Exhibitionistic Disorder: Symptoms, Cause, and Treatment

Exhibitionistic disorder is a type of paraphilic disorder characterised by recurrent and intense sexual arousal from exposing one's genitals to unsuspecting strangers.

Engaging in a conversation or discussion about sex can make it a potentially touchy topic (pun intended). There is a stigma revolving around “unconventional” topics like sex, kinks, role play, and so on. 

In reality, sexual practices involving consenting adults are entirely normal, common, and healthy. However, the topic has some downsides, which we can avoid once we learn the differences between safe sex and disordered behaviour. This leads us to the main topic of our article – exhibitionistic disorder. 

Exhibitionistic disorder, also known as exhibitionism, is a type of paraphilic disorder where individuals derive sexual excitement and gratification by exposing their genitals to non-consenting people. This disorder can also include the strong urge to show one’s sexual activity to others.

Exhibitionistic disorder is more commonly found in men than women and typically begins in early adulthood. In fact, research suggests that about 30% of men charged with a sexual crime are exhibitionists. Individuals with this disorder may become sexually aroused or masturbate while revealing their genitals. But sexually engaging with a non-consenting spectator does not typically interest them.

If people consent to it, exhibitionism is not inherently disordered. However, it is clinically classified as a disorder that causes suffering or distress when the urge is continuous, intense, and abnormal. This article will delve deeper into the symptoms, causes, and available treatments for exhibitionistic disorder. 

Understanding Exhibitionistic Disorder

Causes of Exhibitionistic Disorder

Exhibitionistic disorder is a complex condition with no apparent cause. However, research has identified several factors that may contribute to its development. Not a lot of studies talk about the risk factors for the disorder in males. Yet, some common factors include antisocial personality disorder, alcohol abuse, and interest in paedophilia.

In addition, individuals who have experienced sexual or emotional abuse during childhood may be more likely to develop exhibitionistic disorder. Some people who display exhibitionistic behaviour also engage in other paraphilias and are considered hypersexual. 

As applied to paraphilias, the theory of courtship disorder suggests that exhibitionists perceive their victims’ shocked response to their behaviour as a form of sexual interest, leading them to further engage in the act.

Although exhibitionistic behaviour may seem harmless, some exhibitionists may go on to commit sexual crimes such as rape. In fact, approximately one-third of sex crimes reported to the police involve incidences of exhibitionism.

While the cause of the exhibitionistic disorder is unknown, scientists believe that physical, medical, and psychological factors may all play a role in its development. Some other possible risk factors include conduct disorder and high testosterone levels.

In the next section, we will explore the symptoms of exhibitionistic disorder, which can help individuals identify if they or someone they know may be struggling with this condition.

Symptoms of Exhibitionistic Disorder

Behavioural Symptoms

One of the primary symptoms of exhibitionistic disorder is engaging in exhibitionistic behaviour, such as exposing one’s genitals to unsuspecting people. Sexual arousal, fantasies, or urges accompany this behaviour. 

Exhibitionists may feel a strong compulsion to engage in this behaviour and find it challenging to resist their impulses. People often exhibit this behaviour in public places like parks, malls, or public restrooms. 

Emotional Symptoms

Individuals with exhibitionistic disorder may experience a range of emotional symptoms, including shame, guilt, and embarrassment. They may feel guilty about their behaviour and fear that law enforcement will catch them.  

They may also feel ashamed of their actions and struggle with low self-esteem. Exhibitionists may experience distress or impairment in their ability to function at home, school, or work due to their uncontrollable urges.

Physical Symptoms

The physical symptoms of exhibitionistic disorder may include increased heart rate, sweating, and sexual arousal. Exhibitionists may experience sexual excitement and gratification when they expose themselves to someone. Typically, they may seek out this behaviour repeatedly to achieve sexual gratification.

Individuals with these impulses may only be able to achieve sexual excitement and gratification when they expose themselves to someone. 

Exhibitionistic disorder can cause feelings of guilt in individuals, particularly if it violates social norms or laws and causes harm to others.

Diagnosing Exhibitionistic Disorder

Clinicians diagnose exhibitionistic disorder after ruling out medical problems that may be causing the symptoms. Once they rule out medical causes, mental health professionals consider whether the individual meets the diagnostic criteria for an exhibitionistic disorder.

Diagnostic Criteria

The diagnostic criteria for exhibitionistic disorder include persistent sexual arousal, fantasies, or urges involving exposing the genitals to an unsuspecting person or performing sex acts before a non-consenting audience. 

  • The patient must have acted on these urges, or the symptoms must cause significant impairment in social situations, at work, or elsewhere.
  • The symptoms must have been present for at least six months.
  • It is crucial to note that being aroused by exhibitionistic acts for a consenting adult audience is not a sign of the disorder.
  • Doctors will consider the diagnosis only if the urges or actions involve non-consenting audiences (adults or children) or the symptoms cause distress.

Evaluation Methods

The diagnostic process for exhibitionistic disorder involves a physical exam and psychological assessments.

The physical exam aims to rule out physical conditions that could be causing the symptoms. Psychological assessments may take the form of questionnaires or talk sessions with a mental health professional to assess the patient’s mood, mental state, and mental health history. Professionals usually ask family members or caregivers to participate in these assessments. 

Differential Diagnosis

Healthcare providers often perform a differential diagnosis to make sure they identify the correct condition and provide the appropriate treatment. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) outlines specific criteria to diagnose exhibitionistic disorder.

Exhibitionistic disorder can be mistaken for other conditions that involve sexual dysfunction, such as voyeurism, frotteurism, or sexual sadism disorder. Voyeurism involves deriving sexual pleasure from observing unsuspecting individuals engage in sexual acts. Frotteurism involves sexual arousal from touching or rubbing against a non-consenting person. Sexual sadism disorder involves sexual arousal from inflicting pain or humiliation on others. 

Treatment of Exhibitionistic Disorder

Exhibitionistic disorder is a condition that can significantly affect a person’s life and relationships. Through various methods, including psychotherapy, medication, and support groups, mental health professionals can effectively help the individual. 


Psychotherapy is a common treatment for exhibitionistic disorder. It typically involves one-on-one sessions with a licensed therapist specialising in sexual disorders. Therapy aims to help individuals understand and manage their exhibitionistic behaviour. In therapy, the individual can explore the underlying psychological and emotional issues that may be contributing to their urges. 

Different types of psychotherapy are often used to treat exhibitionistic disorders. For example, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns. Through CBT, individuals with exhibitionistic disorder can learn to identify triggers that lead to their behaviour and develop strategies to manage them.

Another type of effective technique is psychodynamic therapy. This type of therapy explores the individual’s unconscious thoughts and feelings and how they may be related to their exhibitionistic behaviour. Psychologists can help individuals gain insight into their actions and develop strategies to manage them.

Hence, psychotherapy can be highly effective for treating exhibitionistic disorder. By exploring the root causes of the behaviour, individuals can develop coping strategies and tools to manage their impulses.


In some cases, medication may be prescribed as part of the treatment plan for exhibitionistic disorder. Doctors use medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to help manage the symptoms of the condition. SSRIs can help regulate the individual’s mood and reduce the frequency and intensity of their urges.

It is important to note that medication alone is not typically sufficient to treat exhibitionistic disorder. Doctors and therapists use medicine in conjunction with psychotherapy to provide a comprehensive treatment plan.

Support Groups

Support groups can also be a valuable resource for individuals with exhibitionistic disorders. It provides a safe and supportive environment for people to share their experiences and receive encouragement.

In addition to traditional support groups, online support groups are also available. Online support groups provide a sense of community and connection for individuals who may not have access to in-person support groups.

In conclusion, exhibitionistic disorder can be a challenging condition to manage. However, with the right treatment plan, individuals can learn to manage their behaviour and lead fulfilling lives. Psychotherapy, medication, and support groups are all effective treatment options. 


In conclusion, it is essential to understand that the desire to engage in exhibitionism is entirely normal, and there is no shame in exploring your sexuality in a consensual and safe manner. Despite the stigma surrounding this topic, it is important to be aware that exhibitionistic disorder is an actual condition that requires attention and treatment.

However, it is equally important to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy behaviour when it comes to exhibitionism. Engaging in sexual acts without consent or in inappropriate settings can cause harm to others and lead to legal consequences.

At the same time, it is essential to remember that kinky sex, including exhibitionism, can be safe and healthy if practised with respect for boundaries and consent. As long as your interests do not interfere with your daily life or cause harm to others, there is no need for shame or guilt about your desires.

Ultimately, it is up to each individual to explore their sexual curiosities and desires in a safe, consensual, and respectful manner. But, again, seeking help from a mental health professional can benefit individuals struggling with an exhibitionistic disorder or other paraphilias.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to practise safe exhibitionism?

If you are interested in safely exploring exhibitionism, it might help to keep a few things in mind to ensure that you are practising it without harming yourself or others.

As we saw in the previous section, exhibitionism is a sexual preference in which an individual seeks to expose themselves sexually to others. Many forms of healthy exhibitionism can be practised consensually, even though it is often associated with harmful behaviours.

First and foremost, obtaining consent from all parties involved is crucial. Whether you are engaging in exhibitionism with a partner or in a public setting, ensure that everyone involved is aware of the situation and has given explicit consent.

Secondly, it is important to be mindful of the space you are in. While the desire to engage in public sexual activity may be exciting, it can be a legal concern and potentially harmful to others. One way to practice exhibitionism in a safe and controlled environment is by visiting sex clubs or swingers’ clubs – where the people present are likely interested in and aware of public intimacy.

It is often easy to forget that exhibitionism is a personal preference. Not everyone will be comfortable with it. To enjoy the act, the two main elements to keep in mind are respecting other people’s boundaries and avoiding exposing others to sexual situations without their consent.

Overall, if interested, engage in exhibitionism safely, consensually and respectfully.

Safe exhibitionism involves engaging in consensual and non-harmful forms of exhibitionism.

Is exhibitionistic disorder unhealthy?

While some may see exhibitionism as a harmless or even exciting form of sexual expression, it can be unhealthy when it crosses boundaries, disrespects others’ autonomy and consent, and causes harm to oneself or others. 

When someone engages in exhibitionism without the consent of others or in public spaces where it is not appropriate, it violates boundaries and respect. It can also lead to legal consequences, such as being charged with indecent exposure or sexual harassment.

Additionally, excessively engaging in exhibitionism may indicate underlying psychological or emotional issues, such as low self-esteem or a need for attention, which can be harmful to one’s mental health and relationships.

Consent is a crucial factor in healthy sexual expression, and exhibitionism without the consent of all parties involved is a violation of this fundamental principle. Everyone should give consent freely and enthusiastically.

Sexual autonomy and respect are rights that everyone possesses, including the right not to have sexual acts or nudity imposed upon them without their consent. While exhibitionism may seem harmless to some, it can be a harmful and distressing experience for others.

In conclusion, exhibitionism can be unhealthy when it crosses boundaries, disrespects consent, and causes harm to oneself or others. 

What is an example of exhibitionism?

One example of exhibitionistic disorder involves a man who exposes himself to women in a park. This man may wait for women to pass by and then suddenly expose himself so that women can see him. The man may experience sexual arousal from the women’s reactions. This happens even if those reactions are negative, such as shock or disgust.

Another example of exhibitionistic disorder is when people expose themselves through a window in their home or apartment. This person may deliberately leave their curtains open so passers-by can see them. They may even take steps to attract attention, such as masturbating in front of the window.

It is important to note that while some individuals who engage in exhibitionistic behaviour may not have exhibitionistic disorder, those who do typically experience significant distress or impairment due to their condition. This may include social isolation, relationship problems, or legal issues if they are caught and charged with a crime.

Is sending nudes a form of exhibitionism?

In today’s digital age, sending and receiving nude images has become increasingly common, particularly among younger generations. However, the act of sending nudes raises a few questions, one of which is whether it can be considered a form of exhibitionism.

The answer might not be a straightforward yes or no answer. It often depends on the circumstances and the intention behind the act. However, it is worth noting that exhibitionistic disorder is not just limited to physical exposure but also involves showing intimate body parts.

For example, if someone is sending unsolicited nude pictures of themselves, then it can be classified as exhibitionistic behaviour. In contrast, if someone is sending nude photos to their romantic partner or consenting adult, it may not be considered exhibitionism.

It is essential to distinguish between exhibitionistic disorder and other social or psychological factors that may contribute to sending nudes. Sometimes, people send nudes because they feel pressured or coerced by their partner. Or they feel it is necessary to keep their partner’s interest.

 In other cases, they may genuinely desire to begin a romantic relationship. This leads to a “distortion of the normal courtship process,” as some researchers have called it. These motives may not necessarily stem from exhibitionistic disorder.

What to do when confronted with unsolicited exposure?

Exhibitionism, or exposing oneself in public, can be a disturbing and distressing experience for those who witness it. For example, it can be particularly unsettling when a man flashes at you, especially if you feel violated. But what do you do if someone confronts you with unsolicited exposure? 

Firstly, flashing is illegal in most countries, and you have the right to call the police if you need help. While providing a detailed description of the offender may be difficult, any little information may help authorities catch the person.

If you decide to report the incident, it is important to take care of yourself. Talking about the experience with a therapist can help you process the trauma and cope with any long-term psychological distress. Many women who have experienced indecent exposure report feeling traumatised. Hence, it is important to seek professional help if you are struggling to cope with the experience.

Remembering that the fault lies with the individual who exposed themselves without your consent, not with you, is also important. It is easy to blame yourself after witnessing such an act, but you did nothing wrong. The perpetrator is the one at fault.

Can I practise exhibitionism consensually?

Many people wonder if they can consensually practise exhibitionism without it being considered a disorder. The answer is yes. People can have a sexual interest in exhibitionism and engage in it consensually without being diagnosed with the disorder.

Consensual exhibitionism involves individuals who willingly participate and are aware of the act, creating a safe and non-threatening environment for all involved. It can take many forms, such as sharing nude photos, engaging in sexual acts in front of others, or participating in public sex acts.

It is important to note that the distinction between consensual exhibitionism and exhibitionistic disorder lies in the lack of consent from the audience. Exhibitionistic disorder involves non-consensual exposure, which can cause distress or harm to the viewer.

On the other hand, consensual exhibitionism can be a healthy and satisfying part of a relationship for some individuals. It can enhance intimacy, trust, and communication between partners. However, one should always obtain consent before engaging in any form of sexual activity, including consensual exhibitionism.

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