A highly respected doctor is demoted after her exhibitionist behavior results in charges of sexual harassment. Lexie, a pediatric cardiologist, worked for one of the largest teaching hospitals on the East Coast. By the age of 35, she’d made advancements in her field; her expertise in instruction was sought after; her bedside manner made her a hit with patients. Residents stood around Lex on every round, watching admiringly as she soothed family fears or communicated difficult information to the children in her care. But Lexie had a secret. She experienced the episodic cycles of sexual addiction, a “binge-and-starve” rhythm that had ruined important romantic relationships in her past. When not in surgery, the doctors in her hospital wore business casual attire under their white coats, but Lex had begun wearing revealing clothing to work and leaving her white coat unbuttoned. This included short, tight dresses with low-cut necklines and high-stretch fabric that showed every curve and dip of her figure. More and more, she showed up at work braless. Every now and then, her coat would fall to the side and she’d notice her student’s eyes move downward like synchronized swimmers. She could see shock and sometimes disgust on some faces, but mostly she interpreted baffled as aroused (and of course there were those reactions as well). Any response at all thrilled Lexie; she wanted to be noticed while being scandalous. She’d been feeling extremely energized and a bit distracted, though perfectly capable of completing her work on the afternoon that administration called her in. A board member was present along with a hospital attorney and all the members of HR. An accusation of workplace harassment had been made by not one but two of the residents, and although Lexie was certain the accusations were “wildly exaggerated,” she had a hard time convincing the group of individuals who had come together to evaluate her. They presented text messages between her and another doctor, in which she suggested they have sex in her office or in the stairwell where they “might be caught.” The doctor in question reported to Lexie. The hospital had recently faced a major media scandal and could not afford to have another, so Lexie was asked to transfer to a smaller satellite hospital in a poor section of the city and to step down from her teaching position. She could appeal the process if she liked, but everyone in the room seemed to suggest it would be nearly impossible for the decision to be overturned. Her emotional state plummeted, though her actions did not change for long.
Redefining Exhibitionism for Female Sex Addicts
When we hear the word “exhibitionism,” we often think of men—the male flasher in the park or the man arrested for masturbating in a public cinema. The majority of sex addicts are men, and this is believed to be no different for exhibitionism—a paraphilia that can become a type of addictive sexual behavior for some. Though a growing number of women report that they struggle with sexual addiction, many people do not believe they can experience it, often referring to women solely as love addicts. Approximately 25 percent of those in treatment for sex addiction are women, however. It’s harder to recognize female exhibitionism as such, partly because our culture inundates us with sexualized images of women. From magazine covers to children’s cartoons, female bodies are displayed or characterized in an overtly sexual context—plunging necklines, exposed bellies, short skirts. Dressing provocatively is a woman’s prerogative and should not be seen as problematic unless the behavior results from or contributes to dysfunction in the woman’s life. A woman who dresses provocatively solely to arouse male attention or to inspire a reaction from others, men or women, may well be displaying exhibitionistic behavior.
Consequences of Exhibitionism
Women who experience hypersexuality that includes exhibitionism may dress inappropriately to work or important social engagements. Their behavior is meant to entice the attention of others, though according to recovering addicts themselves, “this can be the wrong kind of attention.” Women tend to use exhibitionism and sex for power. They feel valued by the attention they receive. Most sex addicts experienced some kind of early trauma, and many of these women may have struggled with feelings of worthlessness, helplessness or a lack of self-esteem as a result. (A woman in sexy attire is no indication of these things on its surface.). Sexual addiction comes into play when a behavior becomes compulsive, impulsive and leaves a person feeling helpless to stop, despite the consequences. Lexie’s behavior included revealing her body in an inappropriate setting to individuals she had power over, and her behavior included sexual acts performed with the intention of being seen. As a result of a habit she had not yet identified, Lexie—an intelligent and valuable doctor—lost a position that was not just important to her, but to the many patients who counted on her and to young doctors who relied on her instruction to become better professionals. This is the power of sexual addiction.