Unravelling the Riddle of Exhibitionism: A Lesson in the Power Tactics of Perverse Interpersonal Relationships

By Tuch, Richard Howard | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Unravelling the Riddle of Exhibitionism: A Lesson in the Power Tactics of Perverse Interpersonal Relationships


Tuch, Richard Howard, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


Through an examination of the varied paradoxes embedded within the phenomenon of genital exhibitionism, the author establishes exhibitionism as a paradigm for interpersonal relations whereby one individual entices another to lose himself, to a benign or dangerous degree, in a presented portrayal/enactment. Efforts to entice that cause an extreme loss of the subject's sense of self - making it exceedingly hard to break free of - are designed to render the subject powerless and take psychic possession of him. The perpetrator accomplishes this feat by interacting with his victim in ways capable of producing a sudden and profound regression with sufficient loss of autonomous ego functioning that the subject finds it hard, if not impossible, to act on his own behalf. The essential feature of the perpetrator's efforts is his violation of the unspoken but understood rules of interpersonal engagement that, when violated, cause extreme disorientation and a loss of trust in one's most basic assumptions about how humans treat one another. When this happens, we would describe the interaction as having been perverted to serve the exclusive needs of the predator - to gain as complete control over the other as possible.

Keywords: captivation, control, disavowal of reality, exhibitionism, humiliation, manipulation, neuroscience, perverse, perversion, relatedness, sadistic, subversion

There is something funny, yet, at the same time, not so funny, about genital exhibitionism. Society considers exhibitionism a laughing matter. Magazine cartoons picturing flashers caught in the act leave us tittering at the absurd nature of this behavior. The exhibitionist's obvious wish to evoke a strong reaction from the onlooker makes him seem a bit pathetic, especially given how his actions belie the very thing he strives to establish - proof of his impressive manliness. Early sexologists and psychoanalysts (Krafft-Ebing, 1932; Stekel, 1952) called the practice of exhibitionism 'silly,' and Gebhard et al. (1965) concluded that "on the whole the exhibitionists are to be pitied rather than feared" (p. 399).

In fact, exhibitionism is harmless to the extent that the exhibitionist typically wants nothing more than what he gets. The vast majority of men who engage in exhibitionistic behavior keep it strictly visual. They rarely seek physical contact (Macdonald, 1973; Gittleson et al., 1978) and almost never rape1 (Silverman, 1941). But while his behavior seems more pestering than menacing, the exhibitionist nonetheless has his way of evoking shock and alarm not just in his victim but throughout society, as evidenced by the way the press handles exhibitionist-on-the-loose stories - reporting them as if the exhibitionist poses as grave a threat as does a rapist.

As we see, exhibitionism is capable of evoking diametrically opposed reactions. Which is it: laughable prank or grave threat? Is the exhibiting of one's penis a mere tease or a prelude to rape? Does the exhibitionist seek to inspire envy or evoke terror? These questions constitute one of the many paradoxes embedded within the act of exhibitionism that, taken together, constitute the 'the riddle of exhibitionism,' and they leave us wondering whether the ambiguity and confusion created by the exhibitionist's actions is what's chiefly responsible for the unsettling fear experienced by those forced to participate in the enactment of the exhibitionist's fantasy. The exhibitionist's intentions are ambiguous enough to trigger the victim's wildest imaginings, filling her with terror, doing half the exhibitionist's job for him.

Let's consider some of the other paradoxes. What does the exhibitionist have in mind when he exposes himself? If the act is meant to accomplish what some claim - reassurance of the man's potency and ample endowment (Alexander, 1933; Fenichel, 1933; Freud, 1905) - why would the exhibitionist expose his penis and, in the process, risk the very thing he fears most - a woman's devastatingly negative assessment of what she's been shown?

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