Foreplay begins at the cocktail bar when Jeff surreptitiously slips his hand beneath the hem of Anne's skirt. As the two grope in the cab on their way to Jeff's apartment, the driver alternately huffs in disgust . . . and sneaks peeks in the rearview mirror.
Now, in the privacy of Jeff's apartment, Anne, 29, glances at the large windows facing the complex next door. She's making sure the curtains are wide open. Should his neighbours or anyone else passing by happen to look, they would have a clear view of Jeff sliding Anne's underwear down her hips and pushing her onto the bed, and Anne wrapping her legs around him.
Sex with Jeff is good. But with the curtains open, it's great. Anne is not shy, clearly. And she's not shy about describing what that exposure does to her. "Knowing that anyone can see us steps up my game," she says. "It makes everything hotter. I like to imagine people are watching – and that they're jealous."
Anne is not alone. I feel the temptation too. So do my girlfriends. Exhibitionism's allure can be strong whether we're participants or observers. That's why so many of us succumb: it's your colleague at yoga, Instagramming herself in the camel pose, the one that shows off her toned midsection. It's your girlfriend, summoning you onto the hotel balcony in her skimpiest lingerie. It's total strangers, filling their iPhones with lascivious selfies. There's an exhibitionist waiting to bust out in many women. And we're more compelled than ever to open that door. When we do, what we show you can reveal everything about what we'd like to see. Here's why – and how to better enjoy the show.
It's Fun to Lure You In
Years ago, my friends and I shared this sexy black leather miniskirt. We dubbed it the "action skirt". It hit just above mid-thigh. When paired with a low-cut tee, it guaranteed rave reviews from the guys we deemed lucky enough to see it.
That skirt derived its power not only from the fact that it hit perfectly at mid-thigh. The female body, unlike yours, naturally holds the suggestion of sex. And through what we wear – a shapeless hoodie or a tight tank top – we calibrate its suggestiveness. That power of control is important, says Dr Ogi Ogas, a cognitive neuroscientist and the co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts. Ogas assessed the online behaviour of more than 100 million people and found that while male fantasies focus on orgasm, female fantasies centre on the feeling of being desired. So while a man might like that a woman wants him, that fact alone won't turn him on, says Dr Stephen Snyder, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
I found myself making out with him in a cab. We stumbled into his place and I shoved him onto the bed, not caring that the lights were on and the blinds up. I liked his eyes on me, darting from my breasts to my hips.
Even more frustrating for you? The tactics we women use to lure men don't always work in reverse. Most of us, sadly, just aren't fantasising about the perfect chest-revealing shirt. That's because we're differently wired to select sexual partners than men are, says Dr David Ley, a psychologist and the author of lnsatiable Wives. We respond to subtler signals – the way you interact with your friends or how you smell – to decide whether we're going home with you and, ultimately, whether you'll find out why my friends and I call it the "action skirt" in the first place.
Make Some Noise: don't be afraid to exaggerate a few groans, moans and grunts. A "you're amazing" won't hurt either. "Women feel a strong urge to be the object of your desire," says Ogas.
We Like to Display Confidence
On an otherwise normal sunny day in a crowded city park, a throng of people standing shoulder to shoulder is fixating on a large group of women climbing aboard a row of exercise bikes. There is wolf whistles, calls to "take it off!" And this time, most of the women do exactly as they're told, stripping down to sports bras and athletic pants. Some reveal shredded six-packs; others matter-of-factly display belly rolls and stretch marks.
This is the annual Sports Bra Challenge, hosted by the nonprofit SEAK Foundation. Ostensibly a charity fundraiser, the event also aims to build "confidence through fitness". One way is by making women feel prouder of their bodies and more accepting of their flaws. In a setting like this, it's no longer about turning men on – that's a side effect. It's really a not-so-subtle reminder that nobody's perfect and that we have nothing to hide. When a woman accepts that idea, she feels instantly sexier and more confident, like Lena Dunham. And when you're riding such a wave of endorphins, well, it's forgivable to show off a little.
On Instagram, you can search hashtags like #healthie and find thousands of women (okay, men too) proudly revealing what their workouts have wrought – toned arms, cast-iron glutes. On Facebook, the group Yeah, She Squats – devoted to "empowering women to flaunt that hard-earned bum" – boasts over 1.3 million followers. (Yeah, She Benches has 250,000-plus.)
Let's be clear: nothing stops men from ogling, sharing and commenting here – and plenty of them do. But you're not who we're after.
As Laura, 30, who posts racy Instagram photos of herself pole dancing under the username @lovepeacepole, explains: "It's liberating to show off what your body can do, not just what it looks like. I used to be self-conscious, but now I'm not." And her outfits? Often she wears just a bra and pants. "I don't think of it as revealing. It's as practical as a swimsuit or a leotard."
Dr Chloe Carmichael, a psychologist who specialises in self-esteem issues, says it's merely a way for women to assert themselves, like blogging or speaking up in a group: "The point isn't necessarily to be dominant or seek attention; it's to show that she's confident in herself."
A typical photo in the Yeah, She Benches Facebook group perfectly captures that kick-ass philosophy: in the photograph, a super fit, sweat-soaked woman stands alone, clad in nothing but a sports bra and workout pants, performing a near-perfect deadlift. The caption: "Just another night at the bar."
Exhibitionism Puts Us in Control
When Kacie, 28, upgraded to an iPhone, she couldn't resist: She ducked into the bathroom, turned the phone's lens on herself, and snapped a few photos of her naked body. Before she even peeked at the results, she regretted it. "I'm not super skinny, and I used to be incredibly self-conscious. At the gym, I'd notice if my stomach jiggled or if my legs were bigger than the girl's next to me."
But when she could control the angle of her photos – and delete the bad ones – Kacie realised something: she could look hot. Buoyed, she took more photos, settling on her best come-hither pose – splayed across her sheets, wearing nothing but a towel. She texted the photo to her boyfriend – a first.
The effect of camera phones – combined with social media – is obvious. Digital photography means unlimited chances to get it right. Editing tools make perceived flaws vanish. Researchers at Cornell University found that when people looked at their Facebook profile, their self-esteem improved more than if they simply looked in the mirror. The researchers posit that this is because people present their best self on the social media site.
"Posting risque selfies on social media is also much more impersonal than exposing oneself in front of a live audience; it allows a certain distance," says Dr Rick McAnulty, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Psychologists call it selective self-representation. Our phone lets us show the best version of ourselves, and that's enough to plant the seed of exhibitionism in pretty much anyone.
We Want to Impress Other Women Too
When Gabrielle, 27, dresses up for a Friday night out, she ponders more about what her friends will think than how her boyfriend will react. "If other women say I look hot, I know it's true," she says.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska found that women look at other women in the same way men do. The female study participants who looked at photos of university-age women stared just as long at the women's breasts as the men did.
Similarly, researchers at Emory University found that heterosexual women often respond on a psychological level to erotic photos of other women. "When women exhibit themselves to other women, it can reveal pleasure in their femininity and foster camaraderie," says Dr Deanna Holtzman, a professor of psychology at Wayne State University. "It also conveys a sense of power in the female body and what it can do."
And when a woman feels so emboldened, the benefits for the man in her life is palpable. Take the time I reunited with an ex. We'd caught up before, but our meetings had always been platonic.
This time, drinks turned into shots. Soon I found myself making out with him in a cab. We stumbled into his place and I shoved him onto the bed, not caring that the lights were on and the blinds up. I liked his eyes on me, darting from my breasts to my hips.
"Wow," he said later, catching his breath. "You used to be lights off, under the covers. What happened?” I shrugged, shifting the sheet so it fell to my waist. "I guess you finally saw the real me."