Exhibitionism is the psychological need and pattern of behavior to exhibit naked parts of the body to other people — that is, parts of the body that would otherwise be covered by clothes according to the standards of the local cultural norms. Usually, this involves the female breasts or the genitalia or buttocks of either gender. Exhibitionism does not necessarily imply alterations of the psychiatric condition of the average, everyday individual, although sometimes this occurs, and can be threatening to those exposed, as in indecent exposure.
"Exhibitionism" commonly denotes a sexual perversion in which satisfaction is linked to the displaying of one's genital parts. Psychoanalysis broadens this notion by acknowledging many early manifestations of this tendency in the sexual life of the child. Freud showed how infantile sexuality, prior to the establishment of the genital functions, was governed by the interplay of various component instincts which manifest themselves most often as pairs of opposites and each of which is linked to a particular erotogenic zone. In this context exhibitionism is one of the elements of instinctual life, making its appearance in conjunction with its opposite, namely pleasure in looking, both being related to the eye as the relevant erotogenic zone. Seen in this light, exhibitionism as a perversion in the adult bespeaks regression to an earlier fixation of the libido.
It was chiefly in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, including the notes added to this work over its successive editions, that Freud outlined his conception of exhibitionism: "exhibitionists, . . . if I may trust the findings of several analyses, exhibit their own genitals in order to obtain a reciprocal view of the genitals of the other person." A note added in 1920 elaborates: "Under analysis, these perversions . . . reveal a surprising variety of motives and determinants. The compulsion to exhibit, for instance, is also closely dependent on the castration complex; it is a means of constantly insisting upon the integrity of the subject's own (male) genitals and it reiterates his infantile satisfaction at the absence of a penis in those of women" (p. 157 and n.). The anxiety aroused by the perception of this real lack of the penis in women—in the mother, for example—led Freud to describe how, by the mechanism of disavowal, such a perception could be so thoroughly denied that an object, a fetish, could come to stand for the absent penis and "become the chosen object determining the achievement of sexual pleasure" (Green, 1990). For Guy Rosolato (1967), "fetishism is at the heart of all perversion in that it disavows the difference between the sexes"; it must therefore, and a fortiori, be central to exhibitionism.
Let us note, lastly, that exhibitionism as a manifestation of childhood sexuality is a common phenomenon and a part of sexual play. The desire to show off the genitals is linked to the needs for reassurance and knowledge. Child psychologists underline the importance of such play, though they insist that it should be confined to children of the same age, generally within a group where the curiosity is shared.
- "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes"
- Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality
- Turning around
- Turning around upon the subject's own self
- Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.