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The Psychology of Exhibitionism: Why Men Force Women to Watch Them Masturbate

Power and a pathological desire to elicit fear all play into why a man engages in exhibitionism, sex therapists say.
Louis C.K. at Madison Square Garden in 2016.
Louis C.K. at Madison Square Garden in 2016.Stephen Lovekin / REX/Shutterstock via AP file

Power, control, and a pathological desire to elicit fear all play into why a man might engage in exhibitionism, sex therapists say, in the wake of bombshell revelations against comedian Louis C.K.

Two female comedians told the New York Times this week that Louis C.K. masturbated in front of them in 2002 in a hotel room after inviting them up for a drink. Three other women told the Times about other instances of sexual misconduct by the creator of the FX series "Louie."

On Friday, Louis C.K. confirmed the accounts and said he was "remorseful."

"These stories are true," he said in a statement. "At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. 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. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly."

"Exhibitionism is not about sex. It's about purposely provoking shock and fear in a female."

Experts say masturbating in front of women without their permission is typically about exerting control, not an attempt at seduction.

Related: Louis C.K., Accused of Sexual Misconduct, Says: ‘These Stories Are True’

"Exhibitionism is not about sex. It's about purposely provoking shock and fear in a female," said sex therapist Dr. Alexandra Katehakis, clinical director of the Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles, who has not treated Louis C.K. "The shock on a woman's face that he's torturing is where the arousal lies. It's in her humiliation."

Louis C.K. isn't the only one facing such accusations: Harvey Weinstein, dogged by dozens of sexual misconduct allegations, has also been accused of masturbating in front of women without their consent, among other sexual acts. (Weinstein has continue to deny "unequivocally" any allegations of non-consensual sex, according to his spokesperson.)

And droves of women have shared stories of similar incidents allegedly happening to them on social media since the Louis C.K. story broke.

"I was 15 walking home from school and a man in a car called to me. I looked in and saw it. I was mortified,"one woman wrote on Twitter.

"I was about 11 when a guy at the ice rink told me he wanted to show me something," wrote another.

Part of the problem for exhibitionists, says Rob Weiss, a sexologist and author of "Sex Addiction 101," is that they don't necessarily see their behavior as wrong — possibly because it's not as physically intrusive as other forms of sexual assault, such as inappropriate touching or rape.

Related: Report Says Comedian Louis C.K. Accused of Sexual Misconduct by Five Women

"I've worked with a number of these men in treatment. They don't really understand the experience of the victim at all, because in their minds, it's like, 'I'm just being sexy, cool, I didn't really disturb her because she didn't complain,'" Weiss, who also hasn't treated Louis C.K., said.

In reality, seeing a man engage in such behavior can be so shocking, it often leaves a woman frozen in her tracks. Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, the comedians who told The New York Times about a 2002 hotel room incident with Louis C.K., said they were screaming and laughing when it happened, but didn't leave.

"We were paralyzed," Goodman said.

That plays into the high exhibitionists get, said Katehakis. While it's difficult to recover from the shock of such a situation, defying a sexual predator of any kind is a turn-off to them, she added.

"If somebody's about to attack a female, she's taken defense classes or she looks him in the eye and yells back at him, that isn't arousing to him. What's arousing is the fear, the humiliation. It's an act of rage against women," she said.

The experts said the roots of exhibitionism often hearken back to childhood experiences — neglect or abuse, or a formative sexual experience.

While not all powerful men abuse their power with such transgressions, putting a stop to exhibitionism or any other sexual deviance can be particularly difficult if the offender is in a position of power, they said.

"The person who's the victim doesn't really have a choice, because they feel like they won't get the job," Weiss said. "Men in power just have a lot of opportunity."