Roughly one-third of all men arrested for sexual offenses in the U.S. were caught engaging in exhibitionism, which generally involves exposing one’s genitals to a non-consenting stranger. Many psychologists and sex addiction experts today believe that the internet presents an overwhelming temptation to act on impulses and can escalate exhibitionism. Additionally, the increasing popularity of taking exhibitionism to the online world has almost normalized the behavior. This may, in fact, be a factor in the case of former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, who resigned from office in 2011 after multiple sexting scandals became public and made the news again recently when he checked himself into a treatment center for sex addiction.
In Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, Gentle Path at The Meadows’ clinical architect Dr. Patrick Carnes describes exhibitionism as a Level Two addictive behavior. Level Two behaviors are considered intrusive enough to warrant legal action. Often the risk and potential consequences of exhibitionism play a role in the addictive process.
However, the internet has significantly reduced the legal and personal risks of exposing and exhibitionism. It almost seems commonplace these days for people to send nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves via text messages or messaging apps. Online video technologies and new social media platforms like Periscope and Facebook Live allow people to broadcast provocative images of themselves in real time from the safety of their own homes.
People who use dating apps and websites like Tinder or Match.com often complain of being sent these types of images without having consented or having asked for them. Not all people who engage in these behaviors are exhibitionists and/or sex addicts. But, some exhibitionists do like the “thrill” of exposing themselves in this way to people who did not consent to see the images and are shocked or disgusted by them.
Of course, although people are more likely to avoid consequences for this behavior in online environments, it is not completely risk-free, as Anthony Weiner’s example has shown us. What goes out into cyberspace stays in cyberspace, and nothing there is truly “private.” Weiner lost his career and his marriage because he either could not or would not stop. And, for every Anthony Weiner, there are many other men struggling with the same compulsions and experiencing similarly catastrophic consequences. In some cases, they are also victimizing others, especially when the person on the receiving end of their photos, videos, or explicit messages are underage, or did not expect nor consent to sexually explicit communication.
Why Some People Can’t Stop Sexting
If there’s anything that the dawn of social media has taught us, it’s that most people have exhibitionist traits—think selfies! We all sometimes crave attention and validation. The internet and the seemingly ever-increasing options we have available for online communication—social media, text messaging, video chatting—offer endless possibilities for such feedback.
For men who struggle with exhibitionism as part of a larger problem with sex addiction, however, these needs can be much more pronounced, and much more problematic.
So, what drives the exhibitionist to such extremes? According to Dr. Carnes, part of the problem lies in a distortion of courtship. Again, from Out of the Shadows:
“To look and be looked at are normal parts of adult courtship. To show “yours” to people who do not wish to see it…means that the person has eroticized a part of courtship that leaves other aspects of intimacy and sexuality underdeveloped. It is about how the person was damaged growing up.
The excitement of illicit victimization is rooted in the addicts’ anger about that hurt. Breaking the rules is a way to retaliate for hurts, real and imagined. The anger stems from a set of beliefs, family messages, and self-judgments the addicts use to interpret the world. Most addicts do not connect their behavior with anger. The excitement and arousal of the trance block the feelings, along with the rest of the pain.
The greater the anger and pain, the more excitement is required to block it. This dynamic is the key to understanding how escalation works within the addictive process. If the current behavior within the addictive cycle is no longer supplying the excitement necessary to block the pain, something with greater risk is attempted.”
All in all, addiction to exhibitionism is similar to any other process or substance addiction. It becomes a way to numb oneself from feeling the pain from their emotional wounds, and a substitute for real intimacy and connection—something the addict both longs for and fears.
Exhibitionism in Not a Victimless Crime
Being the target of by an exhibitionist, either online or in the outside world, can be very damaging and frightening. Most exhibitionists carry around the image of a person they know they have hurt. However, the addict often underestimates the danger their addiction presents both to others and to themselves.
Exhibitionists often lead double lives. They may live in constant fear that their identity will uncovered and their secrets revealed. They may also judge themselves with the same harsh criticism—weird, nuisance, irredeemable perverts. But, most can change their behaviors with the right treatment.,p> Men who take the time to face their pain and trauma, and take responsibility for their actions can heal and can stop the behaviors that are so damaging to the people they act out upon, their loved ones, and themselves. We see it happening every day at Gentle Path at The Meadows.
For more information on our inpatient and comprehensive outpatient programs for sex addiction and intimacy disorders, please call 855-333-6076 or chat with us online.