ZOOM / WIRED
It happened during a simulation for the US election on a Zoom conference call. Journalists at The New Yorker were playing politics. But staff writer Jeffrey Toobin, onlookers claim, was playing with himself.
The veteran journalist and CNN commentator allegedly lowered his camera during a strategy breakout session and touched his penis in front of his colleagues. He has since been suspended and blamed technology for the error. “I made an embarrassingly stupid mistake, believing I was off-camera. I apologise to my wife, family, friends and co-workers,” Toobin told Motherboard. “I believed I was not visible on Zoom. I thought no one on the Zoom call could see me. I thought I had muted the Zoom video.”
Toobin may have made “Zoom Dick” trend on Twitter, but he’s not alone in misbehaving on camera since the start of the pandemic. Nick Emery, chief executive at media company Mindshare, was let go this month after he allegedly took his webcam into the toilet and exposed his bottom “as a prank” while on a conference call with his colleagues. Argentinian lawmaker Juan Emilio Ameri was suspended after he was spotted kissing a woman’s breast during a virtual webcast of congress on Zoom. At the time, he claimed that he thought he was not connected to the meeting. And a government official in the Philippines, Jesus Estil, had sex with his secretary whilst on a Zoom conference with his colleagues in August. He said he was not “tech savvy” and therefore didn’t know his camera was on. In the pandemic era, Zoom gaffes have become commonplace.
Bumbling excuses for bad behaviour from men in positions of power are hardly new, and of course, most inappropriateness does not end up in the public eye and perpetrators seldom face consequences. But these “funny” stories of men accidentally exposing themselves on camera are hiding a problem: in the age of Zoom, penises are everywhere.
As soon as lockdown started, people started seeing naked appendages in video conference calls. The most egregious exposure didn’t come from colleagues but by people who managed to hack into the then-public Zoom links by guessing the link. Gym-goers from Glasgow were aghast when naked “perverts” took over their workout session earlier this year. A month ago, an online gathering of super-fans of BBC Radio 4 soap The Archers were faced with a “horrible gentleman with a small penis” who crashed their virtual meet-up. School teachers have reported parents drinking, smoking and appearing in a state of undress in the backgrounds of their children’s Zoom classes since the start of the pandemic. And university events and classes are still plagued by graphic pornography.
But since many people started working from home and interact with each other on Zoom rather than real life, the lines between private and professional life have collided — and the people exposing themselves are no longer strangers. When we swapped the office for our homes, people found themselves taking video conference calls in beds, on sofas or at dining room tables which was also the same place they would wind down at the end of the day (and yes, have sex). Workers have suddenly been invited into some of their colleagues’ most intimate and private personal spaces, obscuring the line between their professional and personal lives.
Around ten per cent of people claim to have already seen someone partially or completely naked on a video conference call since the start of lockdown, according to a survey of UK workers by coworking company EasyOffices, while 13 per cent have heard or seen someone on the toilet, or have witnessed bodily functions like farting or belching during work hours.
More people are choosing to not let a conference call get in the way of a good time. “I probably wouldn’t be able to pay my bills if men at work weren’t watching porn and having sexual interactions on their second screen,” says Jessie Sage, a phone sex operator and cam model. “Almost every day a client tells me they are jerking off while in a meeting.
“Any time I cam there is at least one person who will DM and say that the volume is off because he is at work. He tells me this because he hopes I will occasionally type a little so he knows what we are talking about. In those cases it isn’t a fetish-y thing, the viewer isn’t getting off on the idea of being at work, he is just letting me know that he wants to participate but can’t hear what I am saying.”
People who forget to mute themselves or turn off their video (or simply log off from meetings) may have forgotten the social cues that tell them they’re in a workplace setting, says workplace psychologist Jo Yarker. “You do things that you would normally do at home, but you would never dream of doing outside, whether that be farting or picking your nose or licking a spoon”. Thanks to lockdown, some people may simply not care anymore, or may be looking for an adrenaline rush, she says. Masturbation is an extreme example.
“For some, it might be a misplaced power demonstration. For others, it could be completely mindless and not really remembering where they are. They may be a bit bored and distracted and they don’t have their social cues and then find themselves doing it,” Yarker says.
But these “funny” stories are a distraction. Exposing yourself to your colleagues on camera is sexual harassment and people are intentionally harrying their colleagues through Zoom and other online messaging platforms with impunity, says Deeba Syed, senior legal officer at women’s organisation Rights of Women.
“People don’t think it’s that big of a deal. They think, ‘Oh it’s someone who’s just accidentally masturbating, you know, that these are all things that could happen’. But the reality of the situation is that these methods are used to perpetrate abuse,” she says.
By focusing on stories of people’s inappropriate sexual behaviour, we are ignoring the fact that some people are using the same tech to harass women who they were already targeting in the office. Only now, there are often no witnesses, Syed claims. “Most of those people are very senior people, they have a lot of power, it’s very difficult to kind of call them out on their behaviour. If they’re senior enough or powerful enough in an organisation, they can get away with things. And that certainly wouldn’t be acceptable for other people.”
If a colleague masturbated in an open plan office, showed up to a meeting with no clothes on, or uttered lewd comments to a colleague after repeatedly stalking them, you’d hope that a decent company would make the behaviour stop. Yet figures show people who are victims of colleagues’ predatory behaviour have little recourse. Before the pandemic, more than one in five callers to a legal advice line for women suffering sexual harassment at work either resigned or were dismissed from their jobs.
And, since lockdown started, female workers claim they have been told to dress more “provocatively” and wear make up in online work meetings taking place in their own homes. A survey by the law firm Slater and Gordon discovered that 35 per cent of women have been subjected to at least one sexist demand and often found the demands justified by their male bosses as a way to “help to win new business”.
Zoom is still an uncharted territory – and few companies have yet put policies in place to cope with misbehaviour that takes place solely online. This abuse doesn’t have to involve exposed genitals either. Women have reported being put on mute on video calls or being given huge workloads if they do not accept advances from their bosses. Syed says the rhetoric in this sinister environment reminds her of the #metoo movement. “Women are told they are exaggerating, it’s just a bit of fun.”
Syed says that employers are “unprepared” to handle sexual harassment complaints about Zoom-related incidents. “They don’t have any policies in place, they’re not thinking about this enough,” she argues. The Toobin incident may still serve as an important warning to others to keep their work lives and personal lives separate, says Attila Tomaschek, digital privacy expert at privacy software company ProPrivacy.
“Hopefully, the Toobin case will encourage other users to check they know and understand the core Zoom functions to ensure they don’t find themselves in a similar situation,” he says. “Although most people would hopefully have the common sense not to masturbate during a company conference call in the first place.”
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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