Exhibitionism: The Most Common Sexual Crime
Exhibitionism consists of exposing the genitals to an
unwitting stranger, on repeated occasions, in order to produce sexual excitement.
The exposure itself is the final sexual act, and the exhibitionist does
not go on to attempt sexual relations with his victim after exhibiting himself.
A "flasher," or "flagwaver" as they are called in prison slang, typically approaches
a woman with his genitals exposed. He usually has an erection, but
sometimes he is flaccid. Sometimes he will ejaculate while exhibiting himself
or more commonily, he will masturbate when he is alone afterwards
(Katchadourian and Lunde, 1972).
Exhibitionism is the most common sexual crime in the United States,
with roughly one-third of sexual offenders arrested for it. Surprisingly
enough, exhibitionism is very rare outside the United States and Europe and
nonexistent in cultures such as India and Burma. Almost half of convicted
exhibitionists have had four or more prior convictions for this offense
(Gebhard, Gagnon, Pomeroy, and Christenson, 1965).
Exhibiting one's genitals or naked body in a public place is viewed quite
differently by our society, depending on whether it is done by a man or by a
woman. When a man undresses before a female stranger, he is the exhibitionist
and she is the victim. When a woman undresses before a male
stranger, he is the voyeur and she is again the victim. As Katchadourian and
Lunde (1972) put it, "However badly females fare in other areas of sexual
behavior, when it comes to voyeurism and exhibitionism the law is on their
side." For this reason, exhibitionism and voyeurism are disorders mostly of
The exhibitionist has a favorite type of victim and will expose himself exclusively
to female adults or exclusively to children. He wishes to shock and
horrify his victim, and this is essential for the act to be gratifying. A woman
who acts calmly when confronted with an exhibitionist and placidly suggests
to him that he needs psychological help will usually foil the act.
Exhibitionists are usually not dangerous. The act usually takes place six to
sixty feet away from the victim; very rarely is the victim touched or molested.
The exhibitionist is more of a nuisance than a menace, and it is much
more common for child molesters to become exhibitionists than for exhibitionists
to become child molesters (Gagnon, 1977; McCary, 1978).
The settings in which exhibitionists perform vary. The most common are
in front of girls schools or churches, in crowds, and in parks; and in these
settings, the exhibitionist may pretend he is urinating. Among the more
imaginative scenarios are wearing only a raincoat in a department store,
taking out a whistle and blowing it, and as the female shoppers look in the
direction of the whistler, opening the raincoat; rapping on the window of a
house with one's erect penis; sitting down near women in darkened movie
theaters and masturbating. All these situations have one important element
in common: they are public and it is very unlikely that sexual intercourse
could possibly take place. These points provide clues to the dynamics of an
exhibitionist. The exhibitionist needs to display his masculinity without the
threat of having to perform in an adequate sexual role (Kaplan, 1974).
What is the personality of the typical exhibitionist like? He is a quiet and
timid man with feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Most exhihitionists
are married, but there is conflicting evidence about whether or not their sexual
relationships with their wives are poor or good (Malctzky, 1974; Rooth
and Marks, 1974; McCary, 1978).
He is usually between the ages of thirteen
and forty, with the peak being about twenty-five. Exhibitionism may begin
any time from preadolescence to about age forty. When an onset occurs
after age forty, it is usually associated with another more severe condition
like senility. Exhibitionism may be an impulsive response to a transitory
stress like being slighted by a woman, or it may be compulsive, insistent, and
ritualistic. Overall, however, the one word that best characterizes exhibitionists