Why do men expose themselves? It's about power, attention and control, psychologists say

Disgraced former NBC News host Matt Lauer is breaking his silence. Nathan Rousseau Smith (@FantasticMrNate) reports.

One of many disturbing details emerging from the growing list of celebrities accused of sexual misconduct is the pattern of powerful men exposing themselves in the workplace.

Matt Lauer this week joined the number of celebrities accused of sexual misconduct. While Lauer and NBC haven't explained the incidents in question, an exclusive Variety article reports the allegations include an account of Lauer dropping his pants and exposing his penis to a female employee. This follows a host of similar reports about men in power undressing in front of women.

Louis C.K. said accusations of him masturbating in front of women were true. Several of the 83 accusers who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and assault say he exposed himself in various ways.  Longtime TV journalist Charlie Rose is accused of walking around naked in front of women who worked for him. Actor Richard Dreyfuss is accused of exposing himself to writer Jessica Teich. Steven Seagal is accused of unzipping his pants in front of actress Portia de Rossi. The list will likely go on. 

More: Were you sexually harassed, assaulted or raped at work? Here's what steps you can take

Why do men expose themselves? In these cases, it's often about power, said Steve Graubard, a Massachusetts-based consulting and clinical psychologist of more than 40 years. To be clear, these recent allegations aren't that of a typical flasher, Graubard said. Men in high-profile positions who are exposing themselves to those they work with are acting on impulses (desires), not compulsions (urges against one's wishes). 

Those impulses are narcissistic (ego-related) and/or feeding off a sense of omnipotence, Graubard said.  They are "acting out a fantasy that's based on needs for attention" and "control," he said. 

"When [they] are in a position of power and influence over other people, then in their mind the fantasy starts to take form and it could happen," Graubard said. "The inhibitions that we usually have around this behavior start to get broken down."

We do know that men who act this way usually hold sexist attitudes about women, said John Pryor, Illinois State University psychology professor who's researched sexual harassment for more than 30 years. 

The behavior is not new. "It's been around for centuries," Graubard said. 

And, it's not something that just happens, said James Campbell Quick, a Texas-based leader with the American Psychological Association for 30 years.

This behavior is "a manifestation of a life history of development," Quick said. What specifically went off track is different for everyone, but he said something in their lives is missing and this behavior is a way to fill it. 

In some cases, exposing themselves might stem from a longing to be "appreciated, loved or admired," Quick said. Other situations are more about control and dominance. 

If someone has exposed themselves, it's likely they've done something similar before and will do something similar or worse again. 

"It is likely to be part of a pattern of behavior that includes other forms of sexual harassment as well," Pryor said.

More: List: All of the Hollywood power players accused of sexual assault or harassment

More: Americans agree sexual harassment is a problem. They just don't always agree on what it is

Anyone found guilty of exposing themselves or publicly masturbating can face criminal charges, and those who do so at work could also face sexual harassment charges. 

If you've experienced sexual assault, you can get help from the National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7: 800-656-HOPE (4673) or via live chat.

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