Yesterday, in the virtual conference room, some of my colleagues and I were discussing the Jeffrey Toobin incident, when one of them said, “Well, isn’t this just a product of a world where we all work at home now?” That’s an interesting question, but to be honest, not one of the several I had been mulling over since I heard the news of the gaffe. (My main one: He was playing the courts in an election LARP? Hasn’t the Supreme Court been through enough this year?)
My co-worker argued that people are free to work as they please now, and there’s little difference between taking a smoke break or a moment to meditate and having a go at your dick. Hmmm. Perhaps. But also … I think there actually is. The difference between having a smoke break and jerking off just next to the portal through which you also communicate with your entire office is that you don’t risk carelessly showing everybody your penis when you’re having a cigarette. And that’s sort of an important distinction. Also, have the men learned literally nothing since 2017? We just want boundaries! We do not want to see your dicks or think about how you can’t leave your dicks alone while we try to work.
There’s no way to moralize about this that sounds cool, and it’s not as if I don’t know that old men, and plenty of women, sometimes masturbate in the middle of the day — I work at this horny website, after all. But I don’t think this is about the unfortunate work circumstances we’re all facing during a pandemic. The Zoom dick incident was about what so many of these things are always about: recklessness that certain people feel they can get away with.
Another colleague suggested that we cannot understand that our elders are human and sometimes make mistakes. That we need them to be perfect. There’s a bit of truth to that. But maybe it’s also that we expect the people who hold highly paid positions of power (that crowd out other deserving people below them), to at least pretend that they take their jobs as seriously as the rest of us do. I would expect them to adhere to a basic set of implicit rules, one of which had been, in my experience, no jerking off at work.
As Maya Kosoff pointed out on Medium, there’s a power imbalance made obvious in the fact that one of The New Yorker’s “stars” feels he can do that, while so many people in the journalism industry fear for their jobs or are tasked with simply keeping the traffic-ship afloat. The Toobins are the Don Drapers of the world, making the rest of us the Peggy Olsons. In all my working years I never felt I had the job security or privilege to take a risk like that. Maybe that’s a failure of imagination on my part. Or maybe I really didn’t.
I don’t think there’s anything to be done about the Zoom dick, and it’s probably not something worth punishing a person for in a lasting way. But, Mr. Remnick, I promise you there are other brilliant writers out there who wouldn’t dream of further embarrassing you during your already embarrassing mock-election LARPing exercise. Perhaps it’s time to consider them for big important roles at the magazine.
My irritation about this isn’t about sex panic or general prudery. I simply can’t square Toobin’s sense of entitlement with the lengths I go to just to maintain a semblance of distance from my own family, so as to appear marginally professional on Zoom calls. I can’t square the anxiety I hear from my fellow working moms — that their real lives will encroach on the way they are perceived to be devoted to work — with the casual attitude of my male colleagues. I can’t help but think of the nearly 1 million women who left the workforce just last month, because the pressure to balance taking care of family and work proved too overwhelming.
Sure, as was pointed out to me, anybody can masturbate any time now that we work at home. But the real question is, who feels like they can?