What It's Like to Be a Female Exhibitionist

Source: Flash Bunny/Flickr

A naked man can be a jarring sight.  Whether it's soft and wilted or fully erect, the male appendage can either make us giggle or make us profoundly uncomfortable. 

Yet for whatever reason, men seem to have something of a compulsion for showing their genitals off: at least 45% of women have reported receiving a dick pic over the course of their dating lives, according to a study by Match.com. That's despite the fact that women have reported that receiving unsolicited dick pics was one of their biggest turn-offs.

Unsolicited dick pics are often viewed as fairly innocuous, if not irritating. Yet men are also prone to flashing their genitals in more threatening ways. Nearly one third of all men who commit sexual offense in America are exhibitionists, or people who derive sexual pleasure from exposing their genitals to other people. Men are disproportionately more likely to expose their genitals than women: in fact, according to a Swedish survey of 2,450 randomly selected 18 to 60-year-olds, male exhibitionists outnumbered female exhibitionists by a rate of 4.1 to 2.1. 

Most news stories about subway flashers or park exhibitionists focus on male offenders, to the point that you rarely, if ever, hear about women committing the offense. Yet there are plenty of exhibitionists who are also women — our culture just tends to view them differently. 

According to the experts Mic spoke with, the paraphilia is considered to be fairly equally distributed among the sexes. Porn stars, cam girls, and even visitors to group exhibitionist outings like the nudist festival, Nudes-A-Poppin' would fall into this category.

"In the classic definition, yes, an exhibitionist is a person who does it for sexual titillation of the viewer and of that person him or herself. But, again, it's a fine line because where does excitement over attention cross a line to be sexual?" Michael Castleman, a journalist who has written on the topic of exhibitionism, said in a phone interview.

Typically, when female exhibitionists are referenced, it's in this vein of attention-seeking or commodified nudity, rather than in the clinical sense like that of the subway flasher.

However, there are some women who derive sexual pleasure from flashing unsuspecting viewers in a way that's non-consensual. Sarah* a 35-year-old married, white female from Texas, is one of them. What started in high school, as a joke between girlfriends has become a lifelong fetish.

"I found that I liked it. I liked the attention, liked that I could sort of control them, liked that they were looking at me," she said in an email interview. "So I've continued doing it."

Sarah now expresses her exhibitionism by purposefully exposing her breasts ("that next button on my top just happens to come open, and then in a meeting I just have to lean over to point something") or opening her legs in full view of men at work or in restaurants while wearing skirts. She considers her fetish "harmless," even though she acknowledges that it's comparable to the behavior of men who are arrested for exposing themselves.  

"I suppose that what I do is the same as a man who gets an indecent exposure charge, but it feels less threatening somehow," she said. "If a man were turned off by what I do, I guess it would be similar, but it does feel different."

Part of the reason why Sarah considers her fetish harmless is likely due to the fact that she's never had any complaints from the men she targets. In addition to being statistically more likely to be exhibitionists, men are also more likely to be voyeurs. Because of that, a male-dominated culture allows for an environment which makes it easier for women to put their bodies on display.

"I think there's a difference between what society permits," says Gloria Brame, a sex therapist and certified sexologist. "But I think both genders are pretty exhibitionistic in their own ways. I just think that society gives women more of a free pass."

That free pass may be what allows women to translate any exhibitionist tendencies they do have, into safe, legal and more importantly, nonthreatening outlets.

"When women flash, nobody reports them," Brame said in an email interview. "A woman without clothes is viewed as vulnerable, i.e. rapeable. and a man without clothes is viewed as potentially [a] rapist . . . As the generally larger of the two genders and the generally perceived as much more powerful and certainly more violent, a naked man feels more threatening to most people than a naked woman."

Sarah suspects this is why no one has ever reported her, even though part of what fuels her is the nervous thrill that someone one day will. 

"People like to see naked women. It's true. Men and women like to see naked women," Dr. Susan Block, a sex therapist who often treats exhibitionistic men, said in a phone interview. "Women have more of what's been called erotic capital. Women can sell our exhibitionist tendencies and so we do very often and men have a harder time selling that."

But again, there's a distinction between women exhibitionists generally, and women with exhibitionistic disorder, who wouldn't necessarily derive sexual pleasure from, say, doing porn, because there's no factor of non-consent.

"There's a very real difference in feeling compelled to expose your penis and doing it in a way that's unsettling and disturbing," Block said. "Whether it's an unwelcome penis portrait or IRL exposure, a person exposing their genitals without the consent of those nearby is a very different thing than simply wanting those genitals to be seen."

Brame agreed. "They're imposing their sexuality on you in a very blatant and in a non consensual way," she said. "They know that when they come up to a stranger, that person may react with fear or disgust, and that's part of their fantasy."

*First names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.