A compelling, insightful and superbly written in-depth analysis of a subject matter that is rarely mentioned outside the parameters of a giggle. ~ Louisa Achille, Award-winning Documentary Filmmaker of The Naked Feminist
Most of us might think that a book about flashing would have little to say about our day-to-day existence. Surprisingly, Kate Gould’s Exposing Phallacy shows how we are all, however involuntarily, inevitably linked to exhibitionism. In her latest book, Gould brings to the fore the consequences of the perennial sexualisation of society, and of how this plays a major, albeit elusive, role in the oppression of women today.
Exposing Phallacy is important on a number of levels. Firstly, it is a much needed feminist work on the ins and outs, the psychology and the numbers, behind the act of flashing. It reminds the reader that this act is not merely the showing off of a stranger’s genitals, but also the invasion of another person’s privacy. It is perpetrated with the intent to visually and emotionally attack someone else, and in this way derive some sort of morbid pleasure. Flashing, Gould argues, is an abuse of power. It is not simply a psychological condition which strips exhibitionists from a sense of ‘decency’, but a consequence of a highly arbitrated and engendered set of social norms.
While there is data of women flashers, the numbers are widely surpassed by the male demographic. What is more, according to Gould, the modus operandi of each group is dramatically different. Women tend to expose themselves in situations of physical distance, or when there is possibility of escaping the area swiftly after the ‘incident’. Men usually have a confrontational approach, addressing their victims in unapologetic and, well, full frontal manner.
The book is a small analysis of the socio-cultural factors at play. It poignantly describes how (mostly male) flashers profit from the culture of fear prevalent in our society. Women are recurrently reminded not only of the seemingly universal peril of, but also of the stigma attached to being raped. Their role is to duck and dive, run, protect oneself, as if the actions committed onto them are somewhat their fault, for bearing breasts and hips and all other elements of sensual attraction. Gould goes onto show how the widely held assumption that most women will not confront their harasser, since they lack the social (and sometimes even legal) support to do so, encourages flashers to repeat their assault.
Through this more interdependent social analysis of different but nevertheless abusive practices, Exposing Phallacy is a much needed work about the consequences of rampant mass-sexualisation. Beyong this critique, Kate Gould argues that the solution to these complex malaises cannot be a mere return to the default position, i.e. the re-education of flashers to act as ‘normal’ males. To do this is to reenforce the underlying objectification of the Other (and, more often than not, that Other is woman), and to promote a behaviour that is predicated on the oppression of women. Gould points out the fallacy of ‘curing’ flashers through the re-channeling of their urges into accepted forms of commodified sexuality (e.g.: watching pornography), when it was the discrepancy between these accepted forms of sexual expression and individual experiences that created the ‘abnormal’ behavior in the first place.
But what is then left as a result? How can we deal with exhibitionism, particularly coming from predatory males, and eradicate it? How can we handle the objectification of women, and the perpetual commodification of sex in our culture? How can we stop the emotional and/or psychological decompensation at work in individuals who feel the urge to flash? The book points out the symptoms, but leaves no suggestions of ways to solve it. Perhaps the intent is for the reader to make his or her own conclusions. Gould could have given her two-pence worth and be none the worse. In fact, it would have nicely rounded off the work, bridging the male-female divide present throughout her analysis, exploring how we all, collectively and not only as individuals, are affected by the phenomena she depicts throughout the book.
If anything, I wished Exposing Phallacy had been longer. It mentions the work of several theoreticians – specifically Freud and Foucault – without seriously discussing their hypotheses. By solely alluding to these ideas, without deconstructing their premises which are still highly influential today, one cannot help but feel that the author is missing a trick.
The writing flows beautifully, entwining personal anecdotes and popular culture references, reminding the reader that Gould was once Germaine Greer’s research assistant. There is a lot of The Female Eunuch in Exposing Phallacy, and in a very good way. Alas, the brashness with which the content is sometimes dealt makes the reader feel slightly frustrated. Like a sumptuous meal one is only allowed to nibble at, Kate Gould’s latest offering leaves us wanting more. I can only hope that this book turns out to be just an appetizer. ~ Joana Ramiro, Anticapitalist Initiative
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.
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 Denham‘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.
~ Meg Barker, author of Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships
As the title of Exposing Phallacy suggests, Kate Gould’s book is an exploration of sexual exposure – otherwise known as flashing – which positively thrives on the satisfaction that only a successful turn of phrase can give. It is also, as again suggested by the title, one of the very few rigorously scholarly books that has actually made me laugh out loud. In so doing, it is continuing in a fine Zer0 Books tradition of demolishing the disconnect between popular culture and academia.
And disconnect is curiously pertinent to the major theme of Gould’s over-in-a-flash [sorry] page-turner: Gould exposes a disconnected culture in which ‘we are all exhibitionists’, in which flesh is flashed wherever we look, from TV, to posters, to magazines, to just everyday people, and in which the flasher is pathologized, medicalized and ‘cured’ – more on the reason for these scare quotes later. In her exploration of the female flasher, Gould compares the ubiquity of the ‘plastic’ female form – pruned, painted, injected, photoshopped for our pornographically-inspired pleasure – with the raw “femaleness” of the ultimate absent presence when it comes to popular culture: the vagina*. “It’s the ultimate in female sexual expression, of a woman knowing the power of her body and experiencing the full potency of her desires”, Gould claims, “Or is it?”
It is typical of the Gould’s deft use of irony and humour that she brings her readers to their richly built-up fall using those three little words beloved of the advertiser in search of suspense; Gould uses these words as her base-jump off into a relentless undermining of the insidious trope of female empowerment through objectification, so beloved of an advertising industry. Her argument summarised is that women flashers are submissive to male reaction; gender power relations remain firmly in place despite the ‘empowerment’ rhetoric, and Gould’s killer blow can perhaps be located in this quotation, which deploys the deflating juxtaposition she frequently uses to devastating effect: “The women choose to take off their underwear, but that is the single aspect of the situation over which they have any control. Everything else is controlled by the men to whom they display their vaginas.”
Having exploded empowerment, Gould turns her attention to the male flasher and his “magnificent” penis – and yes, this self-love does seem to propel most male flashers. For Gould, the male flash is an “aggressive act”, in contrast to the female flasher’s submission; she terms it “the eroticization of abuse”, since “flashers know the likely response to their actions is distress and fear’. In conjunctions with flashers’ semantic commodification of the vagina as “the goods”, the repeated theme of contempt for the women they flash, and the assumption that they have “a greater right to get off than [a woman] does to live her life in freedom” it is hard to dissent from Gould’s view that “all the flasher actually feels towards women is hatred”.
Gould does not exactly place the blame for this hatred squarely at the feet of the flasher – although she does want them to accept responsibility, although not perhaps in the way, or for the reasons, you might think. Rather, having delved into the psychology of the male and female flashers, she then widens her focus to encompass the culture of female submission and victimisation, and the cult of alpha male masculinity. And this is where things get really interesting.
Gould delivers a galvanising message of true female empowerment, castigating the culture of victimhood for women, that reduces them to passive objects being acted upon. She uses the example of being given rape alarms at university, which she refers to as a ‘prop, the effectiveness of which was entirely dependent on it gaining the intended response’, recalling the female flasher, or the page 3 model, whose ‘empowerment’ relies upon getting the correct response – that is, an empowerment which relies upon an outside actor. In other words, no empowerment at all, just the same tired rehearsal of gender power relations whereby men act, and women ‘act’ by attracting others to act upon us.
And suddenly it all clicks into place: the cultural disconnect of which Gould speaks is not so much a disconnect as a cultural toin-coss. Flashing is at once the expression of, and the reaction to, contemporary and historical gender power relations. This is perhaps most potently displayed [apologies for inevitable image associations] in Gould’s exploration of ‘masculinity’ and the psychiatric approach to the male flasher. Gould speaks of “an eruption of anxiety” (and having come to know Gould’s wit with words, I suspect that is an intended pun) in ‘masculinity’ as a result of a “devaluation of citadels of male power” not having been “accompanied by compensatory alterations in the markers of masculinity”; this seems painfully obvious. Nevertheless, the psychiatric approach, which combines a combination of humiliation and punishment seeks to ‘cure’ their patients by reinforcing the very tropes of masculinity which seem to be causing so much damage in the first place.
Reading about these treatments in the context of the argument that Gould has subtly built up without your consciously realising it, is an exercise in frustration: they not only sound inhumane and short-sighted to the point of idiocy (one seeming to guarantee that an adolescent boy will grow up to be a paedophile), they also suffer from a basic lack of understanding of the culture in which flashing thrives. And the approach to the female flasher is just as bad: they are simply labelled ‘narcissistic’ and ‘exhibitionist’ – even, as Gould drily notes, “with quite astoundingly archaic reasoning”, as having “a partial masculine identity” (whatever the hell that means anyway).
Gould ultimately wants more responsibility. She wants women to use their righteous anger at their cultural treatment and turn it towards true empowerment – an empowerment that doesn’t rely on the reactions of others, whether than be for protection or admiration. And she wants psychiatrists to give male flashers some responsibility for their actions, rather than ‘treating’ them via the medium of placing the responsibility entirely upon the rise of feminism, or perhaps a childhood trauma. This is not the same as ‘blaming’ the flasher; this is in order, strangely, to ‘empower’ the flasher: the infantilization achieved by removing responsibility can surely do little to assuage the “eruption of anxiety” in contemporary masculinity. It might stop a single flasher who happens to have been caught from flashing, but it doesn’t address the root causes of the desire, which Gould leaves us in little doubt lie outside of an individual’s experiences.
Just as women can be awakened to patriarchy and choose to stop living as passive commodities, so men can be awakened to a cult of masculinity which sets them up as failures unless they consistently dominate and subjugate those around them. This is the responsibility that Gould agitates for in this brilliant polemic, which should be read by everyone – but especially, it seems, by psychiatrists.
* Yes pedants, I’m aware that vagina might not be the exact medical term, but language is malleable. Go with the flow; all potential associations intended, I assure you. ~ Caroline Criado-Perez, www.weekwoman.wordpress.com
Like streaking, flashing seems to trade on the indecency of exposing parts of one’s naked body in public under certain conditions (could one be a flasher on a nude beach? would anyone care?). Like verbal sexual harassment on the street, if it takes place in a populated area with no other threat of physical harm, flashing is (to the viewer) weird and unexpected and probably unwanted, but not particularly effective either as a show of force or as a come-on. I mean, unless you happen to expose your bits to just the right person, most casual viewers are not going to read surprise genital exposure as a positive first move toward mutual sexual pleasure (“Look! I have bits!” “Indeed, you do, as do I. Care to start with a more personalized introduction?”).
I frankly hadn’t thought of flashing as a particularly sexual activity, as something a person would get off on in a dedicated way — though why I would fail to see the potential when voyeurism is such a strong element within eroticism now seems baffling. Gould argues exactly this, in fact: that flashers experience the act of flashing as a sexual activity, one in which their imagined encounter with the observer(s) of their act is the reward, rather than any specific response (disgust, anger, fear, indifference) on the part of those who have been flashed. The flashees, it would seem, are necessary yet strangely superfluous.
From an explicitly feminist perspective, Gould explores the gendered differences in flashing: women exposing themselves as part of a larger culture that objectifies female sexuality, men exposing themselves as a bid for power and/or control over their own sexuality (and the imagined sexual responses of observers). She also talks briefly about the legal and medical frames around flashing, particularly for male flashers, and argues that both of these approaches to the problem of non-consensual flashing are inadequate. While those who’ve experienced flashing as sexual harassment certainly have a right to redress, treating flashing as a sexual disorder risks criminalizing and pathologizing a sexual activity simply because as a society we’ve deemed it “abnormal.” As with so many other sexual behaviors, consent here seems to be the key issue and I wish Gould had explored this more fully: is the unwilling participation of observers (the surprise element) a key part of a flasher’s experience? Or would someone who enjoys the activity of flashing be able to channel that sexual activity into a consensual context?
In the end, I found myself wondering what would happen if as a culture we just treated bodily exposure as … unremarkable? It seems like part of what makes flashing an attractive activity to those who engage in it is the illicitness, the taboo element. So if as a society we’ve decided it’s not so awesome for people to expose their sexybits in public what if we just responded with a collective yawn when it happened? What if, instead of criminalizing the activity and subjecting flashers to therapeutic “fixes,” we just said, “Gosh, that’s boring!” It seems like if as a culture we had a less disordered relationship with sexuality and the human body, we might have a more constructive response to flashing behavior — emphasizing the need for consent and otherwise treating the human body as an unremarkable fact of daily life.
Exposing Phallacy is a book that will be of interest to those who explore the intersections of human sexuality, social policing, and the law. ~ Anna J Cook, The Feminist Librarian
The first two times I remember being flashed were in my childhood. When I was about eight, a man stopped his car in an alley as I was attempting to cross it. Having been raised with a “healthy” fear of strangers, I approached reluctantly when he motioned me over. Inside the open window of his car, the man was holding his erect penis in one hand, and the steering wheel in the other. I ran away. The second time, when I was maybe thirteen, a friend of mine and I were riding the bus somewhere. A man in an adjacent seat was sitting, legs open, with his penis and balls hanging languidly from his entirely too short shorts. The man was grinning. I don’t remember our being frightened by this, merely grossed out. But, instead of shouting at the man, or telling the bus driver what was going on, we simply giggled nervously and changed seats.
Why didn’t my friend and I report the incident to the bus driver? Perhaps it was the man’s confidence in his gaze that prevented us from seeing this as a terrible act. Perhaps it is the fact that young women are trained to avoid conflict and simply move away from an aggressor, rather than confront that aggressor head on and say, “No. Not okay.”
Gould, through impeccable research, not only explains the whys and wherefores of why men (and some women) flash, she also delves deeply into the reasons that women react so passively to what, although seemingly mild, is an incredibly aggressive act.
Before reading “Exposing Phallacy,” it never occurred to me to think to deeply about the culture of flashers. Moreover, I didn’t even know there was such a culture. While deeply disturbing, this sexual proclivity is also quite fascinating to read about. And Gould’s writing and research allowed me an insight into an act that I had put very little thought into, even though I (and many others) have been victims of it.
Gould not only explores the motivations, practices, turn-ons and culture around flashing, but goes on to describe and analyze the reasons why women react the way they generally do when flashed. This book is a thorough and fascinating piece of writing around a subject that has been largely ignored by society, psychology and sex research.
I hope that, if I am ever flashed again, I have the presence of mind not to scurry away, but to look the man directly in the penis and proclaim, “Why…that almost looks like a penis, but it’s much too small.” ~ Sarah C. Bell, author of The Urban Fairytales
This book is fast, intelligent, witty, informative, unafraid. It is also shocking, funny and surprising, and faced me with a view that made me puzzle and think beyond any preconceived notions. I am glad to have read it. This is a serious book, written in a light, engaging style that never loses command of the subject. ~ Valerie Kaye
A confluence of entertainment and academia – an enthralling read that maintains credibility to the end. I arrived with a `C’est quoi ce bordel?’ attitude toward flashers and left with an explanation. I have long believed that even stupid people have their reasons. Don’t know why I never made such allowances for the seriously deviant. Maybe the case wasn’t made until now, or not as compellingly. I highly recommend this book. ~ Marc Phillips, Author of The Legend of Sander Grant
Exposing Phallacy has a lightness of touch one would not expect in a treatise on sexual deviancy. It is a page turner. A read-in-one-go work on flashing and flashers that will one day become a standard work. In her fascinating study of the mindset of the flasher – both male and female – Kate Gould uses the English language like a surgeon’s knife, the blade travelling at a steady clip, cutting, lifting back flaps to peer beneath the surface. Gould’s exercise of assembling facts, examining them at close range, interviewing offenders, and approaching psychiatrists, lawyers and members of the police force, are of interest not just to the academic but to the average reader – the cliché man in the street. People exposing their genitals in public is a subject not lightly to be approached, yet grim though such a subject is, the effect of Gould’s writing is infused with humour. She seems to walk a tightrope between mirth and enjoyment on the one hand and outrage and despair on the other. What, she asks, is going on in the mind of the flasher? Who is he/she? Why do they flash? Is flashing for the male some kind of evolutionary display of violence? Does it make evolutionary sense? Does the male expose himself to show dominance or simply to arouse himself sexually? Does exposing him/herself give the flasher an ego boost? Does enjoyment come from occasioning shock in the beholder? Where does shame come in? Are all males inherent flashes? How is non-threatening exhibitionism physically expressed? Does the flasher suffer some sort of psychological warping of his/her sexuality? These and other questions are posited by the gimlet-eyed Gould in Exposing Phallacy, a book to delight and surprise her admirers, a book that tells us things about ourselves, the world, and the way we are. ~ Mary D’Arcy, Author of Way to Go and Checking Out and Other Tales