There’s one disturbing and confounding thing that many of the powerful men who have been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting women have in common: They like to masturbate in front of women.
The sexual misconduct allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, screenwriter and director James Toback, director and producer Brett Ratner, comedian and actor Louis C.K. and author and journalist Mark Halperin all involve lurid and terrifying descriptions of the men masturbating in front of their victims. All the men have denied the allegations except for Louis C.K., who said, “These stories are true.”
Why would any man want to masturbate in front of a woman and what are the psychological triggers behind this terrifying act of aggression? Sex therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists say public masturbation is a form of exhibitionism that powerful men use to sexually harass and abuse unsuspecting women.
Exhibitionism is a mental disorder that doesn’t make sense to most men and is all too familiar to most women. Most men can’t imagine exposing themselves in public. Many women have seen it happen far too often on subways, buses and other public places.
Exhibitionism is a paraphilic disorder defined in the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy as the “achievement of sexual excitement through genital exposure, usually to an unsuspecting stranger.” The mental health disorder is grouped with other paraphilias that include voyeurism, pedophilia, sexual masochism, sexual sadism and other “recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, urges, or behaviors.” Sex therapists use a combination of psychotherapy and medication to treat and control exhibitionism.
Forcing women to watch masturbation is an act of revenge against women, Los Angeles sex therapist Alexandra Katehakis said in an email exchange.
“This type of behavior isn't about sex,” Katehakis said. “It's about hostility and sexual inadequacy.”
The hostility often harks back to the man’s childhood relationship with his mother, who may have been emotionally abusive or failed to protect him from an abusive father, Katehakis said.
Driven by strong, recurrent sexual urges, exhibitionists act on a self-deceptive fantasy that the witness might enjoy the experience, said Frederick Berlin, the director of the Sex and Gender Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore.
When the witness responds negatively, the exhibitionist often feels intense regret, shame and self-disgust, said Berlin, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
Stuck in cycle of addictive behavior, the exhibitionist is addicted as much to the shame as the sexual act, Katehakis said.
Sex experts say a combination of privilege and arrogance cause powerful men in such situations to believe that they are above the law and that they can get away it. The experts say such men also think most women won’t say anything and that they can be threatened or paid off if they do.
Seeing a scared and humiliated woman begging him to stop makes the masturbating man feel powerful and aroused, Katehakis said.
“The ‘high’ comes from the chase,” she said. “The intensity of the situation activates adrenaline, especially when the situation has the possibility of danger.”
The men can be motivated by the thrill of domination, the illicit nature of their conduct and a hatred toward women, Jennifer A. Drobac, who teaches sexual harassment law at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law, said via email.
“Most of these men understand that their behavior is illegal and usually criminal,” Drobac said. “They don’t care or cannot control themselves.”
The shock value of the aggressive act asserts control, dominance and power over the victim, Los Angeles sex therapist Natalie Finegood Goldberg said in an email interview.
“The act itself is predatory and intrusive, but coming from an authority figure, the victim is left not just with the shame of the ‘dirty little secret’ but with the added concern of how it will affect their livelihood should they try to speak up about it,” Finegood Goldberg said. “Oftentimes people will express feeling ‘dirty,’ ‘disgusting’ and invaded after an experience like this.”
The confusing and disorienting experience can be hard for women to put into words, Prudence Gourguechon, a psychiatrist and past president of the American Psychoanalytic Assn., said via email.
“What just happened? What did he want? I wasn’t assaulted or raped, was I?” Gourguechon said.
For the victim, experts say, the emotional and psychological harm of the unexpected and unwanted act is made more terrifying by fear of the attack escalating to violence or rape.
Victims of exhibitionists feel a range of emotions, from humiliation to disgust to anger and worry about retaliation and ostracization, Drobac said.
“In my experience, I saw a variety of complex reactions,” said Drobac, an attorney who has represented victims in sexual harassment and assault cases in civil court. “Some were afraid, shocked, felt shameful, ‘frozen’ and ‘numb.’ Some were confused, wondering if they had done something to attract the assaultive attention.”