Let us take a moment to consider those who have been impacted most by the pandemic. Not women, who are dropping out of the workforce like flies; not people of color, who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and live in constant fear of becoming the victims of police violence; and not low-income children and students with special needs, who are struggling to receive the bare bones of an education in a remote learning setting. Spare a thought for the real victims of 2020: the men who are caught cranking their hogs on Zoom.
This has essentially been the sentiment shared by some men on Twitter in response to Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker reporter and CNN legal analyst who was suspended last week after exposing himself on Zoom. According to reporting from Vice, Toobin had been on an election simulation Zoom call with a number of other New Yorker luminaries, including staff reporters Jane Mayer and Dexter Filkins, when he (apparently unwittingly) exposed his penis on camera.
Among most people (including OJ Simpson, the subject of Toobin’s book The Run of His Life, who tweeted a reaction video that was clearly intended to go viral but largely had the effect of being cringey), the overwhelming reaction to the Toobin story was mockery, combined with abject relief that they were not the Zoom masturbator in question. “Every time I make a mistake at work from now on, I’m gonna think, ‘At least I didn’t fondle my junk on vid call and make my company put out a statement about it,’” my friend told me. Allegations of Toobin’s previous transgressions, including reports of workplace affairs and sexually aggressive behavior, contributed to this feeling of schadenfreude. (In response to the latter claim, his attorney told the Daily News, “we do not intend to dignify plainly fabricated claims with a response.”)
But there was a corollary to that sentiment; one that ended up betraying quite a bit about the person vocalizing it: that getting caught jacking off on Zoom was an unfortunate mishap that could happen to anyone, and that the schadenfreude regarding the downfall of a privileged member of the media elite was unwarranted, if not cruel.
“When Occam’s Razor suggests someone humiliated himself through a combo of technological error, pandemic circumstances, bad judgment, & bad luck, it seems like we should react w/ empathy, politeness, & forgiveness, as we would want to be treated, rather than punitive mockery,” Atlantic staff writer Conor Friedersdorf tweeted. In a tweet, CNN’s Brian Stelter sympathetically clucked that Toobin had “been sidelined at a pivotal moment in the run-up to the presidential election” (despite CNN having hundreds of talking heads who could theoretically also serve Toobin’s role). Vox reporter German Lopez tweeted, “Not sure someone getting caught doing something almost everyone does should be a national story”; he then, inexplicably, went on to compare the media’s treatment of Toobin to the issue of mass incarceration.
Of course, there is a glaring issue with this reasoning: pleasuring yourself whilst on a call with star war reporter Dexter Filkins does not exactly fall into the category of “something almost everyone does.” Remote work has certainly made it easier for people to pleasure themselves from home, and it is apparently far from uncommon for employees to do so as a form of stress relief.
Jessie Sage, a cam performer, phone sex operator, and writer, told me she was stunned by the response to the Toobin story. “This happens every time I cam. It doesn’t seem as kinky as people are making it out to be,” she says. “I think they [work masturbators] are bored and lonely.” But getting a nut on your lunch break and doing so while speaking with your coworkers are two totally different balls of wax. And in the context of a flailing media ecosystem where most writers would sacrifice their firstborn for a New Yorker byline, Toobin’s inability to maintain self-control on a work call is ultimately a reflection of both his lack of respect for his coworkers and his position of extreme privilege.
As details were emerging in the Toobin story, some viewed his actions through the lens of an abuse of male power, in the same vein as exhibitionists who expose themselves to frightened female subordinates. Toobin’s self-exposure was, by all accounts, accidental, but the central point — that his behavior was motivated by the ingrained belief that he could navigate the workplace dick-in-hand, with total impunity — still holds true. The problem is not that Toobin allegedly masturbated during work hours. The problem is that he clearly thought he could get away with doing so, and judging by the reactions by some men on Twitter, he wasn’t totally wrong.
In a workplace culture where white men are inculcated with the belief that the office is their playground, where their ascensions are taken for granted as their female and BIPOC counterparts scramble for crumbs beneath their feet and there is no shortage of justifications for bad male behavior, it is not all that surprising that Toobin would be led to believe it was OK to rub one out during a work meeting. But it’s telling that men like Friedersdorf and Lopez — who are, like Toobin, prominent media figures with sizable followings — are so quick to write off his actions as an unfortunate but almost inevitable technological snafu. It’s telling that Toobin was merely suspended from the New Yorker, when journalists are routinely and permanently let go by their employers for far less egregious transgressions. And it’s telling that, even in 2020, the “boys will be boys” mentality that is so often used to justify bad male behavior is also extended to graying legal columnists at elite journalistic institutions.
There are many people in the world who warrant our empathy, politeness, and forgiveness. A best-selling author and Harvard graduate who somehow could not muster up the self-control to keep it in his pants until after he got off the phone with his coworkers is not one of them.