Why men use masturbation to harass women

Not just Hollywood: Survivors share their stories
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Story highlights

  • Louis C.K. says sexual misconduct allegations levied against him are true
  • There's little in scientific literature, but anecdotally, psychologists say it's a form of exhibitionism

Warning: This article contains language some may consider offensive.

(CNN)As shocking allegations of egregious sexual misconduct continue to emerge, one form of harassment has become a recurring theme.

It isn't a physical assault, and it doesn't necessarily involve men using sexual language. Instead, a powerful man masturbates in front of unwilling women made to witness the act.
    After The New York Times reported that comedic actor Louis C.K. faced allegations of masturbating in front of women in a hotel room, at his office or on the phone, the comedian issued a statement Friday saying, "These stories are true.
    "At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first," the statement said. "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."
    Last month, several women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of masturbating in front of them. Weinstein denied "any allegations of non-consensual sex," a spokeswoman said.
    Four women said journalist Mark Halperin, when he was at ABC News, masturbated in front of another employee in his office. Halperin denies the allegation.
    Director and producer Brett Ratner is accused of masturbating in front of actress Olivia Munn, as well as other misconduct. Ratner denied the allegations outlined in the report to CNN through his attorney, Martin Singer.
    Screenwriter and director James Toback is also accused of sexual harassment, including masturbating in front of actresses, according to the Los Angeles Times. He told the paper he had never met any of the women -- or if he did meet them, it "was for five minutes and (he had) no recollection." CNN has not independently confirmed the women's stories.
    What could be going on in the minds of powerful men who feel the urge to masturbate in front of women in a professional or professionally connected setting? The scientific literature doesn't say much about this particular kind of behavior. It does, however, address exhibitionist disorder: Someone acts on an urge to display, fondle or stimulate themselves in front of a stranger. The disorder is one of the paraphilias, defined by science as "recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, urges, or behaviors that are distressing or disabling and that involve inanimate objects, children or nonconsenting adults, or suffering or humiliation of oneself or the partner with the potential to cause harm."
    James Cantor, director of the Toronto Sexuality Centre and an associate professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, said he treats and has treated many men with all sorts of exhibitionism and other paraphilias, including men who masturbate in this fashion.
    "This is exhibitionism, an extreme form of it," he said. "They rarely escalate. The exhibition, the actual displaying of the genitals is the goal."
    For exhibitionism alone, the behavior can include leaving dirty notes behind for someone to see, flashing someone with and without an erection, or masturbating in front of others. The last, Cantor said, can be very frightening for the victim, because they don't know what's going to happen next.
    "The rules have gone out of the window, and she doesn't know if this will escalate into violence or rape," he said. "But for these perpetrators, showing off their genitals is the goal, and they are more interested in that than in hands-on sex."
    David Ley, a clinical psychologist and author of "The Myth of Sex Addiction," said it is hard to know what motivates someone to do this.
    "We oftentimes want to take this kind of sexual behavior and separate it out like a thread from a rope and pretend that we can evaluate and understand this sexual behavior separate from everything else. We really can't," Ley said.
    It's hard to know, he said, "if the exhibitionism is the whole point or is the exhibitionist behavior just part of the bigger picture."
    Dr. Prudence Gourguechon, a Chicago psychiatrist and past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, said that in all her years of practice, she has dealt with many clients who have had challenging sexual behavior, but she has never had a client talk about this particular issue. She thinks, however, that the problem comes from a kind of "wish to be looked at and admired."
    Cantor agrees. He makes the analogy of a peacock that wants to display his prowess.
    "We don't actually know what causes it. Some clients will spend a large amount of therapy trying to find out what causes it," Cantor said. "As a group, they are, more than anything else, confused. They only know they are different, and they don't understand why the rest of us don't do it, too."
    Gourguechon thinks there may be something calculated in this choice of sexual harassment.
    "It could also be a kind of strange plausible deniability," she said. "It's a kind of disavowal, a kind of pernicious defense mechanism that allows a man to know that he did something on one level, but they are essentially telling themselves a story that they are not doing anything so bad. He could think to himself, 'Well, I didn't rape anyone,' which is true in the broader sense, but it is a twisted defense."
    All of the men making headlines for masturbation were in a position of power or authority, raising the question: Is this behavior a form of power-crazy aggression? Not exactly, Cantor said.
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    "It's more like privilege," he said, because their position allows the men to get away with it.
    "And because they are able to get away with it," he said, "it's fertilized enough to grow further out of control. The side effect of being powerful is that they can spiral that much further before they are caught."
    Louis C.K. addressed the issue of power in his statement:
    "The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly," he wrote. "I also took advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my and their community, which disabled them from sharing their story and brought hardship to them when they tried because people who look up to me didn't want to hear it. I didn't think that I was doing any of that because my position allowed me not to think about it. "