When I asked a friend if he had ever been publicly masturbated at, he looked at me with an expression of mixed confusion and disgust. I explained to him that public masturbation (i.e. masturbation in public) usually occurs on public transportation, parks and other public areas, while the perpetrator is looking at certain individual(s). The friend in question had never been publicly masturbated at, nor had he ever heard of it. This is a person who I consider intelligent, and generally well-informed. Why hadn’t he heard of public masturbation? In fact, up until a friend of mine confided in me about someone having publicly masturbated to her, I had never heard of it either.
From people I have spoken to about this issue, being the object of someone’s public masturbation usually causes them to feel violated in some way. Not physically violated, as the victim is not being touched or harmed in any physical way, but personally violated. True, public masturbation is not your typical form of sexual harassment or assault, as the victim is not actually touched, nor is it (typically) accompanied by heckling or jeering. Still, being publicly masturbated at is a disturbing experience, and can leave emotional scars of its own, especially in young children.
Cases of rape, groping, and sexual violence all need, and deserve more public attention and assistance. However, unlike many sexual incidents which occur behind closed doors, public masturbation leaves no question of who did it. Especially since, as the name suggests, the incident is public, and usually has multiple witnesses. This creates a situation in which incidents of public masturbation can easily be tackled, and yet it remains a prevalent issue worldwide.
Earlier this year, the good people from the Everyday Sexism Project had followers tweet about their experiences with public masturbation. An overwhelming amount of people tweeted in to briefly describe what happened. College women, teenage girls, mothers, the young and the old all chimed in, in an effort to bring more attention to the matter. Over the past two years, Everyday Sexism has had 525 people share their stories about public masturbation outside of the recent Twitter poll.
This is not a woman’s issue nor something that women just need to deal with. In fact, it isn’t exclusive to women at all; young boys and men face this as well. This is harassment, indecent exposure, and just plain and grossly wrong. Even scarier, it happens all over. It isn’t an isolated incident, but an international concern. People have encountered it in Paris, Rome, London, Chicago, and Orlando.
Inspired by the Everyday Sexism Twitter poll, I did a recent poll on my own Facebook, asking for those who felt comfortable—not just women—to tell me about experiences they had. A friend of mine was flashed when she was eleven when playing in her front yard, another was publicly masturbated at when stopping to get gas, and still another on the train coming home from work.
Here is a sampling from my friends who felt comfortable talking about it:
“The first time was when I was 16 and living in Ankara, Turkey as an exchange student, and apparently since I’m fair-skinned and had blonde hair at the time, everyone thought I was a Russian prostitute—which is a thing there. So cab drivers would see me walking late at night and waggle their junk at me. [I told] my host family, but they kind of laughed it up and told me not to stay out so late.”
“I couldn’t actually believe it happened to me TWICE. And I still feel like when I tell friends or acquaintances a lot don’t even believe me.”
“[I] reported the two incidents when I was younger, don’t know if anything happened on any of them. I was scared for safety, like if they wanted to rape me, you don’t know what’s in their heads and what they are going to do.”
“Okay so the first time I was in high school. I was riding my bike to a friend’s house through like a mostly elderly condominium type thing. He was in a truck., and started driving slow/following me and I remember looking in the truck and seeing like his hand moving “suspiciously”. I think I ended up stopping on my bike and he kept driving away. [The first time] I think I told my friends (the time I was in high school) but not family—I was too young/shocked.”
“When I was 13, it was in Death Valley, and my mom’s friend and I were camping, and we had just came out of the bathroom, just walking, and some guy flashed us both.”
Public masturbation poses a very different set of questions from other violations, primarily because it takes place in public. One of those questions is: Why? The thrill of pleasure at being seen, of watching people’s reactions, of inciting fear, may all be part of the turn on for the perpetrators. The American Psychiatric Diagnostic Statistical Manual (IV) for mental disorders labels exhibitionism as a compulsive sexual behavior, under the paraphilic subset (see here). According to Psychology Today, “exhibitionism involves exposing one’s genitals or sexual organs to a stranger.” As public masturbation includes the exposure of genitalia in public, public masturbation would fall under exhibitionism.
To be clear, the American Psychiatric DSM (V) manual makes it plain that most of those who have atypical sexual disorders are not mentally ill (source). Even so, more attention should to be given to the mental health industry, to support those with disorders and illnesses. If the issue of public masturbation continues to be silently accepted, and intentionally ignored, then the message is clear to the offenders that they are doing nothing wrong.
As discussed above, public masturbation is a unique case in the sense that it is public, non-violent; it isn’t your typical “danger.” It happens where all can see the crime, not in private homes, or secluded areas, and it is clear who did what. So why does it consistently occur worldwide? The everyday occurrence of public masturbation is partly due to the way the incidents are handled. Some officers have dismissed reported cases simply because the victim left the scene, though many police officers do take this issue seriously. Perhaps a task force to shut down unwanted sexual behavior in public is needed.
It isn’t just police officers who do not take public masturbation seriously. The National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies have even taken to putting off handling public masturbation, as they have not supported research for the mechanisms on compulsive sexual behavior, leaving a serious lack of clinical and academic research on exhibitionism and public masturbation.
Equally disconcerting is how the witnesses tend to ignore it; if it’s on a train, the fellow passengers avert their eyes, or at a park, the pedestrians keep on walking. Through this, the victims are led to believe that this is behavior that should just be tolerated, while the exhibitor believes they can get away with it again, and again. Solidarity with the victim, and making it clear to the offender that this is unwanted behavior are key to making it stop. Don’t try to intervene with the perpetrator, as you never know how they will react. But reaching out to the victim and acknowledging that this has happened can help.
As with all sex crimes, the key part to stop young children, commuting adults, vacationing friends, and everyone in between to be the object of a public masturbator isn’t the reaction, but instead the prevention. Teaching boys and men that this sort of behavior is inappropriate and wrong is crucial. It’s time to properly teach males how to treat women, and it’s time to start believing our friends when they tell us what happened. It’s time for those who need help to get it, it’s time to stand in solidarity, and it’s time to stop telling women that this should be accepted.