Chatroulette has given rise to an impressive array of hilarious and poignant viral sensations, from improvised concerts by Ben Folds, to a foul-mouthed 8-year-old, to Jon Stewart’s antics. Which is pretty remarkable considering the website seems to be largely comprised of naked men.
Chatroulette, which launched only a few months ago, has already become a phenomenon, thanks in part to its ludicrously simple layout. Webcam users are connected to complete strangers, and if they’re bored with whomever they’re talking to, they can click “Next” and be connected to another randomly selected stranger. The site has none of the frills of other social-networking sites—no profiles, no private messages, no friends—just an endless stream of strangers. And, as the site has seemingly become overrun by flashers, an endless stream of genitalia—mostly of the male variety.
“Chatroulette is technology’s answer to an exhibitionist’s prayers,” says one psychiatrist.
This disconnect between Chatroulette’s flashers and the vast majority of users who want nothing to do with them prompts the question: Why? Who are all these naked men, and what, exactly, they getting out of this game of naked cat and mouse?
For many of them, say experts, it’s a similar thrill to what real-life flashers on the street get—but even better because it’s risk-free. “Chatroulette is technology's answer to an exhibitionist's prayers,” says Carole Lieberman, psychiatrist and author of Bad Boys: Why We Love Them, How to Live with Them and When to Leave Them. “It allows would-be trenchcoat-wearing subway flashers to get the same titillation without the danger of getting caught.”
Why exposing one’s self to strangers online would be titillating, however, is something most people can’t imagine. According to Lieberman, there are many things that might excite an exhibitionist. Some men, she says, “have fears of inadequacy and are trying to prove that they are 'big' men by getting 'big' reactions from others.” The Daily Beast spoke briefly to one Chatroulette flasher for whom that appears to be the case. When asked why he was showing us his genitalia, he typed out: “i want people 2 see me an i want 2 see ppl.”
This particular man, a 23-year-old construction worker from Oregon named Joe, also confirmed that he is not a flasher anywhere other than on Chatroulette, which seems to imply that Chatroulette is turning normal, everyday men into guys who expose themselves to strangers—or, at least, it’s bringing out that until-now repressed desire in them.
“They can be very bright and successful and you’d never know that they have this addiction,” says Dr. Nancy Irwin. She says these Chatroulette flashers aren’t the seedy characters we usually imagine, and that most flashings are just the result of social awkwardness combining with sexual compulsion. “They’re CEOs, they’re celebrities, and they have this issue. Sexual compulsion crosses all ethnic, gender, and socio-economic barriers. Most of them have extreme difficulty relating to women in a normal way.”
Because of this, they may have more confidence in their physicalities than their personalities. “They’re very proud of their equipment, so they sort of lead with their ace, shall we say,” Irwin says.
Still other men aren’t interested in eliciting a reaction from the flashee at all. They’re “simply lonely and horny and are pretending they have a 'sexual partner' in the viewers who inadvertently click on to their webcam,” says Lieberman.
But it’s not just psychological—Lieberman says there’s a cultural aspect to online flashing as well. “There is a kind of exhibitionist mentality that is invading our culture, from Chatroulette to reality TV,” she says. “Though not all of the participants are physically naked, they are ‘exposing’ themselves to grab attention and their 15 minutes of fame.”
Whether they’re looking for attention or a genuine connection, there’s one thing the flashers of Chatroulette are definitely not looking for—conversation. In fact, over the course of three days—days punctuated with bored-looking young men and women, a few friendly folks eager to connect, an octogenarian man wearing cat ears, several copulating couples, women baring their cleavage, and, yes, many, many penises—only Joe from Oregon was willing to stop what he was doing long enough to tap out his one-handed answer to a reporter’s questions.
This, of course, is the crux of exposing oneself on Chatroulette. Online, a flasher can control what is and isn’t seen, pointing the camera at his torso so that his face is obscured, and retaining the option to click “Next” if he doesn’t like who he’s paired with. This new brand of no-risk flashing makes the kind of exposure indulged in by guys like Ben, a 45-year-old flasher who works with computers, seem almost antiquated. Ben frequents a messageboard dedicated to exhibitionism, and agreed to shed some light on his own motivations for public flashing.
From the time he was 13, Ben has enjoyed exposing himself to women, getting off not on the risk of being caught but by the surprise of the women he encounters. He describes his jury-rigged outfit, which consists of a raincoat, and the cut-off legs of pants tied with garters around his thighs to give the illusion that he is wearing pants underneath. A T-shirt cut off at midriff completes the illusion.
“If there was an alley or side street, I would stand in it waiting for women to come down the street. When they came close I would drop my coat and do my thing.” For Ben, this isn’t a conduit to sex, nor even an attempt to attract a flasher-loving mate—his fit body and lucrative career, he says, do that on their own. Flashing, for Ben and for many others, is just about the thrill of provoking a reaction. And now, Chatroulette is mass-manufacturing that thrill, taking away the threat of getting caught and the costly costume requirements, leaving any would-be flasher with no excuse not to indulge his urges from the comfort of his living room couch.
But what of the clothed Chatroulette users who log on looking for a genuine connection and find that, within a few clicks, they’re staring down the business end of a… well, you know. Will the constant stream of nudity eventually inure Chatroulette users to the sight of masturbating men? “Viewers who keep clicking on Chatroulette—and being exposed to countless male organs in various stages of arousal—will become somewhat desensitized to flashers,” says Lieberman. “However, in real life, it will still be more intimidating because there is always the real-life danger of the exhibitionist pursuing you.”
All Things Digital recently caught up with Andrey Ternovskiy, Chatroulette’s 17-year-old computer-whiz creator, while he was standing in line to buy an iPad. He said he was working on “changes to the ‘reporting people’ function designed to cut down on the male genitalia.”
If Ternovskiy does indeed manage to clean up Chatroulette, he’ll either transform an already intriguing site into a full-fledged social-networking hub with the potential to explode like Facebook and Twitter—or decimate his userbase. Either way, Irwin sees an upside to the current, phallus-ridden version. “This actually could be a very positive thing for society,” she says. “If these people have a ‘healthy’ channel like this, an appropriate place to share this fetish, that means they won’t have to do it in real life, it will stop them invading our boundaries.”
And when they do invade your boundaries on Chatroulette, you can always click “Next."
Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York , and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.