Passing Bite | Society

Sex, lies and Zoom calls

One receives with no little dismay the news that an American gentleman by the name of Jeffrey Toobin has been suspended by TheNew Yorker magazine because he was seen masturbating on a Zoom work call. By all reports, Mr. Toobin is a serious man, a staffer of the prestigious New Yorker for 25 years and attached to CNN as a legal analyst, and one can’t help feeling that if this can happen to someone like him it could perhaps happen, if not to anyone, then certainly to a lot more people than one imagines. Not that one wants to imagine what one might call a Zoom-onanist in overly terrific detail.

The camera is watching

This incident follows an earlier one in which, during a Zoom city council meeting in Rio de Janeiro, one of the participants was overcome with the need to enjoy carnal exchange with his partner. The gent forgot (or failed) to turn off his camera and the other participants could see the frenetic activity in the far background of the frame. This being Brazil, a country more mature than others in these matters, the council chair continued the meeting while technicians were asked to cut off the feed from the erring member’s video and audio.

“I don’t believe a Zoom call is over until I hit LEAVE, quit my browser, shut down, close the laptop lid, stick my computer in a drawer and leave the room,” tweeted noted American art critic, Jerry Saltz. Given the various incidents of ‘backstage’ moments leaking into live conference mosaics it’s hard to label Mr. Saltz’s statement as paranoia; ‘due diligence’ might be a far more accurate tag for what he describes.

Among all the different compressions the pandemic is bringing to our lives — such as the melding of office and home space, the disintegration of the notion of working hours, the challenge to assumptions and needs for physical proximity previously taken for granted — the further mutation of the role the camera plays in our lives is a crucial one. The Toobin case, for example, lights up a lot of intersecting issues simultaneously.

Forbidden pleasures

Firstly, there are the much-discussed erotics of the computer screen that delivers digital slices from the rest of the world into your most private zone, your mind. The frisson of this might come from the feeling of controlling what the screen does and how it behaves, even as the Internet accidentally trips you into various rabbit holes of surprise and discovery.

On the flip side, there is the sizzle created by the reverse frame, that is, not what you can see via the computer but what the computer can see of you, specifically what the frame of the computer camera reveals of you and what it hides from the other(s), the above and below of it, the off-stage right and left of it.

Group video apps were already proliferating when they were given a turbo boost by Covid. Already we’ve had jokes about executives all dressed up for formal online meetings, suited but not booted, with all sorts of business going on below the deskline, so to speak, whether someone is in their track pants, pyjamas, briefs or whatever.

This schizo-dressing could begin from practical need or sheer laziness. But from the thrill provided by this, it’s but a short path to the age-old impulse of wanting to engage in sexual activity at times and in places where such activity is forbidden, to plunge into the whirl of pleasure proscribed by the context, often where the risk of being discovered and of ensuing repercussions is high.

Watching porn and using it to engage in atmanirbharta was one of the earliest uses of Internet video. Virtual sex by consenting parties is also now old hat. The proliferation of handheld devices has made porn and virtual sexual exchange even more ubiquitous. However, in these jaded times further sandpapered by Covid, all sorts of other stuff could bring an individual to libidinal satisfaction.

Mr. Toobin, for example, was participating in a kind of election ‘war game’ conducted by his magazine, where people were playing the roles of Trump, Biden, the Supreme Court, the military. Perhaps it’s a gross assumption to think he was fantasising about local activity while, presumably, thinking globally.

In these post-truth times, all sorts of things can excite people: quasi-news, fictional news, or data and information, false or true. The floating trigger of the screen can and probably does set off almost uncontrollable thrills in some people, whether it’s from Donald Trump’s (alleged) recovery from (alleged) Covid, or claims of daring fighter-bomber raids into a neighbouring country’s territory, or watching the sleaze fest of ‘Doorknob’ Goswami working to destroy the reputations of unsuspecting people.

Ruchir Joshi is a filmmaker and columnist.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 10:00:38 AM |

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