Exhibitionism & candaulism – what is it and is it normal?
Have you heard of candaulism? Chances are you haven’t but you will know what it is when you read about it. It is related to exhibitionism which most people are familiar with. In this article I will briefly outline the difference between the two and then tackle some questions I have received.
What is exhibitionism?
Many would probably associate the word exhibitionist with someone who has an extravagant behaviour and who likes to attract attention. In psychology it more specifically refers to someone who exposes their genitals in public.
Historical & legal perspectives
Exhibitionism was termed in 1877 by the French physician and psychiatrist Ernest-Charles Lasègue to describe a strong desire to expose ones genitals, and possibly masturbate, in front of strangers.* Exhibitionism falls under the psychiatric category of paraphilias. Even though it was first described in 1877, it can be found in ancient literature with an instance even occurring in the Bible. †
What is a paraphilia you might ask? The definition of paraphilia is actually not straight forward. Psychology today provides the following definition: “A paraphilia is a condition in which a person’s sexual arousal and gratification depend on fantasising about and engaging in sexual behaviour that is atypical and extreme.” and state furthermore that “Paraphilias include sexual behaviours society may view as distasteful, unusual, or abnormal.“‡
What is considered a paraphilia has varied over time and depends on cultural norms and perceived deviations from ideal and perfect sexual norms. For example, homosexuality was considered a paraphilic disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in their DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders) until 1973§, and BDSM, fetishism and transvestic fetishism were not removed until 2013.¶
From a legal perspective exhibitionism would fall under “indecent exposure” and is illegal. However, all this being said, exhibitionism in different forms can be a perfectly natural part of many people’s personality and sexuality without it necessarily being a problem nor a crime.
When is exhibitionism a disorder?
For the purposes of understanding when exhibitionism is a disorder vs not, WHO provides the following definition#:
“Exhibitionistic disorder is characterized by a sustained, focused and intense pattern of sexual arousal—as manifested by persistent sexual thoughts, fantasies, urges, or behaviors—that involves exposing one’s genitals to an unsuspecting individual in public places, usually without inviting or intending closer contact.”
It is important to note the following addition: “in order for Exhibitionistic Disorder to be diagnosed, the individual must have acted on these thoughts, fantasies or urges or be markedly distressed by them.”
Furthermore “Exhibitionistic Disorder specifically excludes consensual exhibitionistic behaviours that occur with the consent of the person or persons involved as well as socially sanctioned forms of exhibitionism.”
There are many variants of exhibitionism, or behaviours mimicking exhibitionism†. Now I will turn to one of these which is termed candaulism.
What is candaulism?
Candaulism is when a person derives pleasure from exposing their partner in a provocative fashion. Anil Aggarwal, in his book “Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices” writes the following:
“The term derives its name from Candaules, king of the ancient kingdom of Lydia from 735 to 718 BC, who was so proud of the beauty of his wife, and so much did he want to impress others, that he made a plot to show his unaware naked wife to his bodyguard Gyges of Lydia. Discovering Gyges while he was watching her naked, Candaules’wife obviously became enraged and ordered him to choose between killing himself or her husband in order to repair the vicious mischief. Gyges chose to kill the king. The queen married Gyges subsequently and fathered the Mermnad Dynasty..“**
Aggarwal also adds that “Often the husband takes this paraphilia to the extreme and enjoys other people having sex with his wife.” The modern term for this is hot-wifing.
It is interesting to note the way the exposure of Lydia is presented here and how she “obviously became enraged“. This is of course a very outdated view of the female sexuality. Women in this scenario can derive just as much pleasure as the man from knowing that others are watching her.
Is candaulism normal?
Several people have written to me with an interest in candaulism with the common question being if it is normal or ok.
Kelly says: “when we are out my boyfriend likes me to wear short skirts and to sometimes remove my panties. He has a habit of touching me when there is a chance of being seen. He gets a thrill out of it and I worry if it’s normal. Any time we’re in a hotel he finds an excuse to get staff to the room and prepares me in a towel to drop. Ok, I get very horny but also worry that it’s weird and disrespectful.”
A similar story comes from Mel: “My partner is always looking for opportunities to show off bits of me to strangers. This ranges from a thigh stroke turning into an ‘accidental’ lift of my skirt way too high, to sitting romantically in the park knowing we’re being watched, to full on nudity and sexual activity on the beach with perverts watching me climax”.
James says: “Is it normal that I want to expose my girlfriend all the time?”
People are often worried about not being normal when they deviate from classical “in-the-bedroom-with-curtains-closed” vanilla sex. The reality is that very many people get aroused from a wide variety of situations, scenarios, people, or things. Just because you fantasise about things that you might perceive as being “outside the box” it doesn’t mean that you have a disorder, that you need to be “cured” or that you have anything to be ashamed about. Embracing you sexuality and being proud of who you are can be liberating and more people than you think might share your interests. However a couple of things are worth noting here.
Considerations: consent & the law
Firstly, one key aspect for any sexual activity is consent by all involved. On the assumption that you and your partner both wish to partake it’s not a problem. However, if the one being subjected to the exposure is not comfortable, you have to discuss this between you. You should never force anyone to any sexual activity they do not want to be part of and you should never feel you have to do something that you do not want to do. You also need to consider the impact on third parties who might not be able to give their consent.
Secondly, “indecent exposure”, as mentioned above, is a crime but how it is defined exactly will vary depending on in which country and, in case of the US, state where you are. For example, in a typical western country, lifting up a skirt in public whilst wearing underwear is unlikely indecent behaviour but if there was no underwear it would likely be. However, it would also require someone to be distressed or alarmed by the event and report it. Therefore, if no-one could see you it would technically be “safe” but still illegal. However, if the point for you is that someone is watching when you expose your partner then, if no-one could see, it might take away the thrill.
So, what can you do if you want to practise it, if you have your partner’s consent, and it’s a behaviour that you enjoy and that none of you find problematic, addictive or distressing?
Non-offending ways to live out your fantasies
It’s difficult to outline some concrete advice without endorsing illegal activity, but here are some ideas how to keep it legal or at least not upset unassuming strangers.
The law, respect, and safe environments
- Check the laws where you are so at least you know what would constitute a crime and therefore the risk you subject yourselves to;
- Never under any circumstances expose yourself or your partner to children. If this is an urge you have, and that you may act upon, seek help.
- Respect other people.
- You can seek out “safe” environments. Examples include:
- swinger clubs and other sex clubs (perfectly normal people go to these, like your neighbour, GP or your kids’ school teacher so you are not going to be surrounded by perverted aliens).
- If you go on holiday without children, you can try “adult only” resorts which allow nudity and in some cases open sexual activity. Some of these also allow people to come in on a day pass.
- Designated beach areas (or other areas) for people with “special interests”. For example, in various countries you can find sections of larger beaches, or small designated beaches for nudists, swingers, gays and so on. Google or ask people and find the one that suits your preference.
- Sometimes the thrill of knowing that someone could potentially watch is enough even if it is extremely hypothetical. In that case just being out in some remote outdoor area, or on a small secluded beach where you are actually not bothering anyone might do the trick (it might still technically be illegal but you are not upsetting anyone).
- Have some fun without actually removing any clothes. For example you can put a remote controlled vibrator in your partner’s knickers.
- If you are so inclined you could record a movie or take photos of you having sex and share on porn platforms or fetish sites for others to view who are there to watch voluntarily. Something like this comes with a list of considerations I won’t cover here but anonymity is one you may want to think about. Note that if any acts on film take place in public places this could be evidence of a crime even if no-one was watching in person.
- If hot-wifing is for you (watching your partner have sex with someone else, with their consent) it is perhaps a safer way to practise than exposing your partner in public since it can take place in private. However, involving other people in your sex life can be a complicated affair, requires very good communication of the couple, and is not for everyone.
- if you’re at home leave the curtains/blinds open. If you neighbour decides to watch it’s their call and they don’t have to stare into your apartment unless they want to…
So, to summarise, candaulism and other variants of exhibitionism can be perfectly normal and many people enjoy it. You do not need to worry that you have a disorder as long as you are comfortable with the behaviour and it is not causing yourself or other people distress.
If however you feel that what you are doing is getting out of control, is causing you or other people problems, and/or that it is an addiction, then you should talk to someone. There are therapists who specialise in sex addictive behaviour and who are very used to these kinds of questions. There is no shame in seeking help if that is what you feel you need. If not, practise safely, with consent, and respect the law and other people.
Thanks for reading! I hope you found it interesting.
*Graugaard, Giraldi & Møhl, Sexologi – Faglige perspektiver på seksualitet, Munksgaard, 2019
†Aggrawal, Anil. Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices (p. 87). Taylor and Francis CRC
§McManus MA, Hargreaves P, Rainbow L, Alison LJ. Paraphilias: definition, diagnosis and treatment. F1000Prime Rep. 2013;5:36. Published 2013 Sep 2. doi:10.12703/P5-36
**Aggrawal, Anil. Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices (p. 88). Taylor and Francis CRC ebook account. Kindle Edition.