On Feeling Sympathy for Jeffrey Toobin

First, the news. Vice, fittingly, broke this story:

The New Yorker has suspended reporter Jeffrey Toobin for masturbating on a Zoom video chat between members of the New Yorker and WNYC radio last week. Toobin says he did not realize his video was on.

“I made an embarrassingly stupid mistake, believing I was off-camera. I apologize to my wife, family, friends and co-workers,” Toobin told Motherboard.

“I believed I was not visible on Zoom. I thought no one on the Zoom call could see me. I thought I had muted the Zoom video,” he added.

One way to react to this news is with distrust. Oh yeah bullshit he didn’t know his camera was on. Another way to react is with indignation. Grown-ass men shouldn’t have to be told not to jerk off during a work meeting! But I’ve been Jeffrey Toobin, I probably still am Jeffrey Toobin, and I’m here to react with sympathy, if only because somebody has to.

And why does somebody have to? Because there are millions of Jeffrey Toobins out there—female and male, queer and str8—who’ve read all The Takes, and feel sick with fear and self-loathing right now, and I’m here to say: You don’t have to hate yourself.

Let me start with the distrust. The Zoom chat “was an election simulation featuring many of the New Yorker’s biggest stars,” according to Vice. (Masha Gessen got to play the president.) There’s a chance that Toobin was jerking off to this content, that he was aroused by the idea of the election simulation, or his New Yorker coworkers. Or, perhaps more likely, that he was aroused by the idea of jerking off to his coworkers’ unwittingness, the way sex in public is hotter than sex in your own bedroom.

We can’t really know any of this, because we’ve set up a society with a relationship to sex that makes having a conversation with Toobin about his desires flat-out impossible, and we’ve called that progress. Instead, Toobin’s career is over, and probably it should be, given the discussion I’ll have below about restorative justice.

But if you ask me, Toobin wasn’t jerking off to that content, he was jerking off during that content, and he thought he could get away with it. He thought, Okay yeah this meeting is in a different desktop window and now there’s a breakout room thing going on so I’m going to just look at this other open browser window I have and play with my dick.

There is a problem with that thinking, but it’s not the problem The Takes think it is, which brings me to the indignation.

Here are some screengrabs representative of The Takes—many, but not all, from Twitter, a medium that proves again and again to be incompatible with understanding. (And this is my blog, so indulge me while I get snarky in my replies to these takes. I’ll return to compassionate argument soon.)

The weird thing about sex, the thing that’s making me write a book on it that nobody in The Takes is going to want to read, is that we so commonly decide to respond to it with righteous ignorance, rather than look to experts—which is to say sex workers. We hate and fear sex so much we don’t even teach it in schools, and here, above, is yet another call against understanding. And people online love this ignorance. It feels very good to hear and agree with.

I (literally) love this one, its implication that “those people” list jerking-off-at-work on their resumes, and the problem is how dupes keep hiring these workplace masturbators!

This one’s a twofer. The quote-tweeter’s indignation involves the common idea that compulsive sex is something most of us have matured from, but that some of us have not. Some of us remain little boys touching our penises inappropriately. The reality of mature sexuality is that it has little to do with age—but I’ll get to that in a bit.

And then Travis…. I thought this was a joke tweet until I found other Tech Takes, all of whom sincerely think the solution here is machine learning. (And if you wonder what kind of imagination Big Tech has regarding human sexuality, remember this, how it can’t even imagine that shutting down Zoom whenever a dick appears on screen might put millions of sex workers out of work, to say nothing of ruining the sex lives of long-distance couples.)

These next two I’m calling The Knowing Knowers.

Note the retweet numbers. I know I’m grabbing the low-hanging fruit here. I know I’m shitting on people who think solid argument involves posing a Why-question and then writing, “I’ll tell you why—I have never once felt compelled to masturbate while I was supposed to be doing my job, but I will tell you everything you need to know about those who do.”

But also, if Toobin has had “defenders” they aren’t helping our understanding either:

This is from a NY Daily News op-ed, so again: low-hanging fruit. But that this guy thinks the issue is about masturbation’s relative shamefulness compared to partnered sex means that some of The Takers are only able to think about this from an old, tired, hetero-male value system, and so rightly people are pissed.

I’m pissed, but for different reasons. Here’s why I’m pissed. Here’s The Take that brought me to the NY Daily News piece:

Fuck this person. I don’t care what you think should happen to Toobin, I’ll never want him punished as much as I want this person punished. Anyone who thinks there isn’t enough shame in the world around our sexual desires is a public health menace. They remind me of the fish in the old joke, asked How’s the water? by an older fish.

“What’s water?” asks the fish, drowning in it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years of reading and writing and thinking about sex it’s that heterosexuals can rarely talk about sex without letting power and gender control the conversation. Indeed, to many heterosexuals (and some righteous queers, which the angriest above poster identifies as), this isn’t about sex at all. It’s about what men think they can get away with, and it’s about intimidation, abuse, and harassment of women in the workplace.

Harassment of women in the workplace is real, and it’s a crime (or I hope everywhere it is, Jesus, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn some states don’t feel the need to protect women from this). But if jerking off of any kind during a work meeting—particularly somebody jerking off at home while allegedly believing nobody could see him—becomes sexual harassment, regardless of the motivations and desires of the masturbator, then what does that make harassment?

It makes harassment less a criminal action somebody chooses to do and more an interpretation (or even an assumption) of a bad feeling somebody receives. It spotlights female passivity in ways that make me very unhappy to see in 2020.

Which leads me to restorative justice.[1] This read on harassment might actually be necessary. For so long men have hid behind ignorance, or have been protected by frattish Boys Will Be Boys justifications. “Oops, sorry ladies!” After decades of men in the workplace denying their intentions to harass women, and then being excused for their behavior by the other men in power, restorative justice might demand that we start doubting the men. We might need to assume that any dick out at work is an intentional form of harassment. If you think this is unfair, if this makes you mad, get mad at the lying men who have ruined it for everyone. Don’t get mad at the women trying, at last, to be heard.

So I get it. But I don’t think any of this is going to stop dicks from coming out at work.

Here’s where the sympathy comes in, and the potentially shameful admissions. But I’ve worked through my shame on all this. I understand who I’ve been and who I am, and I no longer have use for shame, even though it still falls on me like a weighted blanket I can’t get out from underneath.

I’ve never jerked off on a Zoom call, and I’ve never pulled my dick out during a meeting or a class. It’s never even occurred to me to do this, even though I have jerked off to studio porn clips of guys getting secretly sucked off under a conference table surrounded by coworkers. I’m sure there’ve been any number of sex-at-work clips I’ve jerked off too, and countless more I haven’t even seen. And my belief is that if there’s a porn of it, it’s because there’s a sizeable enough fantasy about it among the population.[2]

So: secretly getting your rocks off while everyone around you is hard at work (forgive the pun) is something people of all stripes find hot enough to jerk off to. Now, I will agree with one of the above posters that the ability to discern between fantasy and reality, and to accept the place of fantasy within your reality, is something people learn as they mature.

But how, exactly? We don’t do a very good job of teaching this, or even talking about it. We just sort of throw up our hands and say, “Well, just learn it! I did!” We abandon each other to the righteousness about sex we’ve each been handed by our puritanical country. We fail in our imaginations of others’ sexualities. And that’s the kind of mutual abandonment I’m writing a book to try to stop.

If Toobin were jerking off because his coworkers were “in the room”, then he’s got a lot of learning to do about consent and the fantasy-reality divide. But it’s just as possible that he was jerking off despite his coworkers being in the room. I’m not worrying the difference to let him off the hook of potentially creating a hostile work environment, I’m worrying the difference to better understand the problems our sexualities can cause for us.

Because I too have jerked off and had sex in settings I know I shouldn’t have, settings where if I got caught I could lose my job and a lot worse. I’m talking about a time of my life that I like to think is over. I’m talking about old jobs, past choices I’ve only recently been learning to understand.[3] And when I made those choices, it was never about the nearby presence of other people. It was about me, it was all about me, and what I felt were my needs, and what I felt I deserved.

There was a time in my life that I went to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. It was a short-lived time. SAA was not for me. (I don’t think it’s for anyone, but that’s a topic for another time. Or buy the book when it’s done.) But one concept from SAA that I still find useful was called “The Bubble”—which is an image of both (a) separation from others and (b) protective isolation that surrounds the “sex addict” when they’re “acting out”, i.e. doing whatever it was they were doing sexually that made them ashamed and risk their lives/careers/relationships.

The Bubble isn’t real, but that feeling? God, I’ve felt it just zillions of times. I have done things with the full assumption that nobody could see me, that nobody even knew I existed. I was bored, or lonely, or feeling insecure, and I had time to kill, I had nowhere to be or nothing to do, nothing I wanted to focus on, and amid all those uneasy feelings I had sex and porn to turn to, again.

Don’t get me wrong: sex and porn are great. It’s just that my relationship to them was not.

The reality that I had a partner at home who had no idea where I was or what I was up to—in the thick of pursuing a certain kind of sex, this never occurred to me. Being in The Bubble feels great, really. And when The Bubble bursts, especially when it’s burst for you and not by you, it feels like sickness. The word nausea doesn’t begin to touch on what that feels like. I’m still trying to figure out how to capture it.

I have felt so sick by being caught with my pants down, so afraid and so confused by who I was and what I was doing.

You can choose to have sympathy for people who are caught in this feeling, or you can choose to say Serves you right.

I know there are others out there who feel this sickness. Or worse, who fear this feeling, who know it’s coming someday but can’t figure out what to do to prevent it from happening.

I’m writing today for them. Or for you, if you’re finding this.

I know it’s easy, and probably useful in terms of justice, to see Toobin’s jerking off through a lens of power and violence, but I also know—or, that is, I’m assuming with the same level of insight into his sexuality as anyone else has—that he was thinking absolutely of nobody else at the time. Until suddenly he realized The Bubble had burst. He wasn’t as careful as he knew he was being. And then life as he knew it was over.

What happens to us when our sex practices consume us so much that we completely ignore the fact of others? Their needs and desires? Their sexual autonomy? What does that do to our relationship to our bodies? These are hard questions that many people don’t even believe are worth asking. To me, given who I am and what I’ve gone through, they’re vital questions. I’ll even go so far as to say they’re life-and-death questions, given some options I considered when all of this was such a mess.

Stop thinking you know anything about Jeffrey Toobin. Stop thinking you know anything about sex. Few of us in this country do. Other than sex workers and a handful of sex therapists (many of whom still believe sex addiction is real), nobody knows a thing about sex, and we all need to stop talking as though we do.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I might mean reparative justice. I haven’t yet read enough about these new-to-me concepts to know whether one encapsulates the other. Please comment if you’re smarter on this than I’m being.
  2. Which is why it’s been fascinating to watch and read about the rise of step-sibling porn. What’s that about America?
  3. If you’re wanting more specific details right now, I’m curious about why you want this, and what you think you need to follow, or even buy, what I’m trying to say.