On Thursday, the New York Times reported that superstar comedian Louis C.K. had masturbated in front of women without their consent. Last month we'd heard accusations that political analyst Mark Halperin had masturbated in front of female employees in the office. Meanwhile, of the endlessly horrifying allegations against Harvey Weinstein, pleasuring himself and ejaculating into a potted plant in front of a female journalist is uniquely mystifying. After all these allegations, what's the erotic appeal of masturbating in front of a person while they look at you in shock, terror or disgust?
Alexandra Katehakis, sex therapist and clinical director at the Center for Healthy Sex, tells Rolling Stone that pressuring someone to watch you masturbate is not about sex. "It's not so much a sexual act as it is an act of violence," she says. "What the person is getting off on is the humiliation of their target. It's eroticized rage, expressed in a way that's really sadistic. And the reaction they're getting is arousing to them because it's all about power and control."
Why someone would commit a non-violent sexual assault such as flashing, rather than a physically violent act like groping or rape, is largely because of self-imposed boundaries. "Typically, a non-violent offender won't cross that line. Rape is a more pathological act and more criminal. Exhibitionism is a lewd conduct charge; rape is a felony," she says. "We could say the exhibitionist has more impulse control."
Yet even if the perpetrator feels they haven't crossed the line into violence, there's still a real emotional toll for those affected. "For the victim it's incredibly traumatizing," says Dr. Hernando Chaves, a sex therapist and researcher. "It's difficult to remove themselves from the situation. They might start internalizing the shame. They might stop trusting men or trusting people to respect their boundaries. They might even look at themselves and say, 'Why did I put myself in that position?" he says. "There's slut-shaming [and] retaliations."
But as well-paid handlers continue to suppress stories, famous and powerful perpetrators have little incentive to change. "Let's be frank. We live in a perpetrator apologetic society," says Chaves.
And that facilitates the predatory, and ultimately self-destructive, behavior. "The person spins out of control. They're engaging in inexcusable behavior and they can't stop doing it – until they're caught and that's when their whole world comes crashing in on them," says Katehakis, who also spoke about non-consensual masturbation to The Cut last month.
In a long letter published Friday, C.K. corroborated the women's accounts and admitted to abusing his power. "At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true," he wrote. "But what I learned later in life, too late, 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." C.K. was excoriated for understating the women's "predicament," as well as only going public with a statement now that mass condemnation looks to destroy his career, after downplaying the allegations for years.
"I think the [C.K.] letter is interesting," Katehakis says. "It tells me that he knows that what he was doing is problematic and feels a lot of shame about this now."
Katehakis stresses that it's a positive development that so many women feel empowered to name men who've harassed or assaulted them. "These are egregious acts, there should be consequences, and women should be coming forward," she says. At the same time, she notes that we have to try and go beyond public shaming to ask why someone would act this way.
"We have to have compassion for perpetrators," she says. "People don't get like this in a vacuum. Men who exhibit themselves feel very sexually inadequate. We have to ask, what happened to this guy that he can be doing something like this? Not as an kind of excuse for their behavior, more like as a way to learn what drives their actions and to help prevent future abuse.
"Did they suffer emotional abuse or physical abuse? Why do they feel less than? They're angry, and they keep stepping over lines until it reaches monstrous proportions," Katehakis says. "And how do we get men into conversations about being responsible and empowering females, not overpowering females?"