Some Examples of Problematic Sexual Behavior


Human sexual activity does not always bring joy and happiness. Indeed, in many people sexual urges turn into outright compulsions, and in some cases they lead to brutality and violence.

Compulsive sexual behavior, like any other compulsive behavior, is, by definition, distressing and ultimately unsatisfying to the individual. Destructive or socially harmful behavior obviously calls for criminal punishment. There is no question, therefore, that both kinds of behavior are undesirable.

Sexual compulsions can take many forms, and so can sexual aggression. It is debatable whether all of these forms should be differentiated and listed under separate labels as "perversions" or "sexual psychopathologies". At any rate, in recent years such psychiatric labeling has become increasingly cautious. Nevertheless, some of the traditional labels are still widely used today, and since they can simplify the discussion, it seems appropriate here to offer a few examples. One must keep in mind, however, that they form a very uneven selection. Thus, the following behaviors are problematic for different reasons and in different degrees.


Exhibitionism (from Latin exhibere: to present, to offer) means the unwelcome exposure of the sex organs to others, usually strangers, in order to obtain some sexual or emotional satisfaction. This behavior is quite often compulsive. Most exhibitionists are males.

It seems that exhibitionists are often sexually timid or unsatisfied. By their actions they try to provoke surprise, shock, or disgust, which gives them some relief from their psychological tension. By the same token, a calm reaction or ridicule leaves them frustrated and humiliated. As a rule, they do not attack or even come close to their "victims", but flee immediately after the exposure. Some may become highly aroused and then masturbate.

The causes of exhibitionism are not clear. It is known that some senile and mentally retarded persons expose themselves. The behavior may also occur as a result of certain brain diseases. It is further known that some animals expose their sex organs in a gesture of warning or aggression. Among otherwise healthy human beings, however, exhibitionism often seem tied to some psychological conflict or faulty learning. People who enjoy displaying themselves to consenting partners are not exhibitionists in the sense used here.

While exhibitionism may not be as dangerous as was once believed, there is no question that it remains an unacceptable nuisance.


The term "voyeurism" (from French voir: to see) refers to the compulsive observation of nudity or sexual activity. The "victims" are usually unaware that they are being watched, and, when they suddenly realize it, they are understandably upset. The "voyeur" or "Peeping Tom", on the other hand, is often a sexually frustrated individual who feels too inadequate to establish a regular sexual relationship. His "peeping" provides him with some substitute for complete fulfillment. However, he may sometimes be helped to break with his confining and risky habit by some form of psychotherapy.

Voyeurism may not be the worst sexual crime, but since it constitutes an intolerable invasion of privacy, it is properly prohibited.

Needless to say, it is quite another matter if people enjoy looking at the bodies or sexual activities of fully consenting partners. In such cases one may also speak of "voyeuristic" tendencies or interests, but the circumstances then give the term a rather different meaning. Obviously, this behavior is not problematic.


In the past, the term "transvestism" (from Latin trans: across and vestis: dress) was used very broadly for all cases of gender cross-dressing. In other words, every man and every woman who habitually wore clothing of the opposite sex was called a transvestite. Sometimes the word was also used for anyone who preferred to disguise himself in some fashion during sexual intercourse or whose sexual excitement depended on assuming some strange role, such as that of a baby, a toy, or an animal.

However, in recent years the word "transvestite" has been used more restrictively only for those persons who find sexual stimulation in cross-dressing, a condition which has also been called "fetishistic cross-dressing". This transvestism is more common among males than among females. Contrary to popular belief, most transvestites are heterosexual in orientation. Many of them are, in fact, married and pursue their sexual interest at home with the consent of their spouse. There are some male and female homosexuals who like to wear "drag" (i.e., clothing of the opposite sex). However, many of them do not depend on it for sexual excitement, and thus it is inappropriate to call them transvestites in the above sense.

The same applies to certain male entertainers who work as female impersonators. They may neither have a fetishistic attachment to their dresses nor be homosexual in orientation. Instead, they may simply find it rewarding to play a feminine role. (See introduction to "The Development of Sexual Behavior.")

Finally, there are some men and women who identify completely with a gender role inappropriate to their biological sex. In their case, the very term "cross-dressing" would be misleading because they dress according to their honest self-perception, even if it is contradicted by their anatomy. These persons are not transvestites, but transsexuals. (For details, see "Transsexualism.")

As for transvestism in the narrow sense, the greatest problem lies usually in the lack of social acceptance. Once the spouse, family and friends of a transvestite have accepted the behavior (perhaps on the advice of a therapist), it can be better integrated into the overall life pattern. To the same degree, the behavior then becomes less problematic, and no further intervention may be called for.


Pedophilia (from the Greek pais: boy or child and philein: to love) in the strict sense is the psychological inability of adults to have sexual relationships with other adults and their resulting urge to seek such relationships with children. Obviously, by no means all adults who have sexual contact with children can be called pedophiles in this sense. It must further be remembered that sexual activity between adults and children rarely consists of coitus, but usually involves only masturbation, body friction, or simple caresses. Thus, even where one may expect harmful effects on the child, they can greatly differ in character and intensity depending on the case.

In some rare cases, pedophiles are inconsiderate or even violent, but most often they are fairly gentle, highly moralistic people who suffer from loneliness or a loss of self-esteem. In many cases, they are well known to the children as grandparents, uncles, neighbors, or friends of the family. The children, in turn, may not always feel molested, but may be willing and active participants. In general, it therefore seems sensible to judge each case separately and to refrain from hasty labeling or generalization. Overreaction by parents and official authorities to "child molestation" can sometimes be harmful to the child, whose welfare should always remain the chief concern.

The issue of sexual contact between adults and children is a difficult one, and in the United States it is further complicated by the divergent legal definitions of the "age of consent" in state penal codes. In some states, this age is unreasonably high, and thus some people may be declared to be pedophiles or child molesters who would not have any problem in another state or another country. A person who seeks out sexually mature adolescents should never be called a pedophile. This term is appropriate only if the preferred sex objects are children who have not yet reached puberty.

Children are of course, especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Persons who compulsively make inconsiderate sexual advances to children must therefore be restrained, if necessary by force. Sexual assault on children must be punished as a serious violent crime. In some cases, some form of psychotherapy may be helpful in rehabilitating the offender.

Sadism and Masochism

The term "sadism" (after the 18th-century French writer de Sade) refers to the tendency of some people to hurt, dominate or humiliate their sexual partners. The term "masochism" (after the 19th-century Austrian writer von Sacher-Masoch) denotes the reverse—a desire to be hurt, dominated or humiliated by one's sexual partner. There is also a single term "sadomasochism" (s/m for short) which refers to both sexual attitudes.

As mentioned earlier, to a certain extent such attitudes are quite common. They may even have some biological basis, since it is well known that the mating of certain animals is quite violent or even ends with the death of one of the partners. Still, among human beings strong sadistic or masochistic urges must be considered unusual, and they can very well become rather unsettling for those who feel them. Needless to say, sadism can also be socially harmful because in some instances it may lead to sexual assault or even murder.

However, professionals today usually make a distinction between forced and consensual acts of sadomasochism. It is not uncommon for either heterosexual or homosexual couples to form sadomasochistic relationships with one partner inflicting pain and abuse on the fully consenting other. Indeed it is usually the masochist who provokes and controls the sadism of his partner. At any rate, such voluntary relationships can become very finely tuned and quite close. In these cases, no interference, either legal or psychiatric, seems warranted.

There now exist sadomasochistic clubs and networks in many countries and the members meet frequently for mutually agreed, planned encounters. Such groups develop specific sexual styles, which are then learned by eager newcomers to the scene. Here again, as long as the activity remains fully consensual, there is no cause for outside intervention. However, there can be no argument that involuntary victims of sadism deserve every protection. Any form of sadistic assault on ordinary men and women who abhor such practices must therefore be promptly punished by the state.


Rape (from Latin rapere: to seize) is serious sexual assault or sexual intercourse against the will and over the objections of the partner, it is usually accompanied by force or the threat of force. Rape is not so much a sexual act as an act of hostility and aggression.

From the psychological point of view, the specific form of the assault makes little difference. More important is its severity. Thus, unlike lawyers, psychologists and psychiatrists regard not only forced coitus as rape, but also all forced manual, oral, and anal intercourse. Therefore, according to this usage, both females and males can be raped. (The rape of males occurs particularly often in prison.)

Some rapists have a sadistic streak, but often they are just brutish and insensitive individuals with delinquent or criminal backgrounds. Some rapists are seriously disturbed, but a few may also be rather normal people who act on a sudden impulse or misjudge the reactions of their partners.

It follows from these observations that, as a group, rapists do not present a uniform picture. The problem of their possible psychiatric treatment is therefore complex. Seen from a criminological standpoint, rape is essentially a crime of violence which demands swift and severe punishment.


[Title Page] [Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [The Human Body] [Sexual Behavior] [Development of Behavior] [Types of Activity] [Sexual Maladjustment] [Sex and Society] [Epilogue] [Sexual Slang Glossary] [Sex Education Test] [Picture Credits]