In COVID-ravaged America, much ado about masturbation: What Jeffrey Toobin's Zoom faux pas exposes

This week, the world of the autoerotic was thrown into the spotlight: Jeffrey Toobin, scholar, author and legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker, was suspended after he was spotted masturbating on a Zoom event.

Praveen Swami October 21, 2020 15:48:30 IST
In COVID-ravaged America, much ado about masturbation: What Jeffrey Toobin's Zoom faux pas exposes

Jeffrey Toobin. Photo by Gage Skidmore. Image via Wikimedia Commons

There is such a thing, science teaches us, as an orgasm to die for. Forensic pathologists have painstakingly documented the incredible stories of the martyrs who laid down their lives to explore this final frontier of human experience: suffocation with plastic bags and ropes; generous lashes of surgical anaesthetics; clamping Christmas lights to the nipples. The pathologist Harald Voß even encountered a case involving melting cheese over a body dressed up in pantyhose and a scuba-diving suit.

For the most part, though, masturbation has lived out a quiet existence over the centuries, on the vanilla end of things human beings do: solitary, mostly quiet, often shamed.

This week, though, the world of the autoerotic was thrown into the spotlight: Jeffrey Toobin, scholar, author and legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker, was suspended after he was spotted masturbating on a Zoom event. The internet has, predictably, responded with delight: writer Ryan Simmons has even set up a game, involving replacing the captions on New Yorker cartoons with variants of “Toobin took his d**k out on a Zoom call”.

Little attention has been paid to the not-insignificant insights the Toobin affair — if that term can be used to describe an activity involving just one person — gives us about the ways in which COVID is changing, and will change, our world.

Toobin has noted that “he thought he was “not visible on Zoom”. “I thought I had muted the Zoom video,” he added. In essence, the argument goes, the world intruded on Toobin’s bedroom, not the other way around. This is a not-implausible claim, and one that underlines the blurring of the private and public as work-from-home becomes a norm. Instead of working in a custom-designed space, we operate from makeshift theatrical sets. Kids, pets, the mess in the kitchen and our intimate lives: all these are an accidental click away from global broadcast.

It’s true, of course, that Toobin’s claims should be treated with scepticism: there’s no accounting, after all, for what humans find to be erotic. In 2005, for example, Oklahoma district judge Donald Thompson was accused of masturbating at the great bench of justice while hearing murder trials. There were, however, extenuating circumstances: who would fail to sympathise with his lordship for choosing even the dubious joys of a penis-pump over the dronings of trial-court lawyers? If one were so minded, one could even see Justice Thompson’s action as a kind of Bertolt Brecht-inspired agitprop critique of the legal system.

Yet, it is clear the breakdown of work-home spatial segregation is already having significant consequences, and some of those will have to do with our veiling of the intimate. This is perhaps as it should be: Humans are, after all, the only mammals that seek to hide the everyday biological elements — genitals or defecation — from the public gaze.

Indeed, it’s worth considering precisely why the sight of Toobin’s penis should generate the mirth — or distaste — it did. At first glance, the question might seem ridiculous. For centuries, after all, paraphilias like frotterism or public masturbation have been used as weapons for patriarchy, serving to intimidate and harass women in public spaces.

Yet, the fact that the display of a penis can serve to intimidate is an artefact of patriarchy — of the culture we have built around gender — rather than something inherent to male genitals. It’s worth speculating if Toobin’s transgression, then, is the beginning of a transformation of that most pointless of human emotions, shame.

From studies of large primates, it’s clear that there’s no biological foundation to our urge to conceal sexual behaviours. Frans de Waal’s studies of Bonobos, for example, discovered the key role of what the eminent primatologist described as “pseudocopulatory behaviours” in mitigating herd conflict, and building social bonds: oral sex, female-to-female genital rubbing, even “so-called penis-fencing, in which two males hang face to face from a branch while rubbing their erect penises together”.

In a stellar article in Scientific American, the scholar Jesse Bering even speculated that masturbation was among the defining characteristics of being human: “We alone have the power to conjure up at will erotic, orgasm-inducing scenes in our theater-like heads,” he argued, “internal, salacious fantasies completely disconnected from our immediate external realities”.

The British biologists Robin Baker and Mark Bellis have even produced persuasive evidence, based on the study of 30 couples, that regular masturbation may serve a valuable evolutionary function, replacing old sperm with new, fitter sperm.

Even though shaming Toobin has brought light and laughter into COVID-ravaged America’s public life, there’s reason for this to be an opportunity for reflection. It says something about our culture, after all, that the mere display of a penis is considered so much more important than other vile workplace behaviours like bullying, preening, and the naked display of hubris and greed.

The Toobin mirth rests on primitive religious attitudes to masturbation and the human body; the joke is in fact on us.

The great writer Mark Twain’s savage 1879 speech at a Paris men’s club, mocking our hypocrisies on masturbation, still rewards reading precisely because of how durable these attitudes have proved.  The internet remains awash with misinformation on masturbation directed at young people, with Islamic, Christian and Hindu fundamentalists all joining in threatening them with eternal damnation for the crime of being human.

“All great writers upon health and morals, both ancient and modern, have struggled with this stately subject,” Twain wrote, “this shows its dignity and importance”. “Homer, in the second book of the Iliad, says with fine enthusiasm, ‘Give me masturbation or give me death!’”

This Twain was right about: Ever since humans evolved to stand on two legs, freeing their hands for masturbation, there have been few other sources of such contention. Twain’s wry war-cry can, as we’ve learned, be taken too literally — but it’s also true that masturbation involves far less deceit, selfishness and greed than almost any other human activity.

It’s possible, then, that Toobin’s inadvertent tearing down of the great wall of shame that surrounds masturbation will mark a step towards ending the self-loathing and suffering inflicted on countless millions across millennia.

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