Jeffrey Toobin and the M-Word: Let’s be Honest about what Makes this Scandal so ScandalousRoundup
tags: scandal, sexuality, sexual harassment
Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America.
So let’s suppose Jeffrey Toobin had been caught on camera having sex with a partner instead of touching himself. Would he be the most mocked man in the United States right now?
Of course not. And, putting aside Toobin’s history of bad sexual judgment, that’s what this pseudo-scandal is really about: our collective unease with masturbation. We Americans love to talk — and talk, and talk — about sex. But there’s one topic that remains taboo, and Toobin is paying the price for it.
Unless you live on another planet, you already know the outline of this grim tale. On Monday, the New Yorker suspended Toobin — one of its best-known authors — after he was seen masturbating during a Zoom work call. In an interview with Vice magazine, Toobin said he didn’t realize his video was on.
But why the resolute focus on this celebrity? The answer has to do with his particular transgression, of course. Toobin previously fathered a child with a mistress, which generated a few gossip columns but was quickly forgotten after that. Yet nobody is likely to forget that he had sex with himself, which has been a big no-no since the advent of the Enlightenment.
That’s when the West invented the autonomous individual, endowed with natural rights. But liberty was dangerous, too: Freed from constraints, the individual could easily descend into corruption and vice.
Masturbation embodied all of those fears. It was solitary, fueled by fantasies that each person invented. And when that started, there was no telling when it would stop.
So it was decried as “self-abuse,” the evil downside of individual freedom. Doctors linked it to epilepsy, impotence and insanity. And they began to advocate for routine male circumcision, which supposedly deterred masturbation. And while the Bible didn’t condemn the practice directly, Christians interpreted the passage about Onan — who “spilled his seed” to avoid impregnating his brother’s wife — to constitute a prohibition on masturbation.
But all of that went out the window with the sexual revolution, right? Wrong. That’s why Bill Clinton was forced to fire his surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders, after she suggested that schools teach about masturbation. After all, she said, it’s “a part of human sexuality.”