Pr*cks in Public: A MicrohistoryRoundup
tags: sexual harassment, sexism, indecent exposure
Gillian Frank is co-host of the “Sexing History” podcast and a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Virginia’s Program in American Studies.
“He shows up in the laundry, on the beach, in shopping center parking lots, and in cars around the schoolyard….Flasher, we call him.” So began a 1977 article in the Palm Beach Post detailing the epidemic of men who exposed themselves to women. “We laugh and giggle and make jokes about him—the fellow in the raincoat without the pants,” the article explained. But these men were no laughing matter.
In a high-profile instance of work-from-home gone horribly wrong, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin was recently suspended from his gigs at the New Yorker and CNN, after masturbating during a work Zoom meeting in front of a number of his coworkers. Toobin claims that he was unaware that he was on video. His public performance, he said, was an accident. But since the story broke, a number of male commentators have rallied to his defense, explaining away his behavior. One historian, Jonathan Zimmerman, even characterized the widespread condemnation of Toobin as rooted in Americans’ longstanding prudishness about masturbation. But while there is a history at play here, it’s not that of Americans’ uneasy relationship with masturbation. It’s the history of men publicly “sharing” their private parts in offices and on the street. It is also a story of white men’s power to sexualize and control workplaces and public space through these same actions.
Women have frequently and unwillingly encountered men’s genitalia in public spaces and online, from the drive-by masturbator to the unsolicited dick pic. In the mid-19th century, as cities grew exponentially and instituted professional police departments to enforce public morals, men’s sexually aggressive public behavior became legible to authorities. Newspapers obsessed with crime made indecent exposure understandable to a wider public. Judges adjudicated a flood of “public indecency” cases where they decided whether a range of acts, including men’s public urination, public bathing, “willful exposure of their person” and public masturbation, constituted lewdness and indecent exposure. Their decisions rested upon a range of circumstances including the race and class of the perpetrator and who saw their bodies. If these men exposed themselves to respectable white women (who regularly complained to police) or children, the punishment would usually be much harsher. Sentencing records suggest that white judges regularly understood the actions of racial minorities and poor white men to be indecent. These men sometimes suffered jail sentences or fines and frequently suffered public humiliation; their names and the charges against them were published in local papers.
Notably, the meaning and consequences of these men’s self-exposure also hinged upon whether they had wealth and status. White men of means were able to muster vigorous public and legal defenses. For example, in 1882, defenders of a Captain Henry of Louisville Kentucky, took to the pages of the Courier-Journal to rebut accusations of “indecent exposure and obscenity to ladies.” They dared his accusers to “not beat about the bush of defamation with innuendos, let them cause him to be arrested and arraigned, trot out their witnesses and destroy him at once with their ‘legal testimony.’” Even more striking was the 1895 case of the Reverend E.L. Prather, a Baptist minister from Abilene Kansas. Prather showed his genitals to women repeatedly on passenger trains. Witnesses from Colorado, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri all testified about his behavior in a highly publicized multi-day trial that resulted in a hung jury. A second trial saw Prather plead guilty, jump bond, and flee Abilene, only to seek pulpits in other churches where his reputation had not yet caught up with him. Such high-profile cases, alongside thousands upon thousands of crime reports in local papers, allowed Americans to recognize the behavior of men who exhibited their genitals to women in public as widespread. What was unresolved was whether this behavior was pathological, criminal, dangerous, or humorous.
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