BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Public masturbation: Where sexual harassment meets disorder

  • Only one or two cases of public masturbation are reported annually. (The Daily Star/Grace Kassab)

BEIRUT: Go on, guess what these four men have in common: A suit-clad individual spotted one morning by his parked car in Ashrafieh; an obese – and noisy – character poorly concealed in the bushes by a Mar Mikhael parking lot; a young man outside a restaurant on a side street in Monnot; and a fellow on the footpath just beyond the Electricite du Liban building at 11 p.m.No clue? Well, here it is: They were all masturbating, unashamedly and publically jerking off, pleasuring themselves, wanking – choose your preferred term – on the streets of Beirut.

Public masturbators are not uncommon in Lebanon.

Yara Chehayed, a member of the Adventures of Salwa initiative, which works to highlight and resist sexual harassment in Lebanon, says the issue is regularly raised in her organization’s workshops and focus groups.

Meanwhile, on the Web forum Resist Harassment Lebanon, several contributors have posted about this form of harassment.

For example, on April 30, one shocked pedestrian wrote: “There was this guy who looked like a hobo, and he had a really weird expression on his face, and that’s when I realized that he was actually masturbating behind us! I just couldn’t believe my eyes!”

Start believing your eyes.

Chehayed says she doesn’t know whether the phenomena itself is increasing but believes the number of women noticing it is certainly rising.

Another posting on the Web forum describes an incident on a public bus: “I was sitting ... alone until a young man in his 20s came and sat next to me! It was all fine until I felt his hand is moving, so I looked down and noticed he was masturbating.”

Masturbation, the word for which in Arabic translates literally as “the secret habit,” is, like countless sexual behaviors, taboo in Lebanese society. Public masturbation – which must make for quite the oxymoronic term when expressed in Arabic – is even more so.

The Internal Security Forces’ Department of Vice tells The Daily Star that “only one or two cases [are reported annually]. This number neither increases nor decreases.”

Nasawiya, a local feminist collective that supports assorted anti-harassment campaigns, when contacted online for assistance and/or comment on the topic, gave the curt reply: “Your questions on public masturbation are really strange. We prefer not to contribute to your article.”

But bravely raise the issue in almost any circle and doubtless a number of people, mostly female but sometimes male, will come forward with tales of encounters with flashers and masturbators – some sadly amusing, others genuinely terrifying.

Yet, even though not every sighting of a male publically exposing his genitals is necessarily intimidating or unnerving, Chehayed emphasizes that such behavior is considered sexual harassment. “It is unacceptable,” she says. “Women should be able to report it as sexual harassment.”

In “Salwa’s guide to fighting sexual harassment,” a publication available for free online, the definition of what constitutes harassment includes “unwelcome exposure: when someone exposes their body parts to you or masturbates in your presence.”

As it stands Lebanese law prohibits indecent public exposure, and masturbators, if caught, may be prosecuted under it.

But there is currently no law identifying the behavior as sexual harassment, Chehayed says.

Calling the police to report such harassment likely won’t produce a satisfactory reaction, she adds. “The police will [probably] laugh at the woman because it is an unusual report and there is no specific law covering it.”

For her, the most effective way of dealing with the issue is to yell at the perpetrator: “Me? I just shout, even if he is just peeing, because he is showing his genitals.”

Chehayed has considered this response, weighing her personal safety. She knows “he will have to do his trousers up” before he can do anything else, such as pursue her.

A friend takes a similar strategy: Yelling “why is it so small?” is her preferred reaction.

Such assertion may not be for everybody. “Other women just cross to the other side of the street,” Chehayed says.

Whatever your immediate response, Chehayed recommends that if you encounter a public masturbator, you call the Salwa hotline and report the sighting. Salwa will add the incident to its harassment map, which keeps track of the frequency of harassment across the city. She also encourages “naming and shaming” the behavior on the Resist Harassment Lebanon forum.

While some may be inclined to query the prevalence of public masturbation here as unusual and seek reasons for this in a social context, clinical sexologist and co-host of LBC’s groundbreaking show on sexuality and health “Lezim Taaref” Dr. Sandrine Atallah says the problem is in no way unique to Lebanon or Lebanese society.

“It’s a problem in all societies,” she adds, giving the example of Paris, where the behavior is known to be common on certain streets in particular districts.

Atallah accepts, however, that its pervasiveness in Lebanon may be linked to lack of law enforcement.

“[Men] do not know that it is against the law. In Lebanon there is a problem with the law anyway. But I’m not sure,” Atallah says.

What the sexologist is sure about is that public masturbation is paraphilic sexual behavior – that is, a fetish, a perversion, a form of exhibitionism and abnormal. Moreover, “[it] is almost exclusive to men.”

Sexual perversion is rarer in women than men, Atallah says, and while “some women are exhibitionists ... they usually like to make love [rather than masturbate] in public.”

Public masturbators “need to masturbate in public in order to reach orgasm,” she explains. “[They] want women to see them in erection.”

She says that such men derive pleasure from this and often also from the fear or affront their behavior engenders in its witnesses.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that public masturbators in Beirut don’t conform to one particular age or socioeconomic group, but Atallah makes a distinction between the behavior as exhibited in adults and teenagers.

Among youth, it may be a form of acting out or risk-taking, rather than a sexual perversion, she says: “They do it to prove they exist, are sexually active, to overcome boundaries.”

In the case of adults however, Atallah is unequivocal: “It’s abnormal.”

She also makes clear that public masturbation is unacceptable – “because you are forcing someone to see you naked or masturbating.”

Chehayed says women’s fear of public masturbators often arises from the sense that the perpetrator is “preparing for an act.” But Atallah, who has treated a number of men for the problem, is confident that public masturbators “usually are not [physically] dangerous.”

They engage in visual rather than physical harassment and “usually they will not rape or assault,” she explains.

Nevertheless, the masturbators’ behavior presents a psychological danger, Atallah says.

Holly Kearl, writer of the 2010 U.S. publication “Stop Street Harassment: Making public spaces safe and welcoming for women,” highlights that behavior such as public masturbation may effectively limit women’s liberty.

“Street harassment and the underlying fear of it escalating into something worse makes most women feel unwelcome and unsafe in public at least sometimes,” she writes. This may cause women to restrict their movements, limit their time in public and perhaps result in them forging the use of resources and missing out on opportunities, she adds.

Yet while public masturbators contribute to the impoverishment of women’s freedom, these perpetrators are often victims too and in need of help.

Of the patients who have come to her for assistance in overcoming the behavior, Atallah says that being caught, fear of being caught and/or familial pressure have been the main motivators for seeking help.

It is laudable that some men are pursuing assistance, but they are certainly exceptional cases. As Atallah says, “There are more women complaining [about public masturbators] than men coming for treatment.”

To report or talk about incidents of public masturbation call The Adventures of Salwa anti-harassment hotline on 76-676-862 or write a post detailing your experience on Resist Harassment Lebanon at http://qawemeharassment.com/. For further information about sexual harassment, including public masturbation, and how to deal with it, download “Salwa’s guide to fighting sexual harassment” at http://www.adventuresofsalwa.com/2011/11/salwas-guide-to-fighting-sexual-harassment-online-booklet-english/. Finally, for assistance in addressing sexual perversion contact a reputable psychologist or clinical sexologist.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 17, 2012, on page 4.
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