Laura Bates this week devoted her Everyday Sexism blog on the Guardian to the issue of men masturbating in public, specifically as a means of harassing women. Based on the contributions submitted to her website and over Twitter, she made a convincing case that this is one of the more common forms of harassment women experience, and her correspondents made a convincing case that it is also one of the most disturbing and frightening.
Beneath the line, an interesting and at times furious debate erupted. Some commentators, mostly men, I suspect, suggested that this should not be considered a form of sexism, it is instead the work of ‘sickos’ or ‘the local lunatic.’ Others, mostly women I suspect, responded that the men they had encountered behaving like this had been wearing suits and ties and showed no other sign of being mentally ill or generally disturbed. Some suggested that the experience is so common that it must be a large proportion of men who are doing this. This opinion, needless to say, was not well received by many men.
It was a debate that raised a lot of really interesting and important issues, and I thought they might be worth unpicking. My initial sense is that public masturbation is not a thing – it is several different things. Examples quoted in Laura’s piece include men masturbating when alone in a train carriage with a woman and leering at her; a woman discovering ejaculate in their hair from someone sitting behind her in a cinema; frotteurs rubbing themselves against a woman in a crushed tube train; people catching someone hiding in the bushes and masturbating while watching them in secret and even a man walking down the road, apparently unperturbed with his penis in his hand.
While these have an obvious superficial similarity, I’d suggest that they are actually all different phenomena and may have very different forensic profiles.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on public masturbation, with the intent or expectation of being seen and eliciting a reaction. This is clinically classified as exhibitionism, which is a very common form of paraphilia. As long ago as 1973, JM McDonald noted in the original textbook that fully one third of sexual crimes reported to police were exhibitionism of some sort. A Swedish survey of the general population found that 4.1% of men and 2.1% of women admitted that they had, at some time in their lives, experienced sexual arousal by exposing their genitals to strangers. This suggests that the behaviour, while only performed by a small minority, is not freakishly unusual. It should be noted that despite those survey results above, the incidents which are reported to police (a rough proxy for incidents which could be considered threatening or traumatic) virtually all offenders are male. Adult male victims are almost unheard of. Child victims are roughly evenly divided between boys and girls.
Paraphilias (as sexual disorders are described in the psych literature and textbooks) are not generally considered to be mental illnesses, although – like personality disorders – they fall under the remit of mental health professionals when they begin to cause harm or distress to either the individual or those around him/her. So an exhibitionist, even a compulsive, repeat offender, is not necessarily ‘mad’ or mentally ill. Paraphilias also appear throughout the population, and there is some (albeit disputed) evidence that they are slightly over-represented among better educated, higher social-class individuals, which would validate the point about offenders wearing business suits.
However this gets complicated when one notes that exhibitionism, like other paraphilias, often appears in a pattern of comorbidity with mental illnesses, personality disorders and neurological disorders – spanning everything from autistic spectrum disorders to temporal lobe seizures.
The final piece in this puzzle is that exhibitionism also commonly appears in a pattern of co-morbidity with other paraphilias and sexual offending behaviours. So a persistent sex offender who commits contact offences – up to and including rape – is reasonably likely to have a history of other offences that include exhibitionism. It is also true that a small number of offenders commit these offences prolifically, so there will be far more women who have encountered such behaviour than there will be men who have committed it.
The sad but inescapable truth is that most people who display hostile paraphilias begin their ‘careers’ in perversion at a young age, usually still in childhood. A large proportion have been victims of childhood abuse of some sort, often but not always sexual. This does not make their behaviour understandable, acceptable or forgiveable.
Without getting lost in philosophical debates about free will and determinism, paraphiliacs have responsibility for their own beliefs, their own behaviour and their own values. The vast majority of victims of child abuse do not go on to abuse others. Most people with atypical sexual desires or who respond to unusual sexual stimuli find safe, non-abusive expressions for those urges and desires, ideally with an enthusiastically consenting partner or at least a rich fantasy life.
One can be mentally ill, one can be a misogynist, and one can be or neither, or both. I don’t think it is any kind of a stretch to include this type of behaviour under the banner ‘everyday sexism.’ It happens commonly enough and undoubtedly has a heavily gendered dynamic in the overwhelming majority of cases. On the other hand, the people committing the offences probably are not ‘everyday sexists’, they are what the textbooks call ‘deviant’ or disordered sexual offenders. There is no contradiction there.
So are these offenders damaged, disturbed, mentally disordered individuals or are they women-haters, sexists and misogynists? I’d hazard an educated guess that most are both.
Some more reading I found useful today:
Niklas Langstrom (2010) The DSM Diagnostic Criteria for Exhibitionism, Voyeurism,and Frotteurism
Lee et al, 2002 Developmental risk factors for sexual offending