In our age of instant communication and camera availability—whether by Skype or cell phone or whatever—we are now seeing technology’s contribution to exhibitionism. Begun several years ago, some adolescents began sending photos of their own genitals -- or perhaps of their former girlfriends’ genitals -- over the internet. If the adolescent is underage, the sender may inadvertently become involved in so-called child pornography laws.
More recently, though, this adolescent behavior has surfaced quite inappropriately in adults with high-profile figures sending sexually explicit photos of themselves shirtless or even actual photos of their own genitals—what I call “Twitter flashing.” Targets of this sexually arousing behavior tend to be interchangeable because the “victims” are often objects to the flasher, and it is not unusual that he will attempt to engage more than one person. When the flasher sends his photos indiscriminately to many, he is hopelessly “campaigning” to be desired.
The word flashing, meaning “to expose oneself indecently,” was first used in the late 1890s (ironically referred to then as “meat-flashing”), according to that bible of etymology, The Oxford English Dictionary. In other words, it is a form of exhibitionism and is an impulse disorder. Wikipedia expands on the definition: “Briefly exposing one’s body in a usually sexual way, (but) acceptable or not, depending on context.”
Exhibitionism can take many forms and it is always characterized by the context of the exposure. For example, women college students, typically in the context of Spring Break, engage in “wet t-shirt” contests that border on a kind of group exhibitionism. Similarly, in the context of private parties and lots of drinking, “boob-flashing” by young women tends to generate envy and desire more than hostility or other negative reactions. Another group type of exhibitionist is the male streaker, who runs naked through the football field, much to the delight of some and outrage of others. In an individual context, sending sexual material to one’s lover usually is well received. At worse, it may be considered demanding or even embarrassing.
Typical exhibitionists, though, are males who want to intimidate, shock, arouse, and even frighten their (usually female) victims by flashing their genitals. These exhibitionists usually do not pursue physical contact with their victims. In fact, they often have intimacy problems with women. Analogous to homophobia, these men are sort of heterophobic. Once they have achieved their goals of provoking an intense emotional reaction in another person, they tend to feel relieved and retreat until the impulse to expose themselves returns.
According to the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, “Exhibitionism” commonly denotes a sexual perversion in which satisfaction is linked to the displaying of one’s genital parts. The proposed Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which revises the current version of the DSM, softens the definition of Exhibitionistic Disorder as a subgroup of paraphilias: “Over a period of at least six months, recurrent and intense sexual fantasies, sexual urges, or sexual behaviors involving the exposure of one’s genitals to an unsuspecting stranger.” The kindest diagnosis of displaying sexual organs to strangers is a “disorder of courtship.” These men tend to be obsessive/narcissistic characters, with impulsive traits that, at times, overwhelm their judgment. They misjudge the import of their behavior on others. Their exhibitionism is not contained to sexuality. It may extend to verbal and physical arenas in which they demonstrate unconventional emotional and behavioral transgressions. More accurate diagnoses of these individuals are usually made when the exhibitionism escalates in seriousness, up the offense chain, as the previous “hands-off behaviors” become less and less effective for self-arousal.
“Twitter flashing” has now taken exhibitionism to cyberspace, where there are no rules until you break one. When that happens, even the “hands-off” behavior may bring hands-on cuffs.