On Monday, news broke that Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for the New Yorker and a political analyst for CNN, had been suspended. The reason given was because he had “unintentionally” exposed his genitals to his colleagues on a Zoom call. The mere fact that it had taken this long into the pandemic to have a high profile Zoom exposure was surprising enough that many people began sharing their stories of accidentally disrobing on camera (toward the beginning of lockdown, I accidentally flashed my child’s preschool class, believing myself to be out of the camera’s frame, for example).
Soon though, innocent stories of accidental flashing gave way to people — specifically, journalists on Twitter — defending Toobin, since, you know, “it happens to the best of us,” as if, you know, "the best of us" are all trouserless during calls with our colleagues. But as more information came to light about the incident, it became clear that this was not some simple accidental flashing after all, and was something more serious: VICE broke the news that Toobin had actually been masturbating on the call. While the new reveal should have changed the nature of the narrative around the incident, instead, even more jokes came fast and furious, flooding our feeds.
As “Zoom Dick” trended on Twitter, Etsy sellers worked to make “I Survived The Zoom Dick Incident of 2020” mugs, and new details revealed that the incident had occurred during a New Yorker election simulation (whatever that is!). People couldn’t get their “you mean election stimulation” and “erection stimulation” jokes off fast enough. The hashtag #MeToobin was full of riffs, including quips about Toobin “just trying to multi-task” and questions about whether his case would “stand up” in court.
While the impulse to joke about the absurdity of getting caught masturbating on a video call with high profile people like Jane Mayer, Masha Gessen, and Jelani Cobb is understandable, and it's true that humour can be used as a coping mechanism for people who have experienced indecent exposure themselves, the reality is that jokes about Toobin and his exposed penis is both essentially dismissive of a serious incident and also damaging to progress around the ongoing problem of workplace harassment. Though we are at a place where people (mostly) understand that rape jokes are not funny, when it comes to other incidents of sexual violence — which is what masturbating at your non-consenting co-workers is — we don’t seem to comprehend their seriousness.
And this is serious. It’s on par with someone masturbating on a train or in some other public space. The fact that Toobin did this to his co-workers is particularly horrible, as it makes the situation incredibly personal and violating. When we joke about it, we are lessening its impact. We are minimising the severity of the act of power and violence, allowing others to sweep it under the rug as not a big deal because, hey, everyone laughed about it.
But not only is there nothing funny about what Toobin did, it also reveals a longstanding pattern of excusing his unprofessional behaviour. A powerful man within the industry, Toobin is also rumoured to have inappropriately propositioned women in the past. In all these situations, he likely thought he could get away with it; either he would not be caught or, if he was, no one would say anything about it because of his position and influence.
Toobin has apologised for the “embarrassingly stupid mistake,” and perhaps it was a mistake that the camera was still turned on, but jerking off either on, or immediately following, a video call with your co-workers is not a mistake — it is an act that requires intention. Part of the thrill may have been related to the fact that he knew there was risk of getting caught, or that he was doing something he should not be doing in a place he should not be doing it, as is often the case with exhibitionism. And, in this instance, he involved non-consenting people: his colleagues.
Despite this, some men in media are rushing to defend him. In a now-deleted tweet, Vox reporter German Lopez wrote, “Not sure someone getting caught doing something almost everyone does should be a national story.” While it is true that most people masturbate, it is not true that most people do so on a work call— which is the defining distinction in this incident. Meanwhile, NPR’s Peter Sagal has praised Toobin’s political commentary, while CNN’s Brian Stelter focused on the fact that this was a “pivotal moment in the run-up to the election,” rather than on the harm Toobin may have caused.
In a strange deployment of the concept of Occam's Razor, The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf tweeted: “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.” Attributing the act of masturbating in a work meeting to “pandemic circumstances” and “technological error,” as if the situation were only a problem because Toobin was forced to be on a video call because he had to work from home as a result of our nation’s public health crisis belies its seriousness.
Even if Toobin thought his camera and microphone were off, he still knew he was in a work meeting. And unless you are a sex worker whose job it is to engage in sex acts with consenting coworkers, masturbating in a work meeting is never appropriate, under any circumstances. (I cannot believe I have to type that sentence, but here we are.)
Ultimately, these responses are telling about how we really view sexual violence, particularly in digital space. In an age when cisgender men are still known to send unsolicited pictures of their penises on dating apps and think no big deal of it, is it really so surprising that people will also minimise the seriousness of Zoom masturbation? It can be hard to conceptualise the harm when the predominant narrative implies that the removal of physical proximity also removes the threatening nature of the act. But sexual violence is about power. Toobin was so secure in his that he thought nothing of masturbating during a work meeting, with at least the subconscious assumption that his position would insulate him from any potential fallout.
The jury is still out as to whether Toobin will suffer any real consequences from this; if the powerful white men in media’s responses to the matter are any indication, he won’t. And the jokes that people are making at the expense of the victims of Toobin’s indecent exposure allow the rest of the media to continue to minimise the severity of his actions. Despite all the laughter surrounding the “Zoom dick” incident, though, it's actually not that funny at all.