Among the weirdest peccadilloes to emerge in the recent flood of stories of sexual harassment are those situations in which a man invites or coerces a woman to watch him masturbate. Analyzing the psychology of such a man can potentially help us understand the various forms of toxic masculinity currently filling the headlines. As a therapist, I’ve seen a few men who have done this kind of thing and most are driven by intolerable anxiety. The exhibitionistic fantasy—that’s what this is—originates in the man’s need to reassure himself that his penis, his manhood, is not bad, defective, or insignificant. A key part of the imagined scenario is that the woman is fascinated and excited by the display, which affirms the man’s positive sense of masculinity and momentarily relieves his anxiety. This dynamic is usually unconscious.
Of course, the actual woman complaining about this behavior invariably feels controlled, degraded, or ashamed. But her experience of humiliation does not necessarily imply that the exhibitionist’s main goal is to humiliate her. He needs to set up a situation, over and over, in which he can escape anxiety; he’s not primarily out to make women suffer. He uses women as a kind of mirror that, in his mind, reflects back admiration and excitement, not horror or disappointment; the women just feel used.
Normal masculinity in our culture is shot through with anxiety. For reasons that can only be discerned on an analyst’s couch, the normal stresses of growing up male become so extreme to some men, and their particular life circumstances make women so “available,” that sexual exhibitionism becomes a compelling fantasy to enact. When these ingredients are present, you get someone like Louis C.K.