My book on flashers, Exposing Phallacy: Flashing in Contemporary Culture, is published by Zero Books. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction, The Irresistible Urge.
I feel somewhat indebted to flashers. Without them, my grandparents might never have met, and I would not have been born. My grandfather was a policeman, involved in the investigation into a man who repeatedly contravened the blackout regulations of World War II by opening his coat and shining a torch on his exposed penis. My grandmother was conscripted as bait in an attempt to lure the man into exposing himself to her, while my grandfather and several other policemen hid in the bushes, ready to spring out and apprehend him. Not the most romantic of beginnings. And, though I’m sure it was through no lack of allurement on my grandmother’s part, they didn’t catch the man.
I’m taking a slightly different approach to apprehending flashers. Rather than put them in manacles, I’ve got them to talk about what they do and why. I’ve spent time in online forums and chatrooms, reading their tales and seeing their revealing, to say the least, pictures. I’ve learnt a thing or two about how best to flash if you don’t want to get caught (skirts that accidentally blow up for women and lycra shorts for men – you get the exposure but have the defence of being fully clothed should anyone object). I’ve spoken to women who’ve been flashed to find out how they reacted and why. I’ve been introduced to sexual practices I never knew existed and seen attitudes expressed of which I was only too well aware. There are no easy conclusions to be drawn about flashers and their urge to expose, as there are no easy conclusions to be drawn about any aspect of human behaviour, but I’ve tried to draw out some sense of what they do, what it means and why.
One of the many things that have struck me is that we are all exhibitionists, whether sporting an enormous ostrich feathered hat, leopard print jumpsuit, and neon pink platform moon boots or adding a brooch, earrings or cufflinks to a navy work suit. We decide how much of our bodies to show, displaying the cleavage (breasts and buttocks) of which we are so proud, the legs hours in the gym have toned almost to rigidity, our faces glowing with the spray-on tan that never fades. Or we effect nonchalance in jeans and t-shirt which, in itself, makes a statement. Then we add mannerisms and movement. We create spectacles with our bodies, using them to convey an image of how we want to be perceived. The man in his jumpsuit, hat, and boots or the teenage girl in hot pants, push-up bra, and tiny Playboy-branded t-shirt are deliberately creating that image – the man wants you to know he’s flamboyant and the girl wants you to know that she thinks she’s sexy. For most of us, it isn’t quite as conscious or the result so conspicuous, but every morning we dress our bodies to communicate something of who we are.
The difference between flashers and non-flashers is that, to a flasher, exhibitionism is the use of the naked body, specifically the genitals, to communicate. For a male flasher, it is the magnificence of his penis (as he sees it) that he wishes to display. His sexual gratification is obtained from the fact that, regardless of how the person he flashes reacts, his penis is worthy of attention and, in all his naked glory, he commands a response. The female flasher seeks approval and appreciation from a male audience. Men applauding at the sight of her naked vagina make her feel sexy and desired, regardless of whether she finds them attractive or would actually want to go anywhere near them.