Ilana Goren was not surprised when, while walking down K Street on a recent evening, she came across a young man holding his penis with his right hand and waving congenially with his left.
“I said hello and just walked on by,” the senior said. At the time, Goren said she did not see a need to report the incident. “I brushed it off as ‘just another drunken college student,'” she said. Looking back, though, she added that “indifference may not have been the most appropriate reaction. Especially not at 3 a.m. on a deserted city street.”
Goren’s encounter was not an isolated episode. Since the start of the school year, the University Police department has reported six incidents of indecent exposure, both on and off campus. It is impossible to say how many more go unreported.
While UPD does not believe the incidents are related or even unusual, it does raise the question: Have GW students become too desensitized by these kinds of events? Goren said she thinks they have, and believes the media plays a huge role in this.
“The amount of sex in the media and pop culture has jaded society and our reaction to sexual harassment and nudity,” she said. “We see things as funny or normal and don’t think twice about it.”
Senior Matt O’Keefe agrees that the stories can be humorous.
“When you see a headline in The Hatchet that ‘men are masturbating in Foggy Bottom,’ you can’t help but laugh. But deep down there is a more serious issue that needs to be explored,” O’Keefe said. “I think you really need to weigh the situation. It’s not a reason for public outcry, but maybe we shouldn’t be laughing so much.”
Senior Jeff Stern said he is disgusted by these stories.
“I’m a guy and I just don’t get it,” he said. “There is absolutely no rational reason behind exposing yourself to some random girl. I don’t care how drunk you are.”
Stern, who described himself as being fairly laid back, said he is generally not bothered by things like this. “I’m not the kind of person who would press charges about something like this. I’d probably just use it as a great story for later on, but if it bothers you a lot, then do it,” Stern said. “You should at least talk to a UPD officer and let them know what’s going on. I don’t think people even realize it’s a crime.”
In fact, indecent exposure laws make such activity illegal in most states, including the District of Columbia, where “purposefully displaying one’s genitals in public” falls under the category of “lewd, indecent and obscene acts.” According to D.C. law, it is punishable with fines of up to $300 and/or up to 90 days in prison for each act. If the incident occurs in the presence of a minor, the fine goes up to $1,000 and up to a year of imprisonment. But pressing charges can be a lengthy, time-consuming and often embarrassing process.
Senior Sara Vargas recalls an experience she had while still in high school.
“I was walking home from the bus stop after school one day when a man in a car slowed down and asked me for a nearby street. I pointed him in the right direction and kept walking, but two seconds later he slowed down again and waved me over,” she recalled. “I thought that maybe he didn’t understand so I moved closer to show him. When I looked in the car I saw that he was jerking off.”
Taken aback, Vargas stepped away from the vehicle and ran home, but not before noting his license plates.
“We called the police and told them what happened. This one detective kept calling and urging me to press charges,” Vargas said.
Though hesitant at first, Vargas finally agreed to go ahead once she learned that similar incidents had been reported in a nearby town.
“I wanted to stop him,” she said. “I had been so shocked. I mean, I was doing something nice by helping him out, and he was doing this completely sick and disgusting thing.”
The case went to trial and Vargas was asked to testify.
“It was all so embarrassing,” she said. “Imagine being 14 and having to sit in front of your parents on a witness stand describing this kind of thing. I was mortified.”
Although Vargas said there was enough evidence to convict the suspect, an error by the prosecution caused the judge to dismiss the case.
“I don’t want to go through that ever again, but I know it was the right thing to do,” she said. “I felt so violated, and I still do. Just this summer I caught myself panicking when I had to walk down that street again. It’s been six years, but I felt the same way I did the day after it happened.”
Vargas said that if the confrontation were repeated today, she would still follow the same procedure. However, she is quick to note that it might be different if it happened on campus instead of in her hometown.
“This is college … there are half-naked drunk people everywhere. It’s just not so out of place to see a frat boy whipping it out in front of his friends,” she said. “The tone is different and while it isn’t right, you really can’t go around pressing charges on every drunk guy that gets fresh with you.”
Dr. Diane Shrier, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and editor of “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace and Academia: Psychiatric Issues,” tried to explain why not all women report incidents of exposure and other types of sexual misconduct.
“Some women really don’t care,” she said. “Many women have the attitude that it is not a big deal or that ‘boys will be boys.’ A lot depends on what your views are. If you say that this is part of a larger spectrum of behaviors that make women uncomfortable and feel bad about themselves, that will be when you begin to raise awareness. We can’t expect a rapid change of attitude … We need to get people to recognize this as a problem first.”
Junior Robby Davis said he does not believe enough women take this behavior seriously. “It’s just a bad thing to do. I don’t care if you are drunk or think it’s funny,” he said. “I think that girls who deal with this should press the crap out of those charges. It’s the only way to get guys to realize that this is not funny and that it’s actually wrong.”
So at what point does this behavior go from a simple nuisance to a potential danger?
According to several clinical psychologists, exhibitionistic behavior can be divided into two types. Type one offenders tend to be more inhibited and in possession of relatively normal personalities. They rarely masturbate while they expose themselves and do not derive sexual pleasure from the experience.
Type two offenders are described as being more psychopathic. They derive pleasure from this type of exposure and are more likely to have an erection or masturbate during the act. The offenders in this second group are more likely to progress to more serious sexual offenses, particularly if provoked by laughter or ridicule.
“You really have to rely on your hunches when stuff like this happens,” Vargas said. “You can never know what the true intentions or motivations are. You can only trust your instincts.”
Senior Mandeep Grewal said women must be aware of the distinction between immature pranks and offensive sexual behavior or harassment, and know when that line is crossed.
“If a guy shouts at you on the street or flashes you from far away, that’s not going to physically hurt you,” she said. “But if he tries to touch you or starts to follow you, that’s when it becomes unacceptable. We just need to be aware and know the difference between things that are just annoying and things that are actually dangerous.”