Ever notice how your partner wants to push the limits of letting others see you when you’re intimate? He or she seems to crave attention while you would rather maintain some privacy. You joke about your partner being an exhibitionist, but deep down you wonder what it really says about your relationship.
Obviously, I’m using the term “exhibitionist” loosely here. A true exhibitionist might engage in those activities to the exclusion of living a healthy, well-balanced life. He or she may go out into the public and choose behaviors that are not accepted by our culture (exposing themselves to passersby, etc). Many of them are not able to become aroused unless exhibitionism is involved.
That’s what I’m not talking about. What I am discussing is someone who has a more subtle interest in “exposing” himself or herself. Sexually, this could include outlandish clothes at parties/nightclubs, edgy behavior at sex parties or through webcam communities. All of these behaviors may make sense in a certain context, and would be totally acceptable if the person is single, or has a partner who enjoys exhibitionism as well.
But what happens if you aren’t into exhibitionism and your partner is? This can bring up several issues, especially in online communities.
• Betrayal — Often the camera-shy person feels betrayed by his or her partner’s need to show off, or may feel pressured to maintain the same standard of exposure as the more outgoing partner. He or she may feel that if they don’t “keep up,” they’ll lose their partner.
• Opposites Attract? — It’s interesting to look at why shy people so often choose exhibitionists as partners. It may have something to do with opposites attracting, but I think there is something deeper to it. Many shy people have often wished, at least internally, that they were more outgoing. This carries into the sexual arena as well. They see the “high” or peaked arousal of people putting themselves out there, and they assume that people must have a great self-esteem to expose themselves so freely. Of course, this may not actually be true. I have seen many exhibitionists whose reaction to innate shyness or self-esteem issues is to overcompensate by going to the other extreme.
• Making it for the long-haul — Initially, this may be why these two individuals are attracted to one another – they sense a balance between them. But as they move into a long-term relationship, these differences become more difficult to manage. The shy partner can add meaning to the act of the partner exposing him or herself that isn’t really there. “Why am I not enough for this person? Why do they continue to exhibit themselves?” Or the exhibitionist may begin to think, “If my partner was truly into me, he/she would get over his/her fears and join me.”
• Working it out — Ultimately, if two individuals like this want to stay together, a bit of negotiation is required – and maybe a little therapy. This issue boils down to insecurities on the part of both people. These insecurities may also be experienced in other aspects of the relationship, but are just playing out more overtly through exhibitionism – which is a dynamic that should be explored. If the issue really is just the exhibitionist’s behaviors, then examining what makes the other person feel uncomfortable is an option. Very rarely have I ever seen an exhibitionist able to completely stop his or her behaviors “for someone.” Sooner or later this “erotic template” of how they are wired will resurface. Therefore, it makes much more sense to discuss limits to behaviors, rather than squash them completely. Perhaps the more reserved partner can be comfortable with his or her lover using web cams to communicate and be sexual with other people, but is not comfortable with them masturbating in front of others. Or the more private person may find that they are ok with being a voyeur in their videos or at parties, but don’t want to actually participate. Everything is negotiable and should be mutually agreed upon.
Both partners have to decide that their relationship is the priority, and that they may have to compromise in order to protect the greater whole. Discussing these issues can be an opportunity to explore emotions, motivations and the sub-context of these behaviors. It is possible that both people can learn to address their insecurities and still get everything they need in the relationship.
Dr. Kat is the resident sexologist at Adam & Eve and also runs a private practice and media consulting business. She has a Doctorate from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. Her professional affiliations include AASECT, SSSS, and the American Board of Sexologists. She also has a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology and completed a postgraduate degree in Marriage, Family and Addictions Recovery Therapy.
© Copyright Dr. Kathleen Van Kirk