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Exhibitionism is the act of exposing in a public or semi-public context those parts of one's body that are not normally exposed – for example, the breasts, genitals or buttocks. The practice may arise from a desire or compulsion to expose themselves in such a manner to groups of friends or acquaintances, or to strangers for their amusement or sexual satisfaction or to shock the bystander.
In law, the act of exhibitionism may be called indecent exposure or exposing one's person, or other expressions.
Public exhibitionism by women has been recorded since classical times, often in the context of women shaming groups of men into committing, or inciting them to commit, some public action. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus gives an account of exhibitionistic behaviors from the fifth century BC in The Histories. Herodotus writes that:
When people travel to Bubastis for the festival, this is what they do. Every baris carrying them there overflows with people, a huge crowd of them, men and women together. Some of the women have clappers, while some of the men have pipes which they play throughout the voyage. The rest of the men and women sing and clap their hands. When in the course of their journey they reach a community - not the city of their destination, but somewhere else - they steer the bareis close to the bank. Some of the women carry on doing what I have already described them as doing, but others shout out scornful remarks to the women in the town, or dance, or stand and pull up their clothes to expose themselves. Every riverside community receives this treatment.
A case of what appears to be exhibitionism in a clinical sense was recorded in a report by the Commission against Blasphemy in Venice in 1550.
In the UK the 4th draft of the revised Vagrancy Act of 1824 included an additional clause 'or openly and indecently exposing their persons' which gave rise to difficulties because of its ill-defined scope. During the course of a subsequent debate on the topic in Parliament, the then Home Secretary, Mr Peel, observed that 'there was not a more flagrant offence than that of indecently exposing the person which had been carried to an immense extent in the parks...wanton exposure was a very different thing from accidental exposure'.
When exhibitionism interferes with a person's quality of life or normal functioning capacity it is considered a psychological disorder categorized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Edition (class 302.4) as a sexual deviation called "Paraphilia". Many psychiatric definitions of exhibitionism broadly define it as "sexual gratification, above and beyond the sexual act itself, that is achieved by risky public sexual activity and/or bodily exposure." Beyond bodily exposure, it can also include "engaging in sex where one may possibly be seen in the act, or caught in the act." A research team asked a sample of 185 exhibitionists, "How would you have preferred a person to react if you were to expose your privates to him or her?" The most common response was "Would want to have sexual intercourse" (35.1%), followed by "No reaction necessary at all" (19.5%), "To show their privates also" (15.1%), "Admiration" (14.1%), and "Any reaction" (11.9%). Only very few exhibitionists chose "Anger and disgust" (3.8%) or "Fear" (0.5%).
Engaging in exhibitionism can also lead to being charged, in many countries, with a criminal offence, due to the criminal nature of indecent exposure.
Various types of behavior are classified as exhibitionism, including:
Two main classes of exhibitionism exist.
Non-threatening exhibitionism may be physically expressed in two basic ways. The first, colloquially referred to as flashing, involves the exposure of a person's "private parts" to another person or group of people in a situation where these would not normally be exposed, such as in a social gathering or in a public place. The act of flashing, particularly when done by females involving the breasts but also when involving her vulva and also her buttocks, may be at least partially sexual in intention, i.e. to prompt the sexual arousal of those being flashed, in turn giving the flasher an ego boost. However, flashing may also simply be intended to attract the non-aroused "attention" of another or others, or for shock value. An example of the latter is a male who displays his buttocks to someone else, an act which unlike a female who displays her buttocks is not typically taken by the viewer(s) as a sexually-provocative act. In fact, it is usually interpreted by the viewer as mildly or even severely insulting (see below).
Non-threatening exhibitionism can also be expressed in the context of a like-minded group who share the desire to expose themselves to each other. That type of exhibitionism has a wide variety of subtypes, including everything from nudist clubs or naturist resorts to small groups of friends or acquaintances sharing a hot tub without wearing bathing suits, or skinny-dipping together.
The second class of exhibitionism, done threateningly or at least with aggressive intent, is referred to as indecent exposure, even though the physical act itself may also, somewhat confusingly, be referred to as "flashing"; however, even if the term "flashing" is used, the surrounding descriptive context gives a point of reference as to which of the two classes of exhibitionism is being described. A classic exemplary circumstance, meant to showcase the aggressive intent to "violate" another person's peace of mind as compared to the other exhibitionism type, involves a male in a trench coat, naked underneath, who enters a dark movie theatre or is sitting in one of the seating rows near to a woman, and standing, proceeds to open his trench coat and display his nakedness (and possibly an already-existing erection) to the unwilling, possibly disgusted, and possibly frightened woman. For the person performing the act, the point of such indecent exposure and similar indecent exposure is that rather than the unwilling viewer's repulsion and/or shock causing a loss of sexual excitement in the flasher, the shock and repulsion actually increases the flasher's sexual excitement. While this example may or may not have actually occurred in practice, the story, often related in Western culture in particular, is meant to show that a person who does these or similar acts usually has some sort of psychological warping of his or her sexuality, and is thus not a psychologically "healthy" individual. These factors are usually cited as the main ones that separate indecent exposure from the non-threatening form of flashing.
Exhibitionism is not automatically a compulsion, but some people do have a distinct psychological tendency to expose themselves in a sexually-provocative manner, whether it is to "flash" (the nonthreatening form) or to "indecently expose" (the threatening form). When it is a compulsion, it is a condition sometimes called apodysophilia.
The Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices (2009) classifies exhibitionism in this way.
Class I: Fantasizing Exhibitionists
These people fantasize about exhibiting their genitals to unsuspecting persons, but are too timid to actually carry out their fantasies. They tend to remain happy merely with their exhibitionistic fantasies.
Class II: Pure Exhibitionists
These people are content with just showing off their genitals from a distance and masturbating. They do not touch their victims or actually do them any harm.
Class III: Exhibitionistic Criminals
These offenders are primarily exhibitionists, but they also engage in other sexual crimes, especially pedophilia and child molesting. Upon finding a child alone, their sexual behavior may start with exhibitionism, but may progress to child molestation. These are considered dangerous to the society and may require more attention.
Class IV: Exclusive Exhibitionists
These offenders cannot form normal romantic relationships with persons of their gender preference and cannot engage in normal sexual intercourse. For them, exhibitionism is the sole outlet for sexual gratification. Such exhibitionists do not seem to have been reported in literature so far, but based on the theory of paraphilic equivalence, it can be predicted that these exhibitionists do exist in society and they will be reported sometime in the future. Behaviorally, they lie on the extreme end of the paraphilic continuum since they cannot form normal romantic relationships with other individuals.
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