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Secrecy about exhibitionism can be toxic to a relationship.

answered 09:04 PM EST, Thu January 17, 2013
anonymous anonymous
I enjoy exhibitionism. I post naked pictures online and I will sometimes have intentional wardrobe malfunctions in public places for the shock value. I do not actually like sex as much as a like the thrill of exposing myself. I am now in a serious relationship and I am surprised that I am still doing what I always assumed I would give up once ‘serious’ with someone. My boyfriend knows a little bit but if knew how much I really did he would be very disturbed I think. Is it wrong of me to keep this part of my life a secret and continue with it.? I am not sure if I can be truly happy without this daily thrill.

David Shannon Says...

There is nothing inherently wrong with exhibitionism.  It is a pretty common fetish that lots of people get off on.  It becomes problematic if...

  1. it puts you in jeopardy, such as encouraging a stalker, or getting yourself in trouble with the law;
  2. it causes problems in other areas of your life, such as your relationship or your employment;
  3. it becomes the only way you can get turned on, and feel fulfilled sexually; and/or
  4. it is a behavior you really want to stop, or at least cut back on, and you don't seem able to do so.  At that point, it becomes compulsive sex, which some people might call sex addiction.

The term sex addiction is very controversial, because...

  1. it gets applied to too many diverse behaviors and situations,
  2. it puts a negative spin on certain behaviors that might be healthy under the right circumstances, and
  3. it makes moral judgments about what behaviors, and amounts of activity, are unhealthy, based not on any objective study, but on the values, world view, and personal experience of the person making the judgment.  On the other hand, there are treatment models for addictions, notably 12-step programs, which might help a person who is very distressed about their compulsive behavior pattern, or at least the consequences, and wants to stop.

The alternative to looking at it as an addiction is to see it as a valid choice an individual has a right to make, even with awareness about possible consequences.  It seems pretty clear that you choose it, and in fact like it.  You like the thrill of exposing yourself more than you like conventional sex.  You doubt whether you can be truly happy without it.  Whether or not you need to do it on a daily basis, is a related but separate issue.

You ask whether it is wrong to keep this part of your life a secret, and to continue it.  Please note that there are two questions there.  Is it wrong to continue to do it?  Well, not necessarily, unless it causes significant problems for you, as outlined in the first paragraph.  Some of those problem areas are certainly in play here.  You need to do essentially a cost/benefit analysis, to decide whether the thrill is worth the possible consequences.  If your answer to that is yes, then you will probably continue the behavior, knowing quite clearly that it is your choice.

Then there is the matter of keeping it a secret, at least about how much of the behavior you continue to do.  In an intimate relationship, secrets can be toxic.  When they become known, it can seriously undermine trust.  And even while they are not known, they can still affect your degree of commitment, and mean that you are not sharing your whole, authentic, self with your partner.  Being open and authentic are pretty important cornerstones for intimacy.

If I was in your situation, and exhibitionism was that important to me, I would want to talk about it openly with my partner.  For myself in a relationship, my attitude would be that he needed to handle that, one way or another, in order for us to continue being close.  And if I can't be open about such things, what would be the point of having a "serious relationship* to begin with?  You need to ask yourself how important your relationship is to you.  And is it worth jeopardizing, by continuing a behavior, not only that he might not like, but that you have to sneak around in order to do?

If he is understands how important it is to you, and if he is willing to accommodate that interest more than he seemed to before, then you will need to negotiate the conditions under which it is okay to do that.  That might include things like frequency, how and where it is done, riskiness, whether it leads to other sexualized behaviors, especially with other partners, and the effect it has on your sexual relationship.  If there was some payoff for him, such as you bringing heightened sexual energy back into the relationship, he might have an easier time accepting it.  But since you like actual sex (with him?) less than the thrill of exposing yourself, he might not like having to compete with your fetish.

If this is messing up your relationship, and you do want to stop or at least reduce exhibiting yourself, but don't think you are able to do so, you may wish to get help from a therapist, who specifically works on habitual behaviors, whether as addiction, unwanted compulsions, or poorly controlled impulses.

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Page last updated Jan 18, 2013

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