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illustration by hanna barczyk

At the beginning of this pandemic, the workers of the world had to learn a new video-conferencing skill set. How to mute their microphones, chuck stray pets and children out of the frame, finish eating before the host said, “Hi! Are we all here?” It did not seem necessary to add: Don’t indulge in the sin of Onan while your colleagues are on the line.

I mean, private pleasures are for private times, right? I though we all knew this. Apparently not. Jeffrey Toobin clearly did not. The lawyer, author, CNN legal analyst and New Yorker writer was humiliated when he was caught pleasuring himself on a Zoom call last week with his magazine colleagues. The New Yorker bigwigs were involved in something called “an election simulation,” and perhaps Mr. Toobin wishfully added an extra t into that second word. The whole thing seems odd: Is there anything less sexy than a Zoom call with a bunch of New Yorker writers pretending to be Republicans? Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

The whole incident was an accident and Mr. Toobin has apologized. He’s stepped away from CNN for the time being and the situation is being investigated by the New Yorker. But it has taken on a whole cultural life outside the event itself. A great number of people are happy to laugh it off, to make jokes and attack anyone who doesn’t find it funny. Women who have dared to say that it’s not actually amusing to be presented with a colleague’s genitals in a work situation, and that it may in fact be grotesque and traumatizing, have been accused of being humourless scolds.

It’s possible that women don’t find it funny because many of us still remember the random flashers who filled our childhoods, on park benches and apartment stairwells and bus seats. They popped up so regularly that you began to suspect they were being manufactured in a dirty-raincoat factory somewhere. If you were a teenaged girl in the eighties, you knew the dude in the car looking for directions did not have a map in his lap, if you know what I mean.

It is indeed hard to raise the chuckles when you’re remembering all those unwelcome glimpses of y-fronts from decades past. Even less funny is the fact that these incidents follow us into the manager’s office, the stockroom, the loading dock. Even scarier is the way this behaviour, which some men seem to have trouble refraining from, ripples out in the wider workplace, harming colleagues and innocent bystanders. If only there were some simple device we could rely on to help men who can’t help themselves, and thereby prevent their personal pathologies from exploding out into the world and raining shrapnel on those nearby.

Follow this chain if you will: Mr. Toobin is the author of a new book about Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women. He is also the author of a book about Bill Clinton’s in-office sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, which almost brought down his presidency. (In that book, Mr. Toobin is oddly fixated on Monica Lewinsky’s diet, but we’ll leave that for another time.)

Mr. Clinton’s wife, Hillary, had her own presidential campaign derailed, implausibly and enragingly, by yet another wayward member, this one belonging to Anthony Weiner. (Talk about your name being destiny.) In 2016, Mr. Weiner was involved in a sexting scandal with a teenaged girl while he was married to Clinton adviser Huma Abedin. This caused the FBI to seize Ms. Abedin’s laptop, and for FBI director James Comey to announce he was reopening an investigation into Ms. Clinton’s e-mails, 11 days before the presidential election.

It’s starting to seem less funny when presented that way, isn’t it? And I’m not even going into the darker landscape of Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. and all the other men who forgot that work time and work environments are for work, not for listening to the voice in their pants. There is a fairly simple solution, though, to keep men’s thoughts on the job and their hands where they belong (that would be on the keyboard). Let me suggest the office chastity belt.

Why not? It worked in the Middle Ages, when wealthy men wanted to ensure the faithfulness of their wives and direct them toward piety, not carnality. Women, of course, could not control themselves, weak creatures that they were. We could today show the same sympathy toward men at work who seem unable to keep their various parts busy in a human resources-approved manner. The chastity belts could be obtained from the office supply cupboard in the morning, worn during client meetings and Zoom calls, and then removed when the office day is over. They’d be monitored remotely, in the manner of electronic ankle cuffs worn by parolees.

Think of the grief it would save both employee and company, not to mention society as a whole. There would be no more messy sex scandals to humiliate individuals and horrify their colleagues. There would be no more unintended consequences, such as the blighting of an entire country for four years. Also, the chastity belts could be manufactured by small, local companies rendered idle by the pandemic, and then written off at year’s end as vital business expenses. It is, as they say in business manuals, a win-win situation.

What, not a good idea? I thought it was funny. Some people just can’t take a joke.

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