“Exhibitionism is when a person experiences sexual excitation from the fantasy of being observed naked or engaged in sexual activity, or from actually being observed while naked or engaged in sexual activity,” explains AASECT-certified sex therapist Indigo Stray Conger, LMFT, CST.
Importantly, this consensual kink is completely different and separate from the mental health condition known as exhibitionistic disorder, which involves deriving “recurrent and intense sexual arousal from the exposure of one’s genitals to an unsuspecting person, usually a stranger,” Stray Conger says. The key difference is in the lack of consent and the distress the person may feel about their own desires.
“Healthy exhibitionism is a sex-positive celebration of the erotic and should not be confused with exhibitionistic disorder,” she says.
The desire to incorporate being watched by others into sexual activity is an extremely common fantasy, Stray Conger says. According to Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D., New York University professor of human sexuality and sexpert for LELO, a recent study showed that, “66% of men and 57% of women fantasize about having sex ‘openly in a public place,’ and 82% of both genders fantasize about having sex in an ‘unusual’ place, including offices, public toilets, etc.”
“Most of us have at least a little bit of an exhibitionist streak in us: This, like anything else in psychology, exists on a spectrum, and it is perfectly normal and healthy,” Vrangalova adds.
Though bringing that fantasy into reality is slightly less common, it still occurs frequently enough via the robust swinging or “lifestyle” community, says Stray-Conger.