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Exhibitionism: causes and symptoms of this sexual paraphilia

Exhibitionism: causes and symptoms of this sexual paraphilia

June 24, 2021

"Fernando, a twenty-four-year-old man, arrives at the psychologist's office. Once in Fernando, Fernando says that he has come due to a problem that causes him deep discomfort. He confesses that in recent months he has an urgent need to go out into the street, to sit in a dark corner and, when a woman passes, to show him his genitals. Later, after seeing his reaction, he proceeds to flee and when he gets home he masturbates thinking about the surprise of the person he has shown himself, a fact that causes him great excitement and reduces his stress. Because of this, Fernando has been arrested and convicted on one occasion, but considers that he will do it again if he does not have help, and this causes him great anxiety when he considers it a disgusting behavior ".


The case cited here is an invented example of one of the best-known paraphilias, the exhibitionism .

Exhibitionism as paraphilia

In order to have a better understanding of exhibitionism it is necessary to understand the main characteristics of the group of disorders of which it is a part, the paraphilias.

Formerly called sexual deviations, paraphilias they refer to the repeated presentation of intense sexual fantasies in which the object of desire is atypical . Generally these desires are focused on objects or non-human beings, suffering and humiliation of their own or others or people who do not consent in a period of six months. These behaviors may or may not be understood as alteration by those who present them, being in many cases considered immoral by the subjects themselves. In any case, the paraphilias cause a serious deterioration in various vital areas of the individual, and there may or may not be discomfort on the part of the subject.


Although some of these paraphilias may not have legal repercussions or be too invalidating beyond restricting the sexual interest and discomfort that can cause in the subject itself or the difficulty to be accepted by sexual partners (for example the desires focused towards objects such as fetishism), other paraphilias can result in serious crimes and even crimes such as pedophilia or somnophilia (sexual desire for sleeping subjects, which implies rape).

Diagnostic criteria and symptoms

Having visualized the type of disorder we are talking about, we can now make a more coherent explanation of what exhibitionism implies as paraphilia.

The main symptoms are based on the existence during at least six months of recurrent and very exciting fantasies of exposure of the genitals to a stranger who does not expect it, having also to have carried out and / or produce a clinically significant malaise in the subject or its functioning in relevant areas of his life.


It is the most common paraphilia, and often accompanied by others such as voyeurism. This problem usually appears around the age of majority, having a maximum prevalence between twenty and thirty years and decreasing after forty.

The excitement and pleasure achieved by the exhibitionist are obtained through the observation of the reactions of the people to whom it is shown, generally those of fright, surprise and curiosity. It is possible that the subject masturbates during his exposition, or after this when reimagining the reactions of his victims. Generally, they do not really intend to maintain any sexual activity with their victim, not being the person per se the reason for excitement but the fact of surprising it. In fact, the escape of the exhibitionist is not infrequent if the victim corresponds positively to his reaction. However, reactions of indifference or ridicule can be extremely painful for these subjects, due to their low level of self-esteem.

Psychological profile of the exhibitionist

The typical exhibitionist subject is a generally heterosexual male , often with difficulties when establishing contact with the sex object of their desire, although it is also frequent to appear in subjects with a partner and even married apparently having normal relationships.

In general, the exhibitionist subject presents a high level of withdrawal and introversion, with a high lack of confidence in himself that pushes him to carry out his performance, probably as a defense mechanism. This type of subjects, then, are not usually a real threat, not having in their majority aggressiveness or intention to harm their performance.

Legal treatment

As mentioned above, some paraphilias can constitute felonies punishable by jail.

In the case of exhibitionism, we would be facing a paraphilia typified as a crime against sexual freedom , being able to be punished with prison sentence of between six months to a year or with a fine of one to two years, evaluating the circumstances of the exhibitionist in question.

Keep in mind that when assessing the possibility of creating a diagnostic category to refer to a mental disorder, not only is taken into account if it harms the quality of life of those who experience it in their own flesh. It is also taken into consideration the discomfort and discomfort generated to third parties , and this is exactly what happens in the case of exhibitionism.

Expose the genitals to another person, with the intention of feeling pleasure for it, makes the dignity of others is attacked and, in addition, in many cases produces fear, to be interpreted as the beginning of a violation.

Etiology (causes) of exhibitionism

The causes of this type of parafílicos behaviors is object of a wide debate in the psychological literature.

Many of the theories in this regard indicate the participation of learning processes in the acquisition of these behaviors, proposing that they are learned behaviors through accidental conditioning between sexual excitement and an atypical stimulus, conditioning reinforced by the repetition of situations and the beginning of the application of the stimulus in the imagination during masturbation.

The imitation of models observed in childhood has also been explored as a possible cause , due to the presence of patterns of violence and anomalous sexual behavior in some cases of individuals with little socialization, intrafamily violence and excessively repressive education of sexuality.

In the same way, the presence of deficits in social and communication skills has also been explored, due to the presence of courtship difficulties in many of the cases studied. In these subjects has been observed the existence of a high complex of inferiority, low self-esteem, impulsivity and few communication skills, which can lead to the performance of behaviors considered immoral, unethical, surprising or bizarre as a defense mechanism.

Another one of the hypotheses shuffled is the behavioral termination of McConaghy, according to which if a behavior is very common a mechanism is created in the brain which is activated when perceived stimuli associated with the behavior in question , producing a high level of tension. This causes the individual not to stop performing the action, so that the tension does not appear. It has a certain resemblance to the mechanism of action of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Caution: not everything is paraphilia

The exhibitionism is a paraphilia that can be a serious problem for those who suffer, both for the discomfort it generates and the effects it can cause in different areas of life such as socialization, the affective field.

Do not confuse, however, exhibitionism as paraphilia with fantasies and sexual behaviors Occasionally used as a sexual stimulus. Erotic games and fantasies with the couple such as striptease or the use of their own anatomy to provoke the desire of the couple will not be encompassed as paraphilia, which implies the need to present this type of behavior in a compulsive way to obtain a sexual gratification, for at least six months and producing significant discomfort or abnormalities in normal life.

So, what characterizes the exhibitionism is that the action of undressing in the sight of others, on the one hand, is made simply with the intention that others see it, and on the other, it is not consensual , besides that it is born of an irrepressible necessity.

In the same way, behaviors such as topless or protest use in demonstrations are not catalogable as paraphilic behavior, since they do not imply a compulsive sexual gratification.

Neither can this disorder be diagnosed if the behavior of exposure is due and appears only during an altered state of consciousness or other disorders, such as in cases of manic episodes, psychotic outbreak, intoxication or dementia.

Bibliographic references:

  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.
  • Belloch, Sandín and Ramos (2008). Manual of Psychopathology. McGraw-Hill. Madrid.
  • Cáceres, J. (2001). Paraphilias and violation. Madrid: Editorial Síntesis.

Paraphilia ( Sexual Disorders): List, Treatment & Types(Hindi) (June 2021).


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