Grrrr, Cancel Culture: now men are getting fired for masturbating on Zoom, where will this end?


If you hadn’t heard, Jeffrey Toobin is unemployed.

He tastefully avoids talking about why he was fired. It was for masturbating while on a zoom call with professional associates. Strangely, people are trying to defend him now, suggesting that he deserved a slap on the wrist rather than a firing. I disagree.

I am an authority on these matters, you know. As a cishet male, with white privilege and the credibility of someone with a respectable position (mostly) in society, and with a healthy interest in sex and a strong sex life, I can confidently say that I am entirely capable of participating in Zoom meetings while maintaining my full focus on the topic of the discussion. This goes for other events in my life, too: I can go for a walk, eat a meal, see a movie, all of these common mundane things, without masturbating.

Restraint is not a super-power.

Toobin engaged in unprofessional conduct that made the people he must work with extremely uncomfortable, and that compromised his credibility and status as a serious journalist. Of course he should have been fired!

Now the HR contingent and the moral outrage brigade are probably shouting in chorus: “Even if the camera was off, that level of, ummm, self-aggrandizement has no place at work.” I agree wholeheartedly. Except Toobin wasn’t at work. He was working, but he was at home. And if one if going to engage in such activity, I can’t think of a more appropriate place than in the privacy of one’s home. I might even go so far as to say it’s the only appropriate place for such individualistic indulgences, but then teenagers might never visit their local libraries.
This is where 2020 has blurred some vital lines. With so many of us now working out of our homes, should office norms apply to our private domiciles during work hours?

The lines aren’t that blurred. I’m also now working mainly out of my office at home, but I am quite capable of recognizing that when I’m teaching a class, advising a student, or attending a committee meeting, I am engaged in the professional activity for which I am paid, and which carries expectations of a certain level of appropriate conduct. I’m not so stupid that I think being in my house means I can turn into a wild and crazy guy and dance around naked during office hours.

Wait until office hours are over to open up the whisky and put a lampshade on your head. It’s really not that difficult. Draw the lines yourself and recognize the boundaries that will allow you to do what is needed.

If you can’t, well, maybe Jeffrey Toobin needs to get himself an OnlyFans account.

Comments

  1. Artor says

    No great loss. Toobin was such a non-entity, I don’t even remember what network he was on. Was it Fox or CNN? He probably wouldn’t have gotten fired for that from Fox, so I’m guessing the latter, but it could be NBC or something else.

  2. kome says

    Apart from the issue of what this event says about Toobin’s self-control, let us not forget that part of the problem here is there was no consent by the other parties involved to participate in Toobin’s wank session.

  3. dorght says

    If only he had hearing problems, so he had to concentrate on listening rather than letting his mind and hands wander.

  4. robro says

    He claimed that he wasn’t aware that the camera was on in the session with his colleagues…or some such excuse. So some people are blaming the Zoom interface for not making it clear. Zoom has it’s flaws, but trying to engage in multiple activities while on video conferences is a questionable choice no matter what you’re doing. In fact, holding employee’s attention while in video conferences is a recognized challenge because it can get boring. Even cutting over to my web browser to check the stock market is a distraction that has caused me to miss something important and have to ask someone to repeat themselves.

  5. says

    If I call my boss a dirty, rotten piece of shit on a zoom call, can I defend myself by saying I was simply expressing my opinion in the privacy of my own home?

  6. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I hope HR made it clear that he isn’t being fired because people were offended by his behavior.
    It is for dereliction of duty. The ZOOM call was to discuss a particular subject under review, and required fully concentrated attention.
    It is not simply a casual movie to be watched with associates.
    It’s the principle of the thing, so to speak, don’t try to blur it over, like bad choice of clothing or hair offending the partivcipants. The offense of the participants is an incidental aspect, not the cause of getting fired. — As I see it.

  7. says

    @slithey tove #6
    I actually much prefer if we recognized that the problem was inappropriateness, rather than “dereliction of duty”. People are “derelict” in their duties all the time, e.g. looking at facebook during boring meetings.

  8. Buck Webb says

    Just pointing out that if it’s that important to Tobin, there are jobs where people get paid to wank off over zoom. :>)

  9. robro says

    slithey and Siggy — Could it be both? He was definitely being derelict in his responsibility to the team he was meeting with, and he was doing something offensive. To my mind, the distinction is a false dilemma.

  10. DrVanNostrand says

    I can’t believe people are actually defending him for this incident. Even if you love his work, think this was an isolated incident, and hope he eventually lands on his feet, this was WILDLY inappropriate and unprofessional behavior. This guy didn’t accidentally leave his video on when he was in his pajamas with messed up hair. He was jerking off on a conference call! This isn’t some crazy, pie in the sky, unattainable standard.

  11. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @8:
    YES, my point was to move it onto his behavior, and not that it offended everyone. That HR is not firing him because the participants were offended. That it is purely his behavior being against the rules the company expects their employees to follow while on the job. Whatever you call it is not my point. Too often a defense would toss blame on the people who were offended, rather than the behavior that offended everyone.
    I threw dereliction of duty out as a slang, not formally

  12. says

    @slithey tove,
    Okay, then I agree.

    This story puts me on edge because of my experience with employment where you’re supposed to pretend to work 50+ hours a week. HR often has explicit rules against all types of goofing off, but that doesn’t stop anyone, it just makes them pretend harder. Obviously the problem with whatshisface was not just goofing off, but the choice of activity.

  13. says

    I agree, and said as much when Toobin’s ugly business first raised its head, with the perspective that if you’re playing with your SpaceBalls action figures and shouting “Pew! Pew!” during a meeting that your employer is paying you to attend, the employer is certainly within its rights to fire you. Whether you were playing with your Schwartz or playing with your, uh, Schwartz doesn’t have to enter into it if the question is whether or not you keep your job (rather than, say, whether this is criminal behavior). Since HR never had any power to do anything other than determine whether or not Toobin remained an employee (and some power over his working conditions if he did), firing him and moving on is the right thing to do. Let prosecutors determine if this was criminal behavior (I doubt it & don’t think it should be prosecuted even if it meets the letter of the law in some appropriate jurisdiction, just clarifying who has what responsibilities), and his friends & acquaintances decide for themselves whether they still want to chat with him or have him over for barbecue.

    This is, in sum, exactly what should have happened whether HR’s reasoning was because he was showing his dick off to co-workers on work time or whether he was just stealing the company’s money by playing hooky from work during paid time. It was theft and gross.

  14. PaulBC says

    I don’t see any cause for controversy about how this was handled, nor do I feel any sympathy for Toobin. I have read and liked some of his work over the years, but this is inexcusable.

    I’m not sure who out there is really defending him. I’m also pretty sure he won’t be out on the street holding a tin cup either. The outcome seems fair and expected. I have real things to worry about.

  15. wzrd1 says

    I’ll admit to not being a great fan of meetings that accomplish less than what an email could accomplish, but policies are policies, so I was stuck with them.
    Although, I’m fairly certain that my wearing a lampshade would’ve likely been well received…
    Still, working hours are working hours and my only mixture of work and pleasure was eating my lunch at my desk and reading CNN, Al Jazeera and BBC News. Yeah, I read quite fast.

  16. PaulBC says

    I just finished a zoom meeting at work. I should try the lampshade some time and see what kind of reaction I get.

  17. robert79 says

    I tend to walk around barefoot (or in slippers if it’s still a bit chilly) while at home. This also means I’m teaching my classes barefoot.

    Now I’m suddenly worried whether this is some kind of slippery slope, who knows, I might show up to a lecture/meeting bare-something-else too?!?

  18. chesapeake says

    PZ writes “ Toobin engaged in unprofessional conduct that made the people he must work with extremely uncomfortable, and that compromised his credibility and status as a serious journalist. Of course he should have been fired!”
    Well, when you put it that way it sounds as if he did it on purpose.

  19. says

    While his defenders (or as I call them, people in desperate need for a defense with HR) try not to talk about its that he didn’t just “forget” to turn his camera off (which was magically pointed at his crotch…), but he also masturbated watching his colleagues, thus making them unwilling participants in his sexual gratification.

  20. says

    @Aachen on the Plains #7

    Twenty-seven years? And masturbation during professional duties? One might strongly suspect there’s a bit of the story yet to be made public.

    Absolutely. I’m just going to leave this link here.

  21. chesapeake says

    I “ Well, when you put it that way it sounds as if he did it on purpose.”
    PZ Myers
    12 November 2020 at 11:14 pm
    “You’re free to argue that he accidentally masturbated.”

    Well, of course, my point is that he left the video on accidentally. If he had not I fail to see what the big deal would be. And in the part of the video I saw the camera was not pointed at his crotch. He was approaching the camera standing, so his partly clothed crotch was in camera view but would not have been when he sat down.
    I suppose you all would argue that if someone masturbated while talking on the phone to someone that would be unacceptable. How about watching your colleagues on tv? How about when thinking about them? …” thus making them unwilling participants in his sexual gratification.”

  22. PaulBC says

    I suppose you all would argue that if someone masturbated while talking on the phone to someone that would be unacceptable. How about watching your colleagues on tv? How about when thinking about them? …” thus making them unwilling participants in his sexual gratification.”

    Yup. “Thought crimes” are unenforcible, thankfully, but no less creepy. If you’re literally jerking off in a conference call, that’s unambiguous abuse whether detected or not, and surely cause for termination if you do happen to be detected. There is such a thing as behaving badly even if there is “no controlling legal authority”.

    If you’re just fantasizing about some unrequited work crush in the shower, then I dunno. It’s kind of personal, but you might want to consider how this will affect later interactions with them. Not everything that’s bad is actionable. We know enough about Toobin to say… sheesh, what a creep! That’s a judgment call, and you don’t have to agree. There are plenty of creeps out there that will never be detected. If I find myself inclined to be a little creepy, I don’t ask myself if I can get away with it or if anyone will know, but if I really want to throw my lot in with people like Jeffrey Toobin.

  23. Anton Mates says

    chesapeake @25,

    At the risk of stating the obvious, if you jack off in the evening while thinking about your colleagues or watching them on TV, they’re probably not going to find out about it. Not without violating your privacy, at least.

    But if you jack off while talking to coworkers, you risk them figuring out what you’re up to. Either because you screw up and accidentally show them your dick, like Toobin, or because they can reasonably infer it from your face and voice and behavior. And now you’ve screwed up your working relationship with them, and probably caused them discomfort and trauma, because most humans really don’t like to be dragged into sexual situations without a chance to say yes first.

    Toobin either did not understand this risk, or did not care. Either way, he’s a liability as an employee.

  24. John Morales says

    Anton:

    Toobin either did not understand this risk, or did not care.

    Not an exhaustive analysis.
    There exists a category of people for whom risking discovery is part of the thrill. For them, the risk is understood, and they very much care that it exists, because if it did not, that thrill would not exist.

    (Yeah, I know. People are weird)

  25. Anton Mates says

    John,

    There exists a category of people for whom risking discovery is part of the thrill.

    That’s true. I should have said “did not understand this risk, or was not troubled by it enough to stop.”

    (Plenty of exhibitionists are excited by the risk of discovery, but are also decent people who know it’s not worth ruining someone else’s day for a thrill. There are specific venues where they can “accidentally” flash people with implied consent. Not the workplace, of course.)

  26. says

    I suppose you all would argue that if someone masturbated while talking on the phone to someone that would be unacceptable.

    Umm, yes? WTF? Are you serious? This is so textbook creepy behavior, it’s practically a cliche. If you had three seconds of screen time to establish that a character was creepy, that’s what you’d show.

  27. says

    I see absolutely nothing problematic with masturbating during a phone conversation as long as (1) you make no inappropriate sounds that could alert the other person about what you are doing; (2) you can maintain an appropriate amount of attention to the ongoing conversation; (3) there is no video. In practice, this means that probably you shouldn’t get an orgasm during the phone conversation, because at that moment it can get tricky to control your voice.

    My attitude towards sex is that as long as you don’t cause harm for other people, you should be free to do whatever you want. For me whether something is acceptable does not depend on some subjective sense of “gross” or “disgusting” or “creepy,” but on the existence of harm. When I talk with another person on the phone, as long as I don’t know that they are jerking off, I really couldn’t care less. I would get uncomfortable only if the other person started making inappropriate noises or failed to pay attention to the conversation. And I really wouldn’t want to get the video. But as long as I don’t know what somebody else is doing while talking with me on the phone, their actions are none of my business.

  28. says

    PaulBC @#26

    Yup. “Thought crimes” are unenforcible, thankfully, but no less creepy. If you’re literally jerking off in a conference call, that’s unambiguous abuse whether detected or not, and surely cause for termination if you do happen to be detected.

    It seems like our definitions of “abuse” differ. For me something is abuse only when there’s a victim who got harmed. If a person gets caught masturbating, the the person who caught them experiences emotional discomfort, gets harmed, and can be considered a victim. Then we have a case of abuse happening.

    But if the person who masturbated never gets caught, then nobody knows about their behavior, nobody gets inconvenienced or harmed in any way whatsoever, so there is no abuse.

    At least I don’t care what other people do with their genitals as long as I don’t even know about their behaviors and don’t get inconvenienced or harmed in any way. Also, I wouldn’t care if somebody masturbated while fantasizing about me as long as afterwards they don’t act inappropriately while interacting with me in real life.

  29. PaulBC says

    Andreas Avester@32 When I judge someone a creep, it likewise has no binding consequences, provided I’m not in a position to abuse my authority and act on it. So there is “absolutely nothing problematic” about that either. And I do judge Jeffrey Toobin a creep.

    In fact, it’s only because of information that was made public that I can, but if for some other reason I believed it to be true, I would still think less of him for it, even if he had shown the utmost care in hiding it. FWIW, I suppose I don’t care that much if someone is secretly masturbating while on the phone with me independent of sex or sexual orientiation, but this kind of behavior is usually more threatening to women, for all kinds of reasons that I’ll leave others to explain, not least because it is more likely to happen in practice. I suppose I could even be affected if there was some kind of power differential involved. Suppose hypothetically someone above me on the org chart is doing this. Even if it was hidden, hypothetically I would conclude, wow, that’s bad behavior and personally offensive to me. They should not do that.

    While I support tolerance in the abstract as the only way to coexist in a pluralistic society, I think sometimes this is mistaken as a condemnation of showing any judgment at all (not saying that’s your stance I have no idea). Of course, I’m allowed to consider some others to be bad people, undisciplined, untrustworthy, or hateful. I’m allowed to consider their entire belief systems wrong and dangerous. Tolerance mostly enters into the question of what I’m allowed to do about it. Usually absolutely nothing, unless it has a material affect on others’ rights.

  30. PaulBC says

    @33

    It seems like our definitions of “abuse” differ.

    Yes, almost certainly. Let’s assume someone is terminated for inadvertently revealing that they are jerking off on a conference call. My view is that the cause for termination was the underlying behavior, not the mistake in revealing it. I suppose you could see the cause as the accidental exposure, so in a sense you’re firing them for incompetence, not for an offense committed against their colleagues. It doesn’t matter to me that much, but it seems like an unsatisfactory conclusion for those in the call who are really more offended by being unwilling parties in someone’s sexual gratification than in having a coworker too clueless to turn off their zoom video.

    That said, I work in California, which has “at will” employment, so nobody really needs to tease out such fine distinctions when terminating employment. I’m happy Toobin was fired. I’m sure he’ll still be able to make rent.

  31. says

    @PaulBC

    Let’s assume someone is terminated for inadvertently revealing that they are jerking off on a conference call. My view is that the cause for termination was the underlying behavior, not the mistake in revealing it. I suppose you could see the cause as the accidental exposure, so in a sense you’re firing them for incompetence, not for an offense committed against their colleagues.

    I must admit I sort of don’t care why exactly this person was terminated.
    That being said, if I were the boss making this decision, I would terminate him for causing harm to his coworkers who had to experience the displeasure of witnessing unpleasant stuff against their will.

    When I judge someone a creep, it likewise has no binding consequences, provided I’m not in a position to abuse my authority and act on it.

    Indeed. As long as you don’t try to discriminate or abuse people whom you consider “creeps,” your attitudes are irrelevant for practical purposes.
    As for me, if somebody secretly masturbates during voice calls, I don’t care. I will judge them as creeps only if they go a step further and start doing some extra actions that actually cause harm to other people, such as displaying videos of their masturbation to people who didn’t want to watch this stuff; sexually harassing their co-workers (groping, verbally harassing them, etc.) or doing something else that actually causes harm to some person.
    Granted, I do suspect that somebody who masturbates during conferences is also statistically more likely to engage in actual sexual harassment. Nonetheless, until somebody actually causes harm for other people, their sex life is none of my business and I won’t judge them.
    By the way, obsessing about other people’s sex lives in situations where they cause no harm for anybody else is what I call creepy. And we live in a society, which seriously polices other people’s sex lives (rules like “no masturbation,” “no sex before marriage,” “no gay sex,” “no anal sex,” “no kinky stuff,” “no BDSM,” “no fetishes”). I abhor such policing, hence I try to never judge other people’s sex lives and abstain from criticizing them as long as they don’t harm others. Even if some practice is something I would never want to do, even if it feels disgusting for me personally, I still have no right to criticize other people who like some stuff as long as they cause no harm for anybody.

  32. PaulBC says

    @36 Well, I obsess over all kinds of things, believe me. Hypotheticals are always fun. This isn’t a biggie with me, and it goes without saying that what goes on between consenting adults is their own business.

  33. Rowan vet-tech says

    It’s an issue of consent. If someone masturbated while thinking about while alone in their house, i will never know.
    But if someone is masturbating while on the phone with me, they are directly involving me in their sex act even if i am unaware. That is the only reason someone would be fucking masturbating while on a work related call. Because they get a thrill over forcing people to partake in their sexual fantasy while they are unaware and not consenting.
    Fuck, even the bdsm community has unwritten rules to not include unknowing strangers in your scene because they have not consented to being used for kinks.
    This is not a hard concept. Anyone arguing against it just doesn’t like the idea of needing consent.

  34. Anton Mates says

    I see absolutely nothing problematic with masturbating during a phone conversation as long as (1) you make no inappropriate sounds that could alert the other person about what you are doing

    You will.

    (2) you can maintain an appropriate amount of attention to the ongoing conversation;

    You can’t.

    I say this as someone who gets through life by compartmentalizing things: Compartmentalization inevitably fails. You have to plan for that failure.

    It is not safe to get off on deceiving your friends or coworkers or even random strangers. I don’t care if you’re the Bruce Wayne of covert wankers, you will eventually give yourself away, and you will hurt somebody. Even worse, you will hurt them because they’re smarter and more concerned about you than you gave them credit for being. That is a bad way to discover you’re wrong.

  35. says

    That is the only reason someone would be fucking masturbating while on a work related call. Because they get a thrill over forcing people to partake in their sexual fantasy while they are unaware and not consenting.

    This. If you’re not trying to involve someone non-consensually, then wait until you’re off the fucking phone.

    This is a point I’ve thought of before, so let me try to lay it out:
    Let us postulate that you have the ability to freeze time, at will. In the frozen moment you can move freely and do anything at all to other people, without them ever knowing or being affected by it in any way. To them, it would happen between instants of consciousness. It would be as if it had never happened.
    In that situation, would it be okay for you to fuck them?

    The argument in favor is “no harm, no foul.” They’re never affected, so there’s no problem. By utilitarian standards, this is not only not wrong, but actively good, since you get a benefit without hurting anyone else. It’s effectively the same as just fantasizing.
    Except, of course, that it’s not. You actually did it, they just don’t know.

    Really, it’s less like fantasizing and more like the perfect date rape drug. It renders the victim perfectly unconscious, without any outward sign or missing time. It completely eliminates any memory the victim had of being wronged. At no point did they ever feel fear or pain.
    So, that means it’s all good, yeah? No harm, no foul? Or an even deeper, more basic violation?

    I lean the latter way.

  36. says

    TLDR:
    If you accepted me as a fellow human being, worthy of at least a minimum of respect and concern, then you wouldn’t do that.

  37. PaulBC says

    @41

    Let us postulate that you have the ability to freeze time, at will.

    Way off topic, but this premise comes up in movies and TV a lot and it always drives me up a wall. Unless there’s a good explanation why not (and there rarely is) they’re harder than a statue at this time scale with all their atoms frozen in place. If you’re just moving so fast that their perception can’t keep up, then any attempt you make to move them physically will be like being hit by a bullet (except much worse). You can’t pose their arms in funny ways. You’ll just snap them off. The applies to nearly anything else. Move a glass of water? You just accelerated and decelerated it so rapidly that even if you move the glass safely, the water will splash or maybe vaporize on high speed impact with the sides of the glass.

    Maybe you could bring them into your personal time warp, but now you run into the same problem that the person whose arm you’re trying to move will still perceive what’s happening, and you can’t bring only their arm it without creating likely tissue damage at the discontinuity (which disconnects blood vessels and may run right through cells).

    And i know… suspension of disbelief, it’s “magic”, etc. I get it. Still bugs the hell out of me!

  38. PaulBC says

    The “no harm no foul” principle would also justify skillful voyeurism, so I think there are few people who would accept it.

  39. indianajones says

    Not to mention we already have real world examples of people under anesthesia being abused and never knowing. Hidden cameras used for the same purposes. People being felt up on crowded trains unknowingly. Just off the top of my head. The ‘victim didn’t know’ defense is complete bollocks.

  40. Aaron Baker says

    @43

    If one is to tolerate television shows and movies at all, one must keep one’s inner scientist tied up in a closet next to one’s inner historian.

  41. says

    I suppose you all would argue that if someone masturbated while talking on the phone to someone that would be unacceptable.

    Like, yes. If somebody is masturbating while interacting with me, that interaction is pretty obviously serving as a stimulus. It#s not like stirring a pot of noodles while chatting with gran.

    How about watching your colleagues on tv? How about when thinking about them? …” thus making them unwilling participants in his sexual gratification.”

    What goes on in your head, stays in your head. But as others have said, you need to think very hard about your professional interactions.

    Andreas

    It seems like our definitions of “abuse” differ. For me something is abuse only when there’s a victim who got harmed. If a person gets caught masturbating, the the person who caught them experiences emotional discomfort, gets harmed, and can be considered a victim. Then we have a case of abuse happening.

    That’s like saying drunk driving is only bad when you have a crash. Masturbating while talking to someone who is not a consenting partner disrespects their boundaries. If you knew the answer to the question “would you be ok with me masturbating while we talk” would be “yes”, you could simply ask. The person masturbating while talking obviously either supposes that the person on the phone would not consent, thus breaking their boundaries, or the person masturbating enjoys that they have the power to make the other one an unwitting participant in their little sex play. Both scenarios are highly abusive. You say yourself, if the act is discovered, it can cause serious harm, therefore the person masturbating recklessly endangers the other person and is totally ok with potentially traumatising another person for their sexual gratification. How on earth is that ok? How can it not be abusive to make that decision about somebody else without their consent.

  42. says

    PaulBC #43
    I know. My personal thing is, how can you see anything? If photons are immobile, then you’d go instantly blind. However, if photons are moving, then the source of the photons (light bulb, sun, whatever) must still be active and working at normal speeds, which creates all kinds of downstream problems.
    Yes, it’s magic. It can only possibly work if it’s magic.

  43. Aaron Baker says

    What Giliell said. You could credibly and obviously claim that masturbating in front of someone without their consent is less bad than, say, sexual assault–and we could then argue about HOW bad it is, but that’s all.

  44. says

    Some commenters are saying Toobin was getting sexual thrill out of masturbating while in a meeting, but I think that’s a totally unfounded assumption. I’ve heard speculation that the reason he aimed the camera below the belt was likely because he was engaged with a sex worker on a parallel video call. And if that’s the case, I would guess that a) the sexual thrill came from the sex worker and not necessarily the meeting, and b) he probably just wasn’t paying attention to the meeting at all. Lots of jobs involve boring and/or irrelevant meetings, that one is nonetheless obligated to sit through. …most people just scroll through social media.

    This seems like a morally irrelevant consideration either way, insofar as our moral judgment depends on actions rather than motivations.

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