arousing on its own.
- Kissing in public. Two folks kissing in their car parked on the street in the city. Knowing there is potential for someone to walk by serves as stimulation.
To ensure you’re practicing exhibitionism safely, here are a couple of things to keep in mind.
Consent between two or more individuals engaging in sexual behaviors is crucial. If consent was given, then no one has been harmed or violated.
When discussing the importance of consent, strangers that could witness your exploration should also be taken into account.
While the desire itself is not inherently dangerous, engaging in explicit sexual activity in public can be a legal concern because of the potential of indecent exposure to the public.
Because of this, Stewart is a proponent of visiting sex clubs, as those present are aware of the potential for (and likely interested in) the idea of public intimacy, which may allow for an audience, free of concern.
“Going to a sex club or a swingers club is probably your best bet because they always have private rooms,” says Stewart.
“So, you can be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m getting really turned on, but I’m not ready to be out on display in front of everybody [so] let’s go into a private room. And, you might get titillated at just the fact that people are probably waiting outside of your door, maybe even listening. I think that is a nice gateway into exhibitionism.”
Many people engage in a healthy exploration of varying aspects of kink, holding consent and the health of themselves and their partners at the forefront.
As with anything, however, there is always the potential of lines being crossed. Examples of behaviors that may be cause for concern include:
- a lack of setting or respecting boundaries
- not asking for consent prior to engagement or trying something new (especially if it’s potentially dangerous or occurs in public)
- urges or desires that severely inhibit the ability to hold other relationships, maintain health, or carry out other responsibilities
If you or a partner exhibits any of the above, then you might want to consider having a conversation with them. You could also connect with a sex-positive therapist about the origins of these feelings and options for safe ways to address your desires.
Stewart emphasizes that the desire or curiosity around engaging in exhibitionism is completely normal.
Despite the large presence of folks that engage in exhibitionism (and other forms of kinky sex) there’s still a lot of stigma and shame around the topic and misunderstandings around nuances.
While exhibitionistic disorder is considered a paraphilic disorder, exhibitionism and kinky sex can be safe and healthy behavior if there is consent.
As long as your sexual feelings or behaviors don’t affect another individual’s safety and comfort and your health or daily life, then there’s no need for shame around your curiosities and desires.