When Pornography Invades Privacy

Girl sitting in front of a computer screen

I taught high school for over a decade and my years spent working with U.S. teenagers taught me that many girls’ first experiences of sexual assault now happen through screens. One way that boys assault through the screen is by sending their female classmates pictures or videos of genitalia, and I’ve seen various male teachers, staff, and administrators treat such assaults as if they were child’s play. These enablers and apologists fail to acknowledge the power asymmetry that exists between a male sender and his female target, an imbalance that includes the recipient’s inability to unsee pornography intentionally placed in her line of sight.

These optic violations constitute a form of visual rape and these problems bring us to a now-infamous October 19, zoom meeting attended by employees of WNYC radio and The New Yorker.Vice became the first outlet to report on the aftermath of the notorious call, announcing that The New Yorker had suspended Jeffrey Toobin, one of its staff writers, for masturbating on video. Toobin claimed that he was unaware that his camera was on and The New York Times further reported that Toobin was participating in a secondary phone sex video-call when he exposed himself.

Media men and everyday men moved quickly to defend Toobin and a survey of their defenses suggests that these men spent minimal time contemplating notions like consent, boundary, or incursion. Their defenses also sounded much like the excuses I’ve heard trumpeted when adolescent boys ambush female classmates with homemade pornography.

Conor Friedersdorf, a writer for The Atlantic, excused Toobin’s behavior by tweeting that it was the result of “technological error, pandemic circumstances, bad judgment, & bad luck.”

Friedersdorf then, very tellingly, urged the public to extend “empathy, politeness, & forgiveness” to Toobin, suggesting that if any of us were to ever non-consensually masturbate in front of our co-workers, we would want to be treated with kindness.

It’s hard not to think of Friedersdorf’s statement as a call to extend Matthew 7:12 to creeps. By encouraging us to empathize with Toobin, Friedersdorf invites us to imagine ourselves exposing ourselves to our co-workers, a thought exercise I have no interest in doing. The only redeeming part of Friedersdorf’s long tweet was its reference to Occam’s Razor. My feminist imagination seized hold of the image, using its blade to figuratively slice away at the problem.

Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian, wrote in the NY Daily Newsthat while Toobin “shouldn’t have been pleasuring himself during a work call...that’s his business rather than yours.” Zimmerman’s editorial engaged minimally with the fact that Toobin made his penis, and his pleasure, the business of others. Zimmerman also punched down at those ridiculing Toobin, casting Toobin as a sexually liberated victim and his critics as oppressive and unenlightened prudes. Zimmerman’s reasoning reminds me of a conversation I once had with an abuser. The abuser informed me that it was his prerogative to walk around his living room naked regardless of his nudity being visible from the street. When I stated that his behavior was unfair to passersby, he snickered and said, “If a bitch is bothered, she can look away. It’s my house.”

The re-framing of Toobin as an accidental pleasure-activist is absurd and the empathy many men have publicly expressed for him shows that a significant number believe they are having a mimetic experience when confronted by the story of a man who masturbates before an unconsenting audience.

“That’s...me!” it seems they’re whispering to themselves.

When male authorities on school campuses are dismissive of similar behavior, it’s reasonable to wonder what motivates their responses. Could it be that their empathy results from having engaged in similar behavior? Could it be that their empathy results from wanting to engage in similar behavior? Could it be that their empathy results from admiring boys and men who engage in acts of degradation and dominance? Could it be that these men belong to a team called patriarchy and when called upon to protect girls, they would rather not? Who knows. We could speculate more about intention but I prefer to focus on the effect. When schools minimize the harm that visual assault does to girls, adult authority figures send a message: Rape is bad. (Wink, wink!)

Patriarchy casts boyhood, and its innocence, as eternal, and this dimension of male privilege supports a common and contemporary rape myth: the accidental assault. The lethal consequences of this myth can be found in stories that exist at the fictitious intersection of kink and femicide. I’m referring to the oops-she-accidentally-died-during-rough-sex-that-she-begged-for defense and the killing of Natalie Connoly exemplifies how misogynists brazenly deploy this justification. After Connoly’s boyfriend, millionaire John Broadhurst, beat her to death, he claimed to have only brutalized her “within the boundaries of her masochistic desires.” Writing for the Independent, journalist Jane Merrick questioned Broadhurst’s defense. On the second anniversary of Connoly’s killing, Merrick asked, “[W]ould someone who did not intend to kill their ‘loved one’ really inflict 40 separate injuries and not call for an ambulance until it was too late? What part of the BDSM repertoire involves spraying bleach into the face of a partner? Would a person who had not intended to kill their ‘loved one’...describe her as ‘dead as a doughnut’?” In response to this defense’s increasing popularity, activists in the United Kingdom established an initiative called We Can’t Consent to This. We Can’t Consent to This reports that in recent years, the UK saw nearly seventy similar cases of “accidental” femicide.

Those who defend Toobin’s choice to masturbate during a work meeting also rely on the ‘oops’ defense. Because the ‘oops’ defense is so pervasive, and effective, adolescent boys are quick to adopt and deploy it. The privilege of unrelenting masculine innocence, however, remains inaccessible to girls, femmes, and women. An adolescent girl, for example, may assert that she didn’t mean to see the pornography sent to her by a classmate. Female intentions, though, are often impugned. Furthermore, men often project their intentions onto women and even more disturbingly, onto girls. It’s reached the point of cliché, but in light of the subject matter, the following still bears repeating: high school dress codes intended to control girls’ bodies aren’t written with male students in mind. They’re written with adult men in mind because, by and large, adult men are their authors and arbiters.

That a victim did not consent to the receipt of a pornographic image won’t shield her from ridicule, mockery, or even punishment. The visual ambush, and the sense of shock, shame, and violation that it produces, is the point. Adult authority figures have taken disciplinary action against girls subjected to visual assaults, arguing that these victims somehow signaled to their assaulters that they wanted to receive explicit images. In some cases, girls have been forced to apologize to the boys who visually assaulted them.

In “The Art of Cruelty,” Maggie Nelson writes that the “disturbing images” we can’t seem to forget are most often those encountered in movies and photographs. She suggests that these lasting impressions are a “function of the fact that one beholds an image all at once, which leaves the organism more vulnerable to assault.” Nelson’s explanation lends itself to the experience of being ambushed by pornography. When a sender texts an image, he manipulates her trust, circumventing her consent and agency to place an image in her phone, in her hand, and in her memory. The incursions cut across multiple fronts and it is these characteristics that make non-consensual visual exposure a twenty-first-century form of rape.

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