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The “M” Word

July 14, 2021

In October 2020, staff from the New Yorker and WNYC radio conferred over a Zoom video meeting. During a break, reporter Jeffrey Toobin began to masturbate, unaware that his camera was still on. Toobin’s colleagues witnessed him pleasuring himself, and The New Yorker suspended and then terminated his 27-year employment. Following the incident, Toobin also took leave from his position as CNN’s chief legal analyst. 

Eight months later, on June 10, 2021, Toobin returned to CNN. On his first day back, Toobin joined anchor Aliysn Cameroa for an interview. The interview begins, unsurprisingly, with awkward laughter and a recounting of that fateful day in October. Predictably, it includes an apology from Toobin, who describes his actions as “deeply moronic and indefensible.” He’s contrite; he spent the intervening months “miserable,” “trying to be a better person.” Now, he volunteers at a food bank and is in therapy. He says that he’s trying to “become the kind of person that people can trust again.” 

I’m not writing this in defense of Toobin or, conversely, to criticize him. Notwithstanding the previous paragraphs, this article isn’t about him. Rather, it’s about the questions that Toobin’s case raises. It’s about intent—I didn’t mean to masturbate in front of people—and it’s about impact—but I did, and they were appalled and uncomfortable. It’s about how the media and people accused of harm tend to frame accountability. And, on a more macro level, this is about the U.S. fear of pleasure. 

Would it have been “worse,” so to speak, if Toobin left his camera on with the hopes that his colleagues would watch him masturbate? Absolutely. Masturbating in front of others without their consent is non-contact sexual harassment or abuse. I’m glad that Toobin didn’t intend for meeting attendees to be put in that situation, and I think it’s important to note that it was a mistake. And yet, those attendees were subjected to a shocking, potentially traumatizing, experience. The impact of Toobin’s actions matters more than his intent or lack thereof. 

So, we have an impact. Admittedly, it’s a bit nebulous—I can’t speak for those attendees; I’m not one of them. Does this mean that Toobin is morally flawed, in need of penance? When I heard Toobin say he was working in a food bank as part of his response to being seen, by accident, masturbating, I was left shaking my head. But I know that we should all strive to become better people. Recognizing our mistakes is one way of doing so, and doing things that serve our communities is another. Certainly, there is no direct relationship between his act and his service, but does there need to be?

These queries are nuanced, and the thought experiments they pose can be difficult to parse through. They’re particularly challenging in a “purity culture,” a term generally associated with the white, American, Evangelical Christian purity movement. This movement, Khadija Tyson writes, “aimed to preserve feminine virtue and purity by protecting young women and girls from prostitution, contraception, abortions, and male sexual predators.” It helped shape the dominant U.S. culture into a “purity culture.” 

When we acknowledge sex in the U.S., we generally do so within cisgender, heterosexist framings of contraception and family planning. In the rare moments that we publicly engage with the topic, we avoid mentioning pleasure. Of course, well-known publications like Cosmopolitan and Esquire offer a slew of articles on subjects from queefing to sex toys to choosing the right condom size, all of which are implicitly or explicitly related to pleasure. However, I’d wager that those publications and subjects don’t reflect presiding U.S. discourse about sex around dinner tables or in classrooms. Those articles don’t necessarily mean that we’re comfortable talking about sex, but rather that we might be comfortable reading about it. While the media and its consumers have made progress in recent years, purity culture hasn’t disappeared. 

What about masturbation, which is, in essence, something we do just because it feels good? What does it say about the U.S. if our few mainstream national conversations about masturbation center on stories like Toobin’s? 

Masturbating isn’t inherently sinful, shameful, or wrong. Self-pleasuring isn’t a reason to go to therapy, though it’s easy to infer so from Toobin’s comments. And the pathologization of self-pleasure sadly far precedes the interview between Cameroa and Toobin. Take the 1994 reaction to then-Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who while addressing the AIDS crisis, said, “I think that it [masturbation] is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught.” After pressure from an outraged public, the White House forced her resignation. Sure, the U.S. has since evolved its attitude toward masturbation. Some sex educators even do the teaching Dr. Elders hinted at through implementing curricula like Our Whole Lives and Partners in Sex Education. In fact, a handful of states follow the National Sex Education Standards. However, if a current public official were to make a statement like Dr. Elders, it might not evoke equal alarm, I’m quite confident that it would spark a heated debate. 

Thankfully, since 1994, the U.S. has become more open to sex, partnered and solo. But more open doesn’t mean that we, as a culture, are open about pleasure; it simply means we’ve made progress. We can easily have an academic or medical debate about the complexities of “problematic” masturbation, but how frequently do we talk about masturbation in terms of pleasure? How about as a form of relaxation? Pain control? Not very often.

I hope we can have more diverse discussions about self-pleasure, including many that appreciate that it’s overwhelmingly a positive, joy-giving act. Still, we can’t lose sight of situations like Toobin’s. Regretfully, upon forgetting to turn off his camera, his act of self-pleasure became a non-consensual group experience. Though Toobin didn’t want that to happen, it did. Accidents still require accountability. 

Now, Toobin is back at CNN, where he continues to provide legal analysis of the happenings of the day. Moving forward, I want us and the media to approach masturbation with nuance and care. I don’t want to over-intellectualize or pathologize self-pleasure. The act of masturbation itself shouldn’t hold any stigma. We have a human right to pursue pleasure, though not at the expense of others. 

(Alberto E. Tamargo/Sipa USA file)

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