Harvey Weinstein. James Toback. Mark Halperin. Brett Ratner. Louis C.K. There’s one act that keeps popping up in the recent accusations against these men: forcing a woman to watch them masturbate.
What compels a man to do this? The Washington Post spoke to two sex therapists who, although they don’t have experience treating these men specifically, could explain why some men find this behavior erotic and what factors can lead to it.
“If it was just about power, there are other ways that men can get power,” says Michael Vigorito, a sex therapist in Washington, D.C., and author of “Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior: Rethinking Sex Addiction.” Vigorito and others say that masturbating in front of someone without their consent can be about feeling powerful and dominant while also experiencing sexual pleasure at the same time. “The person is demonstrating or displaying what has become culturally symbolic of male sexuality, which is their penis or their erection,” Vigorito adds. (Continued below)
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The man who is drawn to this type of exhibitionistic behavior is often someone who grew up with a mother who was not attentive, leaving the child feeling angry, hurt or invalidated, says Alexandra Katehakis, clinical director of the Center for Health Sex in Los Angeles and author of “Erotic Intelligence: Igniting Hot, Healthy Sex While in Recovery from Sex Addiction.” “It’s like he’s being erased in a way. And that same child is not going to grow up with confidence and the ability to meet girls appropriately,” Katehakis says. “If this guy is always the nerd, or the dweeb, or the guy that is your friend but nobody wants to go out with, there’s anger there.”
Katehakis says: “We can literally think of exhibitionism as: Look at me. I want you to see me. I’m angry that you’re not seeing more of me.”
Both the typical exhibitionist – a man in a trench coat who flashes unsuspecting strangers on a street corner – and the exhibitionist who targets a specific person, might get aroused by “the horror, the terror, the anger on the woman’s face,” Katehakis says. “It’s an act of rage.”
But the person who does this in a more targeted, personal way – rather than anonymously – is doing so to feel powerful and aroused at the same time. When someone like Louis C.K. exposes himself, the psychological torture is also part of the arousal. “This kind of exhibitionism is also rooted in deep sexual inadequacy,” she says, adding that perpetrators might think to themselves: I’m not good enough. Nobody would want me. Or: I’m sexually ashamed of myself, so I’ve got to go take what I want.
“It’s a hair’s breadth away from rape,” Katehakis says. “It’s what we call a non-contact offense, but it’s an offense.”
These impulses are not just seen in non-consensual masturbation. Katehakis says that men sending pictures of their genitals to women, a practice that’s common in online dating, is also exhibitionistic. “Full-on genitalia is not usually a turn-on for most women,” Katehakis says. “It’s so much about men’s power and men’s need to be seen and male competition.”
Another factor contributing to non-consensual masturbation can be the lack of consequences that such powerful men have long felt. There’s very little to inhibit their baser impulses. And if they lack empathy, Vigorito says, “that’s not going to be putting on the brakes on something that feels good to them.”
Now that these men are starting to experience negative consequences, they might start to get help – especially if they feel the pain of what they’ve done. But getting emotionally sober isn’t a quick or easy task. “Typically they learn these behaviors a long time ago, and they’re victims of violence themselves usually: emotional violence in their family of origin or abuse; sexual, physical abuse,” Katehakis says.
As more stories of abuse surface, Katehakis hopes that people have compassion for the perpetrators, as difficult as that might be. “What they’re doing is so egregious,” she says, “but we forget that there’s a broken person in there.”
She estimates that recovery can take three to five years, including and then followed by restricting a person’s access to situations that might trigger sexual misconduct all over again. Weinstein continuing to work with young women in Hollywood would be like a recovering alcoholic working in a bar, Katehakis says. “He won’t be able to handle it,” she adds.
Finding the right course of treatment is important and might not be happening in the rush to address these allegations. Kevin Spacey, for example, has reportedly checked in to a sex addiction rehabilitation center, but that might not be the appropriate treatment. Vigorito cautions that treatment for sex addiction (which conflates consensual and non-consensual sex) is not the same as treatment for sexual offenses (which are always non-consensual).
“People would rather say: ‘I’m a sex addict’ and go into addiction rehab than say: ‘I’m engaged in non-consensual sex’ and go see someone who has experience in working with sex offenders,” Vigorito says. But “that’s where they need to go.”