Five women accused Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct in a New York Times report published on Thursday. Most of the allegations involved displays of masturbation without explicit consent.
Comedians Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov described being invited to his hotel room in 2002, where the comedian allegedly proceeded to get naked and masturbate while the women watched, “paralyzed.”
These are far from the first accounts of a powerful man turning masturbation into a weapon of sexual assault. Television journalist Lauren Sivan told HuffPost that 10 years ago Harvey Weinstein trapped her in a hallway and masturbated in front of her, ejaculating in a nearby potted plant. Model Angie Everhart told TMZ that Weinstein touched himself while standing over her as she slept.
Over the past month, a staggering number of women have come forward sharing stories of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of powerful men in their industries. Some of these encounters involved non-consensual masturbation ― a lesser discussed demonstration of sexually predatory behavior.
In an interview with HuffPost, Quandra Chaffers, LCSW, a San Francisco-based therapist specializing in areas of problematic sexual behaviors, said there is nothing inherently unusual or unhealthy about masturbation as a sex act.
“Masturbation [on its own] is simply us recognizing that touch feels good, no different than eating when we’re hungry,” Chaffers added. “Our society is still very puritanical and afraid of pleasure. I don’t want to go down the route of demonizing masturbation.”
Chaffers said the urge to masturbate in front of a person without her or his consent, however, should be understood as an expression of violence, not a deviant sexual act.
“I like to use the metaphor that if your attacker had hit you over the head with a frying pan, you wouldn’t call it cooking,” Chaffers said. “Just because the event involved genitals doesn’t make it sexual. The person used masturbation as a weapon ― no different than a gun. It is violence.”
She emphasized that consent is everything when discussing matters of sexual assault. Misconduct expressed through unsolicited masturbation does not stem from a different psychological motivation or intention than physical or verbal abuse.
Sometimes, Chaffers said, perpetrators opt to masturbate instead of physically assault a victim as a calculated way to avoid accountability. “There is a dedication to not getting caught,” she said. “No different than a bank robber wearing a mask. They think, ‘If I don’t touch her or I don’t finish, that covers my tracks.’”
Chaffers also acknowledged that another possible factor influencing some sexual predators is a loose understanding of what sexual violence is. “Some men perpetrate coercive rape and don’t know that they did,” Chaffers said. “They think it’s OK, for example, to give a woman an extra drink with the hope that something more will happen. We only train men to think, ‘Well, I didn’t hold her down.’ Our ideas of violence are very narrow.”
This idea was affirmed by some of the reactions flooding Twitter in the wake of the Louis C.K. allegations.
Sexual assault, according to the Department of Justice, is defined as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”
Psychoanalyst Dayle M. Kramer told HuffPost she believes the urge to masturbate while forcing unwilling people to watch stems not only from the desire for power and control but also from feelings of anger, weakness, humiliation and shame.
“There is no clinical term, it’s just shame,” Kramer said. “Not a particular kind of shame, people may feel it in different ways. We don’t know whether this person was bullied or shamed themselves in their childhood, we don’t know what caused them to want to shame others and shame themselves.”
When asked whether or not exhibitionist disorder ― or someone acting on an urge to display, fondle or stimulate themselves in front of a stranger ― was a possible motivating factor, Kramer responded with caution.
“You have to look at what exhibitionist disorder really means,” she said. “Why are they exhibiting themselves? What is the gain? And what is it that they’re trying to do? You still have to really talk to the person to find out, you just can’t label people. I’m not a fan of putting labels on people without talking to them, I think that’s dangerous. We’re quick to say that person is narcissistic, that person is obsessive. These labels help us think we know someone without knowing them.”
Sex therapist Alexandra Katehakis, who was interviewed by The Cut, described non-consensual masturbation as a manifestation of “sexualized hostility” against their victims, which can sometimes be traced back to childhood trauma or abuse. Kramer seconded this possibility.
“Developmentally, we all go through different phases,” she said. “[Masturbation] would be [linked to] a phase in this person’s development they weren’t able to complete or finish. We see different pieces of ourselves stuck in different phases, and our behavior reflects that.
Chaffers, however, took issue with the idea that victims of childhood sexual abuse, in particular, are more likely to become perpetrators of sexual abuse as adults.
“Some recent analysis says that a combination of traumatic events in childhood are related not predictive of sexual abuse in some samples of offenders and that maybe neglect, and physical abuse are even more indicative,” Chaffers said.
Yet Chaffers believes that personal history is not the primary factor leading to predatory behavior. “If I could identify one reason for perpetrating sexual offending, it’s lack of empathy. Not histories of trauma, not preoccupation with masturbation. It’s lack of empathy,” she said, adding:
Quite frequently I see that offenders have a warped perception of their victims. They believe that the child who enjoys hugs and attention enjoyed or wanted the abuse despite evidence against it. They think that their female coworkers really want to be sexually pursued by a powerful man as opposed to making a name for herself on her own merit no different than a male counterpart. Similarly, in my past working with men who battered, they believe that the victims deserved the abuse, mostly because she disrespected him, yelled back, or did something else similar that gave him permission to escalate.
Some sexual offenders are similar in that they pick vulnerable victims, then create a false narrative about their victim’s compliance in the abuse. And when they are presented with evidence to why the victim was hurt by the abuse, they use denial tactics like justification, lying, forgetting what happened, omitting information and victim blaming to convince themselves and others that the abuse was OK.
A throng of powerful men including Louis C.K. and Weinstein have made headlines recently for using their privilege and status to dehumanize, harass and silence women without recourse. However, patterns of sexual violence are not limited to the rich and famous.
After the Louis C.K. story broke on Thursday, women took to Twitter to share their first experiences being forced to watch a man masturbate. “When’s the first time a man jerked off in front of you without your consent?” Eve Peyser, who writes for Vice, tweeted. “The reason i ask, is because i think this has happened at least once to most women i know.”
The responses poured in: on the subway, at a bus stop, on a tennis court, on a bridge at night. Most women were still underage the first time it happened.
“Think about what happens on the subway, on the bus, on the train,” Kramer said. “Someone rubs up against you with a hard on, or he has his hands down his pants. Those are all forms of masturbation; it’s not just pulling your penis out.”
Kramer added that because masturbation is so rarely discussed in mainstream culture, especially in relation to sexual assault, it gives victims an additional impulse to stay silent and provides predators with an additional layer of protection.
The more ambiguous and surreptitious the act of sexual violence is, Kramer pointed out, the less likely the victim is to come forward. “People are extremely good at saying, ’Oh, we’ll just look a little to the left,′ instead of looking right at what happened,” she said.
A sexual predator choosing to masturbate instead of physically assault a victim, Chaffers said, is often simply a matter of preference. “It might just be a particular kind of fantasy the person enjoys,” she said. “Like in consensual sex, we all have our preferences. The through line with these instances, though, is that part of the enjoyment is in making sure the other person is not equally receiving pleasure. It is shocking or exciting to catch someone off guard or do this to someone who can’t exercise control.”
Sexual assault is not about sex, but control, both Chaffers and Kramer stressed. If anything, the urge to masturbate in front of another person without her or his consent only emphasizes this distinction.
“The reasoning isn’t so different than someone who wants to rob a person at gunpoint but not spend the money,” Chaffers said. “It’s all about power — power over.”