By Laurie Stone
After New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin accidentally exposed his penis on a Zoom meeting with office colleagues, lots of women I know fumed against him on social media. They saw him as a bad man and his actions bad for women. Apparently, while in the meeting with colleagues, Toobin was masturbating to images on another screen and thought he had switched himself out of the office meeting. His colleagues saw his penis for a few seconds, and he was mortified. It was an accident. He was not trying to flash them or masturbate in front of them as a turn-on.
The women on social media—some men, too (but I don’t care what the men said)—saw a chain of incidents in Toobin’s life that led to this moment and affirmed his badness. He was masturbating when he should have been doing something else. He had conducted an affair with a younger woman while married. The woman had gotten pregnant. Toobin had made it clear he didn’t want parental responsibility for the child and offered to pay for an abortion. The woman had the child anyway then sued him for child support. It was rumored through so and so he was a predator and in one online account followed a woman into a public bathroom and said he wanted to “fist” her. He had not supported Hillary Clinton and instead had dogged her for using a private email server for official correspondence while Secretary of State.
Women like me who were interested in the categories of outrage against Toobin were called defenders of his actions and called this because, as women, we had been trained to give a woman-pass to misbehaving bros, while we would give no such support, it was claimed, to our sister hooligans. Many women hated Toobin because, they said, if a woman had exposed her genitals during a meeting, more hell than could be imagined would rain down on her plus no one would come to her defense. The same women also declared no woman would ever be caught in such a situation because they had better control over their carnal impulses than men or because they had more respect for their colleagues than Toobin did. They had more respect for their colleagues because they were more high-minded, more considerate, more concerned not to lose their jobs, just better humans, owing either to their individual betterness or to being female, which endowed them in some unstated way with betterness. Rather than wishing no one to be punished for showing their genitals by accident (or on purpose) to other people—showing their genitals, a part of the human body, not rubbing them on unsuspecting passersby!!—rather than encouraging this freedom, a thing feminists would gain from in that their bodies are forever managed and reviled, the women who hated Toobin wanted him to be fired and to lose credibility as a journalist.
I’ve never met Toobin. I might not like him if our paths crossed. I might get one of those vibes you get with people—yes, this is a thing we experience—that repelled me. I think he’s a shit for not supporting Hillary. And this has nothing to do with thinking about his actions in the Zoom meeting. Again, he didn't mean to masturbate in public. Masturbating is not a sign you are now or are going to fail as a colleague or partner. Having sex outside marriage does not mean you are a bad person. (Marriage probably isn't a good idea. I think it's a terrible idea, actually.) If you have the child of a man who has made it clear he does not want to be the father of that child, you do not hold the moral high ground when you sue the man for child support. Saying a woman caught accidentally masturbating during a work meeting on Zoom would arouse harder social fire than a man, while probably true, is very different from saying a woman ipso facto would not find herself in such a position, which cannot categorically be true and suggests that women are less prone to carnal appetites than men, which is false. Women as a group may be more careful about getting caught, owing again to the double standard, not to their moral superiority. Trying to parse the acts of men under moral fire because you want to understand the categories of reproach heaped on them—to see if there is anything more to them than personal repugnance—does not mean you are giving a woman-pass to a man because he’s a man.
We have just lived through four years of a political party devising social policy according to its rotted-brain belief in its sense of goodness, a sense of goodness that aims above all to punish, vilify, and deprive others. That’s what this party lives for. If, as women, we don't think with reason about sex, desire, mistakes, freedom, and the harms men do to women because as men they can get away with it, we duplicate the muddy thinking that justifies keeping us down.
Bodies and their parts, let’s think for a moment about these things. The female body in public space. Who decides where it may move? If it can move at all unescorted in the world. The queer body. The swish body. The trans body. Who will allow these bodies to exist without harm? We have fought and fought and fought for this beautiful right. How can it even be a right? A mollusk, a horse. Bodies in the world as they are.
The sexual body in public space. There is no such thing as a body that is not also a sexual body. The nude body covered in order to go outside. Topless men okay on the street. Topless women not okay. Because they’re women. Because they’re women, the emptiness of the phrase that set the women’s movement in motion.
Sex and physical freedom that are not assaultive, not violent, not aggressive—let’s focus on these things now. Aggression and coercion exist in categories separate from sex and nudity. If they don’t in your mind, why not? We must always think this through, if for no other reason than to protect the right of the female body to move freely in public space. There is no way to control the male body without endangering the right of women to move in the world without permission.
To review, a man who may be a dick for reasons publicly known and unknown, accidentally shows his penis to a group of professional colleagues, is not a dick because he showed his penis accidentally. He is not a dick because he was masturbating. Everyone masturbates or they are wasting their lives. He is not a dick because he was thinking about sex while thinking about other things as well. This is known as ordinary existence. The penis unwrapped is not ipso facto a thing that needs to be escorted off the premises. It’s a body part, a tube of flesh that can look beautiful or like a small turtle head pulled back into its shell. The incident is funny. Mistakes are funny. If you want to see this guy punished, what is his offense?
—Laurie Stone is a frequent contributor to the Women’s Review of Books.