Sex & Dating | October 21, 2020 7:17 am

What Drives People to Masturbate at Work? A Sex Therapist Weighs In.

Jeffrey Toobin and the great Zoom Dick incident have raised some important questions

no pants zoom call
The bar is so low these days, you don't even really need to keep your pants on. You just have to keep your hands out of them.
Getty Images

Unfortunately, a question on many people’s minds over the last 48 hours — after the New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin was caught with his penis exposed on a work call — was: Why would somebody have their dick out on a Zoom call? 

While it didn’t take long for a predictable answer to surface — one might have their penis exposed during a Zoom call if that person were masturbating during a Zoom call — that answer only raised another, similar question: Why would somebody be masturbating on a Zoom call?

The simple answer is that masturbating during work is nothing new. Some of us know this from personal experience, whether masturbating between meetings from the privacy of a single-person office or simply rubbing one out in the bathroom, and some of us know this from that scene in The Wolf of Wall Street in which Matthew McConaughey’s character tells Leo DiCaprio (as a young Jordan Belfort) that he should be masturbating “at least twice a day” to maintain peak performance in the office. This is not to say that Jordan Belfort and his cohort of white-collar criminals are models of appropriate workplace behavior, but it is to say that jacking off at work is far from unheard of. While “Zoom Dick” may be new, getting off at work is a tale as old as time. 

“I have a lot of male patients who will masturbate in the workplace,” says sex counselor and psychotherapist Ian Kerner, Ph.D. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Masturbation is healthy. Masturbation is typical, normal, and people masturbate for very different reasons: sometimes to relax, sometimes to experience pleasure, sometimes to enjoy a fantasy, and sometimes to relieve anxiety or self-medicate against some kind of difficult mood or emotion.” 

Naturally — if uncomfortably — masturbating as a form of self-medication in times of stress and anxiety might translate to masturbating during work hours for many people. “Very often, in my experience, when men masturbate in the workplace, it’s because masturbation has become a pretty substantial coping mechanism,” says Kerner. “That’s why I have a lot of male patients who will masturbate in the workplace. They feel a lot of stress and they’re in an activated, stressful, anxious place and they’re not fully thinking, and the next thing they’re in the bathroom masturbating.”

Back in early 2016, an admittedly innocent-seeming time to be dropping casual stats about sexual activity in the workplace, a Time Out New York survey found that 39 percent of people were masturbating at work, and it stands to reason that number has only gone up since the vast majority of office workers started working from home full time seven months ago. 

“Absolutely, 100 percent,” says Kerner. “There’s absolutely a lot more masturbation happening at home and being integrated into one’s work life.”

The difference between the frequent masturbation happening in makeshift home offices around the country and the “Zoom Dick” incident heard round the internet earlier this week, of course, is more a question of time and (virtual) place. While people have probably been masturbating at work for as long as there has been work and people, most of us used to abide by more rigid workplace-vs.-home boundaries when we were tied to more traditional codes of in-person office conduct. But since the physical workplace has become an increasingly distant memory for most office workers, those boundaries have inevitably blurred. 

“With Zoom, these are slipperier boundaries,” says Kerner. “People have their home and workplace habits. But there’s a lot of people who used to show up in an office who haven’t quite adapted to how to work in the home, because they’re used to being in their home in a different way, or sitting in front of a computer in a different way.” 

None of this, as Kerner makes clear, is to suggest that jacking off in the middle of a Zoom meeting with coworkers is permissible — ’tisn’t! Nor can we declare with any certainty at this point that the great Toobin Zoom Dick Incident was merely an ill-timed faux pas, and not something more sinister. That said, the episode does have an odd, cringeworthy way of reflecting the mass dissolution of boundaries amid the COVID-19 era. While our work, home and sex lives used to be carefully compartmentalized, those lines have begun to bleed amid the months of indefinite work-from-home mandates, perhaps irrevocably. 

For many people — men in particular — the computer screen has long been a source of sexual gratification. “For a lot of guys, their frame for porn is the screen,” says Kerner. And for some people, that association between screen and sex has only increased since the pandemic rendered sexting and Zoom sex the norm among many couples and sex partners. 

“I’ve worked with a lot of couples or people who are dating or quarantining separately or suddenly in long-distance relationships,” says Kerner. “There’s a lot of Zoom sex or video sex happening, a lot of mutual masturbation online, or just a lot of sexy talk.” In many ways, he adds, these online resources represent “a healthy way in which technology enables us to engage in our sexuality when there are other obstacles.”

Unfortunately, as we’ve recently learned, these resources are also easy to abuse.

“I do think being home in the workplace is making self-regulation a little more challenging in certain ways,” says Kerner. “It’s harder to hold onto certain boundaries and structures of an actual workplace that we don’t have at home.”

In some ways — as, admit it, many of us know — the work-from-home culture of the past several months has made it easier than ever to masturbate discreetly in the middle of the work day without your coworkers’ knowledge. Unfortunately, after months of watching our work and home lives gradually bleed together, some of us, as we’ve recently realized, may be letting our guard down. 

“I think this is a wake-up call for everyone to look at their workplace structure at home and how they’re creating boundaries and rituals and structure for themselves,” says Kerner.

Is it normal to let your guard down a bit and mix up the previously solid work- and home-based delineations of your schedule now that your work and home lives are all but inseparable? Absolutely. But does that mean that you should take your dick out during a work call, even if you’re pretty sure no one can see it? Nope!

Let this be a lesson to us all: when in doubt, just keep it in your pants.

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