Comedian Louis C.K. became the latest high-profile figure to face allegations of sexual assault Thursday when the New York Times published the accounts of five women who said C.K. had masturbated in front of them or made similar inappropriate advances.
Unlike the charges leveled against Harvey Weinstein or other men accused of rape or sexual violence, the accusations against C.K. involve the actor masturbating or asking to expose himself in front of women, rather than physically touching or assaulting them. The act, however, is still a sexual crime — one many women have experienced.
According to the Guardian, 525 women reported accounts of men masturbating in front of them to the Everyday Sexism Project between 2012 and 2014, and many women are speaking out about their experiences in the wake of stories about C.K.’s misconduct.
“When I spoke to a group of teenage girls at a careers event last year, they used the word ‘normal’ to describe men masturbating on the tube in front of them while they were on their way to school in their school uniform,” Laura Bates wrote in the Guardian in 2014. “Girls are growing up in a world where this is such a widespread experience that some don’t even see it as something unusual — just part of being a woman.”
The act of masturbation in front of nonconsenting witnesses, along with flashing and similar activities, is classified as exhibitionism, in which “a person derives sexual arousal from the act or fantasy of exposing their genitals to nonconsenting strangers.” Exhibitionism, which can progress to exhibitionist disorder, is a form of paraphilia, which Psychology Today defines as “a condition in which a person’s sexual arousal and gratification depend on fantasizing about and engaging in sexual behavior that is atypical and extreme.”
The psychology behind public masturbation and indecent exposure
When a person exposes themselves to nonconsenting witnesses, their motivations often depend on the specific circumstances of the incident, whether it’s a stranger on the subway or the female comedians whom C.K. specifically targeted.
“Someone who is doing that within a context of specific power over people, that has a different flavor than, say, someone who does that on the subway system or out on the street. It’s a different power dynamic,” Gina Scaramella, executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, said in an interview with Mic.
Any sort of exhibitionist behavior, though, Scaramella added, “falls in the same spectrum of a delusional entitlement to do whatever you want, [no matter] what everyone else thinks — and then some level of embarrassing or shaming the person that you’re doing it in front of.”
Many exhibitionists are driven by the thrill of exposing themselves alone, along with the reaction they receive from witnesses as they’re caught off-guard.
“For a lot of guys [who] are exposing themselves, as ridiculous as it seems, it is about the act of exposing yourself to someone who isn’t expecting it that is sexually arousing,” Dr. Darrel Turner, a clinical and forensic psychologist specializing in sexual offenses, said in an interview with Mic. “It’s a thrill, it’s a rush, but there’s a sexual arousal component to it as well. I would say it’s a combination of the reaction that you get from the person that you’re exposing yourself to, as well as the very act of exposing yourself to someone who isn’t expecting it.”
The power dynamic of the offender’s exposure and their desire for control is also often a significant reason behind their actions. Turner, for instance, cited the prevalence of sexual offenders in prison who expose themselves to women staff members “as a form of power and control.”
The prisoners “very much want the people to see what they’re doing, they want to see the surprise,” Turner said. “There’s a control factor to it. It’s a powerful feeling, because you know you’re victimizing someone. Even if you’re not touching them, you’re victimizing whoever you’re exposing yourself to.”
Turner speculated that in addition to C.K.’s decision to target up-and-coming female comedians “because there was less likelihood of disclosure,” the comedian’s inappropriate actions were likely driven by the “power mode” behind his acts and “an element of control.”
C.K. himself acknowledged his misuse of power in a statement confirming his actions, writing: “What I learned later in life ... is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”
Exhibitionism as a predictor of other sexual offenses
Given the many motivations behind nonconsensual sexual exposure, it’s hard to say whether a man who exposes himself to women could escalate his actions into hands-on sexual abuse or assault.
“Once you take apart how people groom whom they victimize, they do tend to do less inappropriate things first,” Scaramella said. “But the problem is, this isn’t really less inappropriate. It isn’t touching someone, but it is extremely out of the norm to whip out your genitals and just think that other people are dying to see you masturbate.
“It almost seems like [exhibitionism has] its own sort of psychology around it that might be different than the pathway toward abuse,” Scaramella added. “That doesn’t mean that that same person [couldn’t] be [exposing themselves] and be abusive, but I’m not sure it’s the exact same pathway.”
When performing risk assessments on sex offenders to determine if they are likely to re-offend or potentially escalate their actions, Turner said, the two key areas of consideration are “the degree to which they’re sexually deviant and their degree of antisociality [or criminality],” the latter of which refers to “criminal thinking, criminal behavior, feelings of entitlement, a willingness to victimize others, an inability to kind of empathize with other people or a deficit in their ability to feel remorse for things.”
“They want what they want, and it doesn’t matter what they have to do to get it,” Turner said.
Responding to and preventing inappropriate exposure
When women are victims of men masturbating in front of them or exposing themselves, their trauma is valid — even if they haven’t been physically assaulted, Scaramella said.
“For people who’ve been victimized in this way, things that people tend to express is that they feel stupid for feeling anything, because they know that people are physically assaulted and raped and they feel like, ‘Why am I having such a reaction when they didn’t touch me?’,” Scaramella said. “So we really talk about [how] the feelings are very similar, whether or not you were touched — [it’s] the same thing with people who were forced to watch pornography or listen to things. It doesn’t always have to be physical to have the [harmful] psychological impact.”
Having this entitlement and “permission to feel their feelings” can often be helpful for victims of this form of sexual assault, Scaramella said. Those who have experienced these behaviors and are seeking support shouldn’t shy away from reaching out for help from organizations like Scaramella’s BARCC (whose hotline can be reached at 800-841-8371) or the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, Scaramella said, “because we are here for the full range of sexual violence, and this certainly qualifies.”
When it comes to preventing these offenders from their inappropriate acts in the first place, Scaramella said providing those who are driven toward such behaviors the opportunity to seek help and educate themselves — particularly when they’re younger — is key.
“I think that some of our cultural norms of not providing more open education and pathways for people to get help when they find themselves thinking about or doing things that are inappropriate sexually is part of our problem,” Scaramella said. “One of the challenges around combating sexual violence is that there aren’t good mechanisms in our culture for people to reach out for help early. Most people who start doing behaviors like that start doing them quite young, in their teen years — and there are lots of opportunities to be helpful then, before they’ve hurt a lot of people or gotten themselves into more trouble.
“And so I think we have to ask, ‘How much do we really want to change this?’, from the dynamics of sexual violence and how sexual violence happens and really understanding it as many different things, rather than just one thing,” Scaramella added, noting that society has to “come up with solutions that really try to prevent [sexual violence], rather than just ‘monster-izing’ and punishing those who are doing it.
“I think we need to have a more developmental view of how this happens in our culture.”