Why Do So Many Hollywood Men Self-Pleasure for a Captive Audience?

Louis C.K. and James Toback - Split - Getty - H 2017
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Many thought the act was a rare pathology — until the industry scandal. Experts explain this gross epidemic.

Louis C.K.'s Nov. 9 confession to masturbating in front of multiple women without their consent, following similar graphic allegations against Harvey Weinstein, James Toback and Brett Ratner, shifts the stereotype of the sexual exhibitionist from subway flasher to Hollywood heavyweight. Although the urge to force others to witness sexual acts can be found in individuals at all socio­economic levels (and in all industries), experts say a unique combination of several factors enables that type of predilection among Hollywood's most powerful.

First, whereas the gratification of basic urges — like lust — is typically checked by social layers, "power basically knocks out those constraints," says UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner, author of The Power Paradox. "Power leads people to take the shortest, easiest path to expressing their desire, no matter what the social consequences. And when men have sexual desires, the most immediate way to gratify those is to masturbate."

The cutthroat nature of the entertainment industry also serves as a type of natural selection. "If you look at what it takes to have success in politics or the arts, it's so highly competitive that it almost requires lack of empathy and a predatory nature to get to the top," says Alexandra Katehakis, clinical director of the Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles. "To throw yourself into the public eye, you've got to have a thick skin, which is often accompanied by some pathology, and that pathology is a narcissistic personality that feels highly entitled. You mix that with power and control, and you've got somebody with antisocial behaviors."

L.A.-based psychologist Debra Borys agrees that narcissists are overrepresented in Hollywood and adds that the industry's gatekeeping structure lends itself to abuse. "There tends to be less institutionally codified means of rising and getting through a gate," she says, noting that showbiz's nontraditional meeting venues like hotels and trailers also play a role. "Very few people succeed, and they know it. That gives the people in management more power and makes the people trying to succeed more vulnerable."

OK, but why that act specifically? These factors contribute to "an environment where this may be easier to get away with, or may happen more, for people who already have the proclivity," Borys continues. "But I don't think it creates monsters." In other words, these high-profile incidences may be making headlines, but for these sex experts, it's old hat.

"It's not like it's happening more often," says San Francisco-based sex-trauma specialist Quandra Chaffers. "Frotteurism and exhibitionism have always existed. People are starting to adopt more language to explain what's happened to them. They have ways to talk about people forcing them to watch." In other words, the real surprise is not that it's happening, but that it's been happening all along.

This story appears in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.