What drives famous men like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K, and Kevin Spacey to expose their private parts to victims who have no interest in seeing them? Is it a need to intimidate? To shock? To satisfy some odd sexual urge? There may be as many explanations for such behavior as there are perpetrators, experts say.
But one quality that likely helped propel these famous names to success may also be at least partly responsible for their bad behavior — a love of risk-taking.
“They have risen to the top of the world in their field and they are doing this stupid stuff,” said Frank Farley, a professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University and a former president of the American Psychological Association. All their success and their seeming intelligence makes their willingness to risk it all even harder to understand, he said — until you consider one behavioral principle:
“One aspect of risk-taking is rule-breaking,” Farley said, though most people find some other rule to break.
In general, risk-takers have a high tolerance for uncertainty, are motivated by intense experiences, and have the self-confidence to believe they will not suffer any severe consequences, he said.
In the 1980s, psychologists called risk-takers Type T personalities. Some positive aspects of the personality trait, which Albert Einstein shared, are creativity and intelligence. The negative side, however, can include thrill-seeking behavior, like having affairs and committing crimes, said Farley.
Getting ahead in politics or entertainment requires charisma and power — which many people think of as sexy traits — and that might be a reason some people are drawn to those fields, he said.
Technology makes this behavior even easier. Consider the case of Anthony Weiner, the former New York congressman disgraced for texting photos of his genitals to a number of women.
But almost no human behavior is the result of one trait, Farley said. It is always a combination of elements that can vary from one person to another, which makes it hard to understand, he said.
“That these highly successful people who navigate these complex fields and rise to the top wouldn’t see how negative and awful this kind of behavior is … I mean, they just don’t get it,” said Farley.
More than 75 women have accused Weinstein of inappropriate behavior ranging from exposing himself all the way up to rape. The Hollywood producer has denied the accusations of nonconsensual sexual contact. Comedian/actor Louis C.K. confessed to masturbating in front of a number of women who weren’t willing to watch. After a former TV news anchor said Spacey sexually assaulted her teenage son last year at a Nantucket restaurant, the actor was cut from a forthcoming motion picture, and Netflix stopped production of his popular show House of Cards. The exposure accusation against Spacey comes from Britain, where a hotel worker claims Spacey exposed himself to him in 2010 and then gave him an expensive watch.
Experts say there is much that isn’t known about this kind of behavior.
“Did the power inspire the behavior, or was the behavior there and the power was the portal through which this behavior happened?” asked Thea Gallagher, clinic director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Gallagher said the behavior can be classified as a kind of paraphelia, in which a person becomes sexually aroused when fantasizing about and engaging in unusual or extreme sexual behavior.
More specifically, exhibitionistic disorder such as exposure may affect 2 percent to 4 percent of men, according to Psychology Today. It is rare among women, Gallagher said.
Men who expose themselves tend to get sexually aroused by the act. They may even convince themselves their victims were excited. The behavior, which typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood, can be habit forming, Gallagher said.
It is important for any victim to immediately report an exposure incident to authorities, said Sarah Wodder, director of Ravenhill Psychological Services in Doylestown, where 99 percent of its adult patients are getting court-ordered treatment after being convicted of sex crimes.
In some cases, exhibitionists may get bored and find that exposure is not as sexually arousing anymore and move on to more invasive behavior, such as sexual assaults or even rape, she said.
Men who expose themselves “are not seeking treatment on their own, and it is not until they are caught that they will get the treatment they need,” she said. Even then, about 20 percent to 50 percent will repeat their crimes, she said.
Michael Galantino leads sex-crimes prosecutions as a deputy district attorney in the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office. He says men who expose themselves have the highest rate of recidivism among all sex offenders.
“Whatever gratification they are getting seems to be stronger than the fear of the consequences,” he said.
Technology means younger people are exposing themselves, and incidents are increasing, he added.
“We do get a fair number of reports of high school or college-age [boys] sending images of themselves to unwilling recipients,” he said. He even has seen sexting cases involving 12- and 13-year-olds who have sent inappropriate photos to classmates who didn’t want them.
“In today’s world, the boundaries should be very clear,” he said. “And yet, in some areas of society, people still ignore those boundaries.”