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During Zoom calls, keep your pants on: It’s not prudishness, it’s white male privilege

Michele Weldon  |  Opinion contributorplay

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Jeffrey Toobin: New Yorker investigates nude Zoom call mishap

The New Yorker suspends writer Jeffrey Toobin after it was reported that he exposed himself on a Zoom call.

There have been many moments in the last 18 years when I have said aloud, “Thank God Mom is not here for that.”

My late mother, steeped in traditional Catholicism and modesty, leaned pretty far right in her values and had strong expressions on what she considered moral and absolute. Jeffrey Toobin and his Zoom incident would have made her implode, or close to it.

Towards the end of her life before she passed in 2002, she confused similar words when she spoke. One evening, my three sisters and I were in her kitchen on Ashland Avenue, cutting up vegetables for a salad to serve at a family dinner.

“Wash those, there are orgasms all over it,” she instructed, pointing to the celery stalks; of course intending to say organisms.

My sisters and I guffawed, my mother was oblivious. But we knew if we brought the word error to her attention, she would be mortified. In our lifetimes, sex, sexuality — and most definitely orgasms — were never on the conversational menu with Mom. Or Dad. Needless to say, none of the six of us ever had “the talk.”

‘Embarrassingly stupid mistake’

Vice reported this week that Toobin, a lawyer, New Yorker contributor and CNN analyst, was seen masturbating on a Zoom video chat between work colleagues. He has been suspended by the New Yorker. Much of the ongoing media reaction has centered on what Toobin called his “embarrassingly stupid mistake.” Some white male pundits dismiss the uproar as prudish, while others call for the end of his public career.

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What is not mentioned often is the inherent white privilege and sexism embedded in the defense of his action. I find his public display of his privates not only improper, but immoral — and maybe illegal.

But then again, a man’s genitals are not deemed a threat but a woman’s breasts are.

A new mother was forbidden from breastfeeding her infant during a virtual stats class at Fresno City College recently. Her professor told her she could not turn off her video during the four-hour session and told the entire class the new mother wanted to do ‘inappropriate things during class.”

As a mother of three grown sons, who breastfed them all decades before video conferencing, the act of feeding your children in your own home is not inappropriate. Masturbating during a meeting is. Consider if this meeting was not virtual but in-person. Someone doing that would get fired.  

Yes, the New Yorker has suspended (but not fired) Toobin for the time being and CNN says he is taking “time off.” It is his American white privilege and his maleness that protects him from what in other countries has stiffer consequences.

According to News America, Haiti’s Consul to the Bahamas Karl-Henry Châtelier “was fired after a video allegedly of him masturbating surfaced on social media.”

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In the Philippines, “Captain Jesus Estil of the Fatima Dos village council in the province of Cavite, appeared to be unaware that his camera was on,” and had sex with his secretary on camera during a virtual council meeting. He was fired.

In a virtual meeting about the “Rights of Children and Adolescents and was organized by the city council of the city of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil’s southeastern state of the same name. The staff member was seen sitting on a bed, naked, with a woman beside him. The couple began to get frisky, completely unaware that colleagues on the call were watching in horror.” 

The erosion of standards and decency

Yes, the notion of public and private spaces has been redefined with the ubiquity of Zoom, but doing what Toobin did on camera can indeed be considered public indecent exposure.

According to Cornell University Law School, indecent exposure is defined as:

“Revealing one’s genitals under circumstances likely to offend others. Exposure is indecent under the law whenever a reasonable person would or should know that his act may be seen by others — for example, in a public place or through an open window — and that it is likely to cause affront or alarm. Indecent exposure is considered a misdemeanor in most states.”

Some states require that indecent exposure must be proven willful, or intentional. That may be what gets Toobin off.

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While this case may seem a petty distraction at a time of grave concern for the future of the country, with the election looming and COVID cases surging nationwide, it is important to note that the erosion of standards of simple decency in favor of a select segment of the population is an ongoing crisis.

And of course, my mother would not approve of Toobin or of such disparate treatment.

Michele Weldon is emerita faculty at Northwestern University, senior leader with The OpEd Project and an author. Her latest book is “Act Like You’re Having A Good Time.”

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