Sex and sexuality have been studied for centuries and different cultures have their own unique perspectives about what constitutes appropriate and “normal” sexual expression and sexual conduct. What has been learned when studying sexuality is that most people have a particular thing that stimulates them sexually; and while there is nothing inherently “wrong” about what causes people to experience sexual stimulation or gratification, there are some circumstances where the thing that people happen to be aroused by is deemed unacceptable by society. While this is a heavily debated topic, there are sexual interests that are considered taboo by our culture, usually because they involve acts that could potentially harm others emotionally or physically. When someone has the compulsion to participate in these kinds of sexual acts, mental health professionals suggest that they are suffering from a paraphilic disorder. Paraphilic disorders are “recurrent, intense, and sexually arousing fantasies, urges or behaviors that are distressing or disabling and that involve inanimate objects, children or nonconsenting adults, or suffering or humiliation of oneself or their partner with the potential cause to harm”.
One particular paraphilic disorder that has been studied and examined is exhibitionism, or the need a person has to expose their genitals to non-consenting people, usually unsuspecting people like strangers passing by on the street. There are a couple types of exhibitionism, depending on the age of the person with whom they have the urge to show their genitals to. Some have noted that people who have compulsions to participate in these behaviors may interpret a person’s shocked response as being interested in them sexually, and this distortion could influence them to become involved in more aggressive acts that lead to crimes, such as rape. While exhibitionism itself does not usually involve any violent behavior, the act of a person showing non-consenting people their genitals can cause shock and distress to their victims, thus making the behavior unacceptable by the law.
Research does not have a clear idea of how many people struggle with this particular paraphilic disorder, but suggests that as much as 2-4 percent of men could experience these urges and impulses. It is unclear how many women meet this criteria, though research shows it is significantly less than men. Those who have fantasies about these things of exhibitionist activities but do not act would not meet criteria for this disorder, and do not put themselves in situations that may be harmful for them. It is hard to have clear numbers for how many people experience these symptoms, mostly because those who meet criteria for this rarely seek out treatment or assistance with their urges until they are caught and mandated into treatment as a result of violating rules and laws.
Those who experience difficulties controlling inappropriate sexual urges can be treated by mental health professionals to help them develop coping skills to improve their ability to manage their impulses and to stay away from the troubling repercussions that come with giving into these urges. Often mental health professionals will prescribe both psychotherapy services and psychiatric medication support to help these people regulate their impulsivity imbalances from a chemical perspective while teaching them new strategies to control their urges and behavior. Often, research finds that exhibitionism and other paraphilic disorders arise in combination with some other mental health or mood disorder (such as depression, bipolar, etc.) or substance use, thus getting assistance from medical and mental health professionals can help them to improve their overall functioning and keep them out of involvement with the legal system and the consequences that arise as a result of this kind of impulsive behavior.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events