Exhibitionism is commonly associated with men in trench coats lurking in dark alleyways, but some women get off on exposing their genitalia in public, too. We asked sexologists how men and women may be treated differently for the same sexual act.
Image by Guille Faingold via Stocksy
Sarah* was 21 when she realized she liked going outside without a bra or underwear on. "First it would be flashing or not wearing panties, " she says. "Then it escalated." Her boyfriend at the time found it sexy, which led to photo shoots of her outside wearing a parka—and nothing else—before stripping down entirely in front of strangers. "After a while, I'd just go out in a jacket and nothing else and we'd take pics," she says.
At this point, Sarah realized that she enjoyed being totally naked in public, which she's parlayed into a sideline career as a nude model on Twitter. In her photos, she can be seen in a wide range of public settings, from posing fully nude next to a waterfall, to gleefully spreading her legs while being propped up by two male tourists.
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In most of the photos, you can see a crowd forming behind her, with men and women alike ogling her nude body. While she says she's gotten her fair share of odd looks, she's never been arrested or asked to pay a fine. In fact, she says no one has ever even complained.
"People are normally nice and/or amused, to be honest," she says. "Sometimes a bit shocked, but that's normal, I guess."
Sarah is a self-identified exhibitionist, or someone who derives sexual pleasure from exposing their genitals in a public setting. While the word "exhibitionism" often elicits images of men in trench coats who flash and dash from darkened street corners, some women also enjoy stripping down to shock or arouse unsuspecting onlookers.
While many non-identifying exhibitionists have the occasional impulse—like a quick nip slip to our latest sexual partner in a crowded library or a hastily-shot upskirt sext—exhibitionism in its purest form is fairly uncommon, says Dr. Justin Lehmiller, the head of the social psychology department at Ball State University. (It's also, for the most part, illegal: Most states have specific indecent exposure laws that make public nudity a crime punishable by fines or imprisonment.)
"This is a nonconsensual act in which people experience sexual arousal in response to shocked reactions on the part of others," he tells Broadly. "We're not talking about drunk people flashing each other at Mardi Gras. We're talking about people engaging in a deviant act where the goal is to shock and surprise others for one's own sexual gratification."
In comparison to their male counterparts, fewer females are true exhibitionists. According to a 2006 Swedish study of 2,450 randomly selected individuals, 2.1 percent of women reported at least one occurrence of exhibitionism, as opposed to 4.1 percent of men. However, the desire to be naked in public is driven by a common motive for both sexes: It's a turn on.
"Part of the thrill [of being naked in public] is possibly getting caught," says Amanda, a 38-year-old exhibitionist, who, like Sarah, was introduced to the lifestyle by a male partner. "But also the feeling of air and sun on those parts of your body is incredible."
Whether they're posting anonymous tit pics on r/gonewild or conveniently "forgetting" to wear underwear while taking a trip to the supermarket, there are many women who get off on the thought of total strangers seeing them naked. What sets female exhibitionists apart from male exhibitionists, says sexologist Timaree Schmit, is their lowered chance of receiving negative attention for their behavior, which has to do with the fact that female nudity is socially more acceptable than male nudity.
We consider a girl getting up on a bar flashing her tits as party behavior, not a sex crime
"The folks who exhibit these behaviors in a criminal way are a lot more likely to be men, but it's still in context of a culture where if women want to exhibit themselves sexually in public, it's considered okay," Schmit says. "We consider a girl getting up on a bar flashing her tits as party behavior, not a sex crime."
Legally speaking, however, there's very little distinction between male and female public nudity. Although it's legal in 33 US states for women to go topless, it's not unheard of for topless women to be arrested for disorderly conduct regardless, highlighting the contradicting societal and legal expectations around the female body.
Generally, American culture views male and female exhibitionists differently, in part because naked men are more likely to be perceived as a sexual threat than naked women. For this reason, female exhibitionists are a lot less likely to be reported to the police, Lehmiller says. "This might be because exhibitionism is so much less common among women, but it could also be because women's victims just don't report it—perhaps because female flashers don't tend to provoke the same safety concerns as male flashers."
The association of exhibitionism as a safety concern may not be unfounded. In another study from 2006 that looked at more than 200 exhibitionists over the course of 13 years, "23.6, 31.3, and 38.9 percent of exhibitionists were charged with or convicted of sexual, violent, or criminal offenses, respectively." Additional studies have also indicated a correlation between exhibitionism and other forms of paraphilic or deviant sexual behavior.
"It seems like just some fun when girls do it, but if guys do it maybe people think there's something wrong with them," Sarah said. "I don't know why, really. Maybe it is seen as more aggressive or something simply due to how it looks."
For this reason, Sarah isn't particularly concerned about getting caught, though she does worry that people in her hometown will one day stumble on her Twitter page.
For the time being, however, Sarah sees herself as on a mission to normalize public nudity, regardless of whether the people she encounters on her photo shoots find it shocking or not. "It's just a body," she said. "People should get over it and realize that. There are far worse things in the world."
*Names have been changed.