When you hear the term exhibitionism, what do you think of? Open, unrestrained sex? Peeping Toms in trench coats? Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in “Eyes Wide Shut”? Well, none of your assessments would be wrong. Exhibitionism is, by definition, an act of exposure. It is sexual in nature. Voyeuristic. Exhibitionists are turned on by the notion of “turned on,” or caught. And while exhibitionism is (generally) presumed to be a bad thing — in fact, exhibitionism is considered a deviant behavior, a mental health disorder — it isn’t all about unsolicited dick pics or strangers exposing themselves on subways. How do I know? Because I was, for some time, an exhibitionist. I spent most of my 20s in a state of inebriation and undress.
Of course, I don’t fit the “bill.” I identify as a woman, which, by default, is something of a shocker. Most exhibitionists are male, according to Psychology Today. Additionally, Psychology Today points out, “risk factors for the development of [an] exhibitionistic disorder include antisocial personality disorder, alcohol abuse, and an interest in pedophilia.” One’s sexual identity also plays a role. But women can be exhibitionists too, particularly when one of the aforementioned “risk factors” is involved. In my 20s, I had undiagnosed bipolar disorder and, when manic, I indulged in my vices. Tequila took the place of water. Beer became food, and sex replaced sleep. I acted randomly, impulsively, and my behaviors were often careless and reckless.
I made out with (and groped) women.
I slept with men.
But it wasn’t enough to just have sex. I wanted to be heard, caught, and seen so I engaged in sexual activities in public. I’ve given hand jobs on the hoods of SUVs, blowjobs in bushes, and I’ve literally had sex on the street. I’ve also “done it” in numerous places: in restrooms, laundry rooms, stock rooms, and on a baseball field. I flashed my breasts regularly. I was “that person,” the one who also ended up nude at parties. Why? Because I was sick. Very sick. And because, subconsciously, I liked the attention.
I needed it.
I yearned for it.
Exhibitionism filled a hole in my head and heart.
I am not alone. In 2016, Mic published an article entitled “What It’s Like to Be a Female Exhibitionist” and, in it, Sarah* — a 35-year-old married, white female from Texas — explained why she is drawn to voyeurism, exhibitionism, and being seen, exposed, and displayed.
“I found that I liked it. I liked the attention, [I] liked that I could sort of control them [men], liked that they were looking at me,” Sarah said in an email interview. “So I’ve continued doing it.” At the time the article was written, Sarah admitted she exposes her breasts frequently and spreads her legs wide open, giving strangers a full view upskirt. She also views her behavior as harmless, as I did.
“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.” Sarah has never received any complaints from men. Plus, most women fantasize about having sex in a “unusual” location or public place. But Sarah’s behavior, and mine, is problematic.
“When women flash, nobody reports them,” Gloria Brame, a sex therapist and certified sexologist, told Mic. “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.” But both can be offensive.
I never considered the kids who may have seen me through their bedroom windows.
The women and men who may be triggered or upset by what they saw.
The good news is that, these days, my manic episodes are well managed. I take several medications to keep my mental illness at bay, but I still have voyeuristic tendencies. I still like to be seen, but in a “safe,” distanced, and mutually agreeable way. So I share nudes with a couple who engages in similar behaviors. I flash my husband, but not my neighborhood. I do not expose myself to anyone else, and occasionally, when I’m feeling particularly outgoing, I’lI use video chat-based websites, like Omegle, to engage in virtual sex with other consenting adults. But that’s it. That’s all. My “sex in the streets” days are long since behind me.