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Voyeurism And Exhibitionism: How Common Are They?

Most people are a little of both ... or more.

Do you enjoy R-rated movies with steamy sex scenes? Most people do. There’s a little bit of voyeur in all of us.

Do you ever wear tight, form-fitting, or revealing clothing to show off some aspect of your body? Many people do from time to time at the beach, the gym, or socially. There’s a little bit of exhibitionist in most of us, too.

But how many people are really deeply into watching sex or exposing themselves in public? That’s been a mystery but a Swedish study has investigated the issue, providing what, as far as I know, are the only real data on the subject.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute (the university that awards Nobel Prizes) surveyed a random sample of 2,450 Swedes age 18 to 60. Seventy-six (3.1 percent) reported at least one incident of feeling sexually aroused by exposing their genitals to a stranger. Men were more exhibitionistic than women (4.1 percent vs. 2.1 percent).

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One hundred ninety-one (7.7 percent) reported at least one incident of being sexually aroused by spying on others having sex. Again men were move voyeuristic (11.5 percent vs. 3.9 percent).

It’s no surprise that men are more voyeuristic than women. Voyeurs are called peeping Toms, not peeping Teresas. The audience for pornography is clearly voyeuristic, and according to porn industry estimates, 80 percent of pornography is viewed by men solo (usually with one hand busy). In the study, the single best predictor of voyeurism was frequent use of porn.

Compared with the population as a whole, voyeurs and exhibitionists are more sexually active. According to the study, they are more easily aroused, masturbate more often, and have partner sex more frequently. They’re more sexual in general, so they’re apparently more interested in exploring the fringes of sexual expression.

It’s risky to be an exhibitionist and/or voyeur. In most places, it’s illegal. It also invites derision, for example, the moniker "dirty old man." But in some places, voyeurism and exhibitionism are not only legal, but encouraged—at nude beaches, sex clubs, and swing clubs. In addition, several festivals celebrate voyeurism and exhibitionish, among them, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Nudes-a-Poppin’ in Indiana, and Fantasy Fest in Key West. I suspect there must be others. Anyone know of any?

Nude beaches, Mardi Gras, Nudes-a-Poppin’, and Fantasy Fest are all about exhibitionism, with topless or naked women (and some men) enthusiastically flaunting it for eager men and their cameras. But these venues do not involve true voyeurism because voyeurism involves more than gazing at nudity, it means watching people having sex. For that, you have to visit sex or swing clubs.

Most major metropolitan areas and several rural locales have at least one swing club and one sex club. Many have more than one. Swing clubs typically admit only couples, and many sex clubs have one night a week reserved for couples. But most sex clubs admit singles and make their money from single men. Where I live, in San Francisco, a major sex club is the Power Exchange, which began as a BDSM club and still maintains a play dungeon in the basement, but it also has two other floors full of couches, beds, and little rooms and nooks where nookie is encouraged and can be observed.

The night I visited the Power Exchange—as part of a “field trip” during a sexology meeting—there were maybe a few couples in various stages of getting it on, being watched by dozens of men, many of whom openly masturbated. Admission to the Power Exchange costs $20 for couples but $40 for single men. Bowls of condoms were everywhere, and monitors circulated to make sure no women felt harassed. According to the staff, many patrons, both couples and single men, are out-of-towners, tourists attending conventions who want to play or watch people playing far from home where they’re unlikely to run into anyone they know.

It’s not clear if the Swedish results reflect the prevalence of voyeurism and exhibitionism in the U.S., but I suspect they do. Everyone who has ever seen an R-rated movie is at least a little voyeuristic, and sex clubs couldn’t survive without a steady stream of exhibitionists to attract the crowds of high-paying single men.

Are you voyeuristic? Exhibitionistic? Have you ever visited a swing club or sex club? I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences—and I bet many other PsychologyToday.com readers would, too.

The study: Langstrom, N. and M.C. Seto. “Exhibitionistic and Voyeuristic Behavior in a Swedish National Population Survey” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2006) 35:427.

 

San Francisco journalist Michael Castleman, M.A., has written about sexuality for 36 years. more...

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