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Are you an exhibitionist?
August 4th, 2011
07:47 AM ET

Are you an exhibitionist?

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and New York Times best-selling author, blogs about sex on Thursdays on The Chart. Read more from him at his website, GoodInBed.

Are you an exhibitionist? Maybe even a little bit of one? Have you ever fooled around in the backseat of a taxi, or gotten it on at your parents’ house, or made out in an elevator or stairwell, or enjoyed some great sex amidst the great outdoors?

In my experience as a sexuality counselor, exhibitionism tops the list of frequent fantasies for both men and women and is also the inner desire that couples are most likely to translate into action. So what is it about being potentially caught in the act that’s such a turn-on?

On a simple level, the thrill of possibly being seen or heard while otherwise sexually engaged increases the brain’s transmission of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s a close cousin to adrenaline and plays a big role in sexual excitement.

As psychologist Elaine Hatfield says, “Adrenaline makes the heart grow fonder.” And for those couples whose hearts are already deep in the throes of infatuation, exhibitionist behavior may simply be a byproduct of that all-consuming, can’t-keep-your-hands-off-each-other feeling, in which love is not only blind to the opinions of others, but also to their gaze.

And of course, for some, exhibitionism is more a matter of practicality (like when you’re living at home or with roommates) than a function of actual desire.

But still, a propensity for exhibitionism runs far and deep and many psychologists theorize that its broad appeal may be strongly related to our first youthful experiences with the intense pleasure of orgasm, which most of us experienced (whether on our own or with someone else) when the possibility of getting caught was close by - say, in our parents’ house.

And, not unlike the development of a fetish, these formative experiences may establish a powerful link between the particular risk of getting caught and the singular pleasure of sexual gratification.

As a result, even years later, the possibility of getting caught as manifest in our exhibitionistic urges elicits powerful feelings of sexual desire. We may be far from our teenage years (and even have kids of our own), but that doesn’t mean we’re not above acting like horny, hormone-addled teenagers when home for the holidays.

With exhibitionism, there is also an underlying sense of power that comes from being observed - a power in knowing that we may be arousing the watcher(s).

In their recent book on the Internet and sexual desire, authors Ogi Ogas, Ph.D., and Sai Gaddam, Ph.D., note that “one in four webcams on the free webcam network ChatRoulette are aimed at a penis.”

This strong compulsion to experience power through the premise of arousing others would explain why guys like Anthony Weiner “sext” photos to women they’ve never even met. It’s not about specific sexual gratification, but more about a general feeling of power.

While most women probably don’t get turned on by random photos of guys’ genitals, that’s not to say that women don’t also experience a power and pleasure in being desired, hence the female propensity to engage in other acts of exhibitionism just as much as men.

Classical paintings of nudes often featured women who were more interested in soliciting the sexual gaze of the disembodied spectator than anyone else with whom they happened to be depicted, and today much amateur porn features women who are often making love as much - even more - to the person on the other side of the camera as the person they’re actually with.

Exhibitionism is not just about the thrill of getting caught, it’s about being seen, admired, loved and appreciated. Not long ago there was a spate of Hollywood starlets — Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan — who were exposing themselves “accidentally” while wearing short skirts with nothing on underneath.

Clearly, this could have just been their desperate ploy for press, but it also felt like their desperate attempt to be wanted and sexually craved by one and all.

In the end, a little playful exhibitionism can be fun and exhilarating and may well be part of our innate sexual psychology—but remember, it can also get you arrested. While you may enjoy drinking a fruity cocktail like Sex on the Beach, don’t take that as a suggestion to actually have sex on the beach, as one young couple recently did. You could end up in jail.

It’s one thing not to be able to keep your hands off each other in public; it’s quite another when you can’t keep your genitals off each other. In that case, go get a room. Odds are you can find one with a view.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.