Voyeurism, Exhibitionism, and Your Sex Life
By Gloria G. Brame, Ph.D., M.P.H.
HSAB Affiliation: Contributing Expert
Voyeurism and exhibitionism are two aspects of human sexuality which have seldom been studied and often been misunderstood. The terms actually refer to a wide range of behaviors that range from truly harmless fun to crimes punishable by law. In the context of a consensual adult relationship, voyeurism and exhibitionism are normal, fun behaviors that open the door to a myriad of erotic opportunities for couples. The time to worry is when and if the behavior veers towards the non-consensual or involves minors.
In its broadest sense, voyeurism simply refers to anyone who derives sexual pleasure from seeing someone naked or engaging in sex or elimination, or who is aroused by the impromptu exposure of another person's body. In that way, most adults are voyeurs, as this very generic description would include those who get a thrill from watching strippers or looking at porn; who get turned on by site of an accidental exposure (a slipped bathing suit or an unzippered fly); or who sneak glances at other people in dressing rooms or public bathrooms. For the most part, these are normal behaviors that everyone would agree are essentially harmless.
Voyeurism can be a fetish if it is a more obsessive interest or if watching others is necessary to arousal or orgasm. Voyeur-related fetishes include a range of categories. Some people are fans of "peep shows" strip bars, and "live cams;" others have very specific voyeuristic fetishes, such as "up skirts" (looking up a woman's skirt for a glimpse of panties or naked loins). In its most loving expression, voyeurs enjoy watching their partners behave sexually or undress. Voyeuristic lovers' games include things like strip poker, having a partner perform a strip-tease, having a lover wear incredibly revealing clothes, and other playful, mutually pleasurable activities. Voyeurism is, by nature, a passive role, although some voyeurs may be dominant: they will take control and orchestrate their lover's performance.
Voyeurism rises to the level of a psychological and legal problem when the desire is so strong that it becomes a compulsion and particularly when the person being watched has not consented. The "Peeping Tom" is the most infamous example of a type of non-consensual voyeurism. A Peeping Tom is someone who invades other peoples' privacy by watching them without their knowledge of consent. We've all heard stories of neighbors peering through windows and spy-cams installed in bathrooms and dressing rooms by unscrupulous bosses. Without the willing consent of the person being watched, voyeurism may be (and has often been) treated as a punishable offense.
Like voyeurism, exhibitionistic behavior ranges from the harmless to the criminal. It is a very normal human impulse to want to "show off," and for many people, that means showing off their bodies. Again, in its broadest definition, many people have a touch of the exhibitionist, and may express it by wearing sexy, revealing clothing, or being the first one to volunteer for skinny dipping. In an erotic context, exhibitionistic games can be exciting for lovers who like high-intensity passion, both to the person disrobing and the person watching. Obviously, a couple with one voyeur and one exhibitionist are matches made in heaven. An exhibitionist is the ideal counterpart to the voyeur: exhibitionism is an aggressive behavior, and part of the thrill putting on a show for one's lover (not unlike a mating dance). It may also be thrilling to the exhibitionist to shock and arouse others by exposing their sex organs. Strippers who love their jobs are examples of exhibitionists who know how to "work it."
Exhibitionism, however, can be a psychologically troubling behavior, and a sex crime, if it is done without the informed consent of the other party. The most infamous example of non-consensual and criminal exhibitionism is the "flasher," someone who exposes his or her genitalia to unsuspecting passers-by. Some flashers may also masturbate as part of that exposure. If the flasher is caught, an arrest is almost guaranteed. What makes this particularly difficult is that often criminal exhibitionists often choose minors as their targets. An arrest for indecent exposure to an underaged person is a serious offense.
Criminal voyeurism and exhibitionism are usually compulsive: Peeping Toms and flashers cannot control their need to do these things, and will commit these acts even though they know they risk arrest and scandal. These behaviors must be addressed in a course of therapy and possibly through treatment with anti-depressants, either to help people develop better outlets and safer strategies to satisfy their needs, or to address the underlying issues that are causing the self-destructive behaviors.
Depression, stress, and other psychological problems are often at the root of compulsive behaviors.
That said, mutually consensual voyeurism and exhibitionism are normal, exciting aspects of sex. For adventurous lovers, the possibilities for lovers' games, role-playing and other spicy variations involving voyeurism or exhibitionism are virtually unlimited.