I recently read Kate Gould‘s fascinating little book Exposing Phallacy, all about flashing in contemporary culture. Kate set out to understand the experience of flashing from all sides: spending time with flashers on online forums and chat rooms, as well as speaking to people who’ve been flashed about their responses, considering the gendered dynamics of flashing (comparing women and men who flash), and exploring continua of exhibitionism. Here I will briefly summarise some of the main points of the book before focusing on how therapists today might work with people who find themselves wanting to flash.
Trigger warning: This post contains exploration of flashing behaviour, and also reflections on how people might deal with any desires for non-consensual sexual activity, such as flashing.
Broadly speaking, Kate concludes that women who flash do so to be validated by men as sexy, desirable beings. The kind of infantilisation and sexualisation of women that occurs in other contexts is apparent here and flashing generally involves displaying a shaved vulva under a skirt in a ‘safe’ context where escape is possible (such as on a bike or a crowded beach). For men, Kate concludes, flashing is an aggressive act involving the invasion of women’s space and an insistence of the man’s right to be there; gratification is obtained from the fact that the penis commands a response, whatever that is. It seems that virtually all the flashers that Kate came across online focused on flashing at the ‘opposite sex’, and there was also no mention of anybody outside of the gender binary (of man/woman) talking about flashing on these fora.
Kate writes powerfully against the victim blame culture in which many women who have been flashed are encouraged to assume responsibility for the experience. She argues that telling women to deliberately avoid potential flashing situations or to alter their behaviour through fear of flashing risks further victimising women and increasing the power of men who flash. She calls for women to refuse the fear of the flasher’s imposition and to respond with defiance, whilst placing the blame clearly on the flasher, and calling for a critique of wider gendered and sexualised culture in which flashing occurs, or is enabled. Perhaps we need to think carefully, for example, about the gendered depictions (or not) of genitalia in the media and what messages these give.
One of the most interesting chapters of the book, for me, was the one which examines the ways in which flashing has been treated by the psychiatric profession. Flashing is categorised as a disorder according to the American Psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM IV TR) under exhibitionism and this doesn’t look like changing significantly in the next revision of the document. The main treatments that Kate reviews involve trying to make people who flash averse to flashing and/or ‘normalising’ their sexuality. Examples are given of flashers being given drugs which make them feel nauseas when thinking of flashing situations or making flashers undress in front of ‘mixed sex’ audiences or audiences who respond with indifference.
I was struck that most of these examples of psychiatric treatment were from the 1960s and 1970s and reflective of the problematic behaviourist focus of the time. Also, like Kate, I was concerned about the ideals of ‘normal’ sex and masculinity assumed by the psychiatrists involved. I wondered about how a psychosexual therapist today might work with somebody who is sexually excited by the idea of flashing.
It seems important, as part of countering the victim blame culture that Kate speaks of, to focus on changing the behaviour of flashers rather than concentrating on victims’ behaviour (as well as addressing the wider culture in which flashing occurs, of course). Here I will give a few of my thoughts but I’d be very interested to hear from others who have worked in this area.
One of the things that I’ve found most helpful with clients who are interested in sexual activities which might be abusive or harmful is Chess Denman’s distinction between transgressive and coercive sex. People often make judgements about sexual practices on the basis of whether they fit in with societal norms or not (those that don’t being ‘transgressive’). Chess suggests that a much better distinction is whether practices involve forcing, pressuring or persuading people or not (those that do being ‘coercive’).
Kate found that, in common with many others who engage in non-consensual sexual activity, flashers tend to fail to recognise their behaviour as problematic or are forgetful about what they have done. The combination of the power in behaving oppressively, and the guilt at recognising oneself as an oppressor, can result in a lot of fuzziness, emotional confusion, and avoidance.
Working with people who are excited by flashing I think it is useful to attempt to provide a safe-enough space to talk about any sexual practice (with the usual ethical proviso that confidentiality can’t be kept if there is a risk of harm to self or others). It can be helpful, within this, to talk about the diversity of sexual practices that exist, the commonality of sexual desire around power and displaying the body, and the fact that most people consider committing acts that would be coercive and/or hurtful at some point in their lives (so having the capacity for harm and coercion is normalised, whilst acting upon it is not).
People often assume that they are entirely good (and therefore their flashing behaviour can’t be harmful really), but also harbour a deep fear that they might really be entirely bad (and perhaps it is a terrible, disgusting, unforgivable thing that they are doing). This makes it very hard for them to look at the behaviour at all because of the terror that it might prove that they are completely bad. Encouraging a more complex view of human beings, as all having the capacity for harming and helping, can make it more possible to openly reflect on frightening urges or desires, and to reach a clearer understanding of them. They can then determine which desires they might previously have regarded as problematic, because they were transgressive, but are actually perfectly possible to engage in consensually, and also which are coercive, and therefore shouldn’t be engaged in at all.
Meanings of flashing
Another vital part of the picture is what flashing means to the individual. Kate’s sense of the common gendered meanings of flashing are useful here, but it is also important to recognise that the individual meanings for the person in question may differ from these, and also that there are frequently multiple meanings to any (sexual or other) practice.
For example, flashing could be about any and all of the following things and more: feeling powerful, attempting to elicit fear, attempting to elicit desire, being naughty or childlike, exposing one’s vulnerability, fighting against cultural norms around being clothed, trying to force some kind of intimate connection, being acknowledged, sharing one’s sexuality with another, displaying the body, wanting to confirm negative beliefs about oneself, or wanting negative beliefs disproved.
Once a person feels safe enough to look carefully at their desire to flash (rather than trying desperately not to look too closely at it because they feel so conflicted about it), they can also start to understand what it means to them. This opens up both the possibility of finding ways of doing the same thing in consensual ways, or of finding other activities which meet the same desires.
For example, if somebody finds that what they enjoy about the idea of flashing is sharing their sexuality with somebody else, they might find that they can do this by writing erotica online in places where others know the kind of thing they’ll be reading, or by engaging in consensual webchats about their fantasies. If the turn-on is about displaying the body to strangers then there are webcam websites for people who want to do this, or parties and clubs they could go to.
If the coercive aspect of flashing is central (for example if it is about power or about shocking the other person), then hopefully a better understanding of the distinctions between transgressive and coercive sex will help the person to see the problems with acting upon such desires. They can decide to keep those desires in the realm of fantasy and act upon other, consensual, ones (given the diversity of sexual possibilities).
Further exploration of meaning may also reveal other consensual, perhaps non-sexual, activities in which the person could have a need to feel powerful, important, acknowledged, or attractive met (amateur dramatics perhaps, or leading a team activity). It may be that there are broader lacks in the person’s life which can be addressed and which will meet these needs/desires.
There are useful ways of working with people who have sexual desires around flashing, around enabling conversation about the diversity of sexuality, clarifying the transgressive/coercive distinction, and considering the meanings for the individual within the wider culture they are situated in.
I also agree strongly with Kate in the importance of cultural, as well as individual, reflection and change. We need more, rather than less, sex education in order that people understand the diversity of possibilities, the problems of coercion, and the importance of consent, from an earlier age. Also, we need to think about the ways in which gendered bodies and genitals are, and are not, represented, and the contexts that this creates in which flashing makes sense.
This issue, like many, demonstrates the importance of holding both the wider culture, and the individual experience, simultaneously, rather than allowing either one to overwhelm the other. We may well see cultural trends and norms which make flashing desirable and possible (such as the way femininity is generally associated with private space and masculinity with public, or the way in which men’s sexual desire is generally regarded as something natural that must be acted upon). At the same time, and within this, when we speak to individuals we will find a complex network of meanings, desires, and experiences which needs to be openly engaged with and understood if we are to shift their behaviour.