Exhibitionsim is the tendency or desire to become sexually aroused by the knowledge that others are watching as you engage in intimate activities such as removing clothes, sexual activity, or erotic performance.
Sexual exhitibitionsim can be considered a fetish (i.e. a sexual fixation on an activity that one depends on to enhance arousal or experience sexual satisfaction), a kink (i.e. a deliberate practice of engaging in non-conventional activities in the consensual pursuit of erotic pleasure). However, that does not mean that anyone who experiences arousal in a exhibitionist scenario is necessarily a fetishist or engaging in kink play. It could simply be a fantasy one wants to explore for a novel experience.
The opposite and counterpart fantasy to exhibitionism is voyeurism, which is the tendency or desire to become aroused by observing others in an intimate setting such as disrobing or engaging in sexual activity. Together, these two fantasies and sets of behaviors surrounding being the watched or the watcher make up some of the most common sexual fantasies.
Exhibitionsim as a Common Fantasy and Sexual Activity
Exhibitionism can be a regular and healthy element of one’s sexual practices and acitivites, be it alone and/or with a partner. Or it can be occasional indulgence or fantasy exploration. It is only considered a problem when the exhibitionist tendencies cause distress to the individual experiencing them, or when they lead to consent-crossing and/or law-breaking activities with other people.
Conscious and consensual exhibitionism can be healthy and sexually satisfying for an indivdual, either in the context of a partner relationhisp and as part of one’s solo sexual exploration. Common forms of healthy exhibtionsim can include but are not limited to role play scenarios the feature an exhibitionist element, partaking in a sexual performance, group sex, taking nude of erotic photos of youself or having someone take them of you, recording audio or visual of yourself and watching it back or sharing it with a willing and conseting audience, getting involved with ethical porn production as a performer, and doing a strip tease.
Is Exhibitionism a Problem?
As with some other fetishes and sexual behaviors, some forms of exhibitionism are still considered a disorder. The American Psychiatric Association lists it as a paraphilia (i.e. the disordered form of a fetish) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) where they define the phenomenon as deriving “Derive pleasure from exposing genitals to an unsuspecting person.”
Updates to the most recent fifth edition of the DSM (DSM-5) have now made the distinction between behaviors that qualify as exhibitonism and the disordered equivalent. Experiencing sexual arousal in response to exposing oneself or engaging in erotic performance is not enough to be diagnosed with a disorder, nor is it considered inherently problematic or concerning behavior.
While they may not necessarily be considered disordered behavior in every case, examples of this problematic exhibitionist behavior include “flashing” (exposing one’s genitals in public to unconsenting observers) and sending photos of one’s genitals to someone who has not requested or consented to receiving them as in the case of the virtual phenomenon that is unsolicited dick pics.