NEW YORK ― The most remarkable thing about comedian Louis C.K. masturbating in front of women without their consent is not that he did it ― as he acknowledged in a statement Friday ― but that some people don’t realize how common this is.
In reality, many women, perhaps most, have been forced at some point to see a random man jerk off in front of us ― at a gas station, on a subway car, while driving, or wherever we happen to be existing while female.
The first of three times it happened to me, I was around 5 years old at a Burger King in Opelousas, Louisiana. A man in a corner booth was looking at my mom and me while stroking his exposed penis. She quickly ushered me outside to play in the ball pit and reported him to the manager, who booted him from the restaurant.
When I asked women on Twitter Thursday night about the first time this happened to them, dozens of stories poured in. Country music artist Chely Wright said she’s dealt with eight surprise masturbation attacks in her life. The first time, she was 18 and working as a performer at Opryland USA, a theme park in Nashville, Tennessee.
“I was walking to my car in the employee parking lot when a man in his car yelled out to me, ‘Hey, can you help me with something?‘” Wright wrote. “I thought I should help someone who was asking for help. I approached his car; the drivers’ side window was down. I saw he was doing something with his hand. I looked down and saw that he was masturbating.”
Wright said the man laughed when she saw what he was doing.
“I’ll never forgot what I saw and I’ll never forget the way he laughed,” she said. “I felt scared and embarrassed.”
Another woman, Leah Spurlock, says she was so embarrassed by the two similar incidents that happened to her that she’s always felt “cursed in some weird sick way,” not realizing how common this is.
The first time, Spurlock was 8 years old at a gas station in Georgia. A white, middle-aged man pulled up beside her family’s van where she was sitting. She writes:
He stared until I looked at him. He unzipped his pants and pulled out his penis... I positioned myself to keep my brother from seeing anything if he happened to glance out the window. I looked back out the window and he was masturbating and staring at me. As my mom came out of the gas station he drove away. I was devastated. I had never seen a penis. I didn’t know what he was doing. I never told anyone and felt sick inside for years and years. I remember it so vividly that I feel like I would recognize the man 29 years later.
Sometimes, men use technology to pull a Louis C.K. from a distance. Soraya Chemaly, a feminist writer and activist, says random men regularly send her unsolicited photos of themselves masturbating. And Priscilla Frank, an arts and culture reporter for HuffPost, says a man once approached her on the street in Brooklyn, New York, chatted her up for a few minutes and then asked for her number. She gave it to him, because he “seemed cute/cool.” Later, he called her from an anonymous number and audibly masturbated on the phone.
“I hung up and he kept calling back,” she said. “Eventually he came on my answering machine and never called again.”
Eve Peyser, a politics writer at Vice, also put out a call Thursday for women’s stories of men masturbating at them. As of Friday afternoon, her tweet had drawn more than 1,800 responses.
Psychologists say this behavior is a form of sexual violence, and men do it because they’re less likely to be caught or punished than if they rape or physically assault someone.
In the absence of a clear means of recourse, women and girls generally have to either ignore the behavior or fight back however they can. Katie Smith, a woman from Delray Beach, Florida, says that when she was 10, she and her friends threw eggs and rocks at a man who had followed their school bus while masturbating.
“I still remember the look on his face when we did it,” she said. “I’ve always hoped it gave him lifelong performance anxiety.”