“He shows up in the laundry, on the beach, in shopping center parking lots, and in cars around the schoolyard….Flasher, we call him.” So began a 1977 article in the Palm Beach Post detailing the epidemic of men who exposed themselves to women. “We laugh and giggle and make jokes about him—the fellow in the raincoat without the pants,” the article explained. But these men were no laughing matter.
In a high-profile instance of work-from-home gone horribly wrong, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin was recently suspended from his gigs at the New Yorker and CNN, after masturbating during a work Zoom meeting in front of a number of his coworkers. Toobin claims that he was unaware that he was on video. His public performance, he said, was an accident. But since the story broke, a number of male commentators have rallied to his defense, explaining away his behavior. One historian, Jonathan Zimmerman, even characterized the widespread condemnation of Toobin as rooted in Americans’ longstanding prudishness about masturbation. But while there is a history at play here, it’s not that of Americans’ uneasy relationship with masturbation. It’s the history of men publicly “sharing” their private parts in offices and on the street. It is also a story of white men’s power to sexualize and control workplaces and public space through these same actions.
Women have frequently and unwillingly encountered men’s genitalia in public spaces and online, from the drive-by masturbator to the unsolicited dick pic. In the mid-19th century, as cities grew exponentially and instituted professional police departments to enforce public morals, men’s sexually aggressive public behavior became legible to authorities. Newspapers obsessed with crime made indecent exposure understandable to a wider public. Judges adjudicated a flood of “public indecency” cases where they decided whether a range of acts, including men’s public urination, public bathing, “willful exposure of their person” and public masturbation, constituted lewdness and indecent exposure. Their decisions rested upon a range of circumstances including the race and class of the perpetrator and who saw their bodies. If these men exposed themselves to respectable white women (who regularly complained to police) or children, the punishment would usually be much harsher. Sentencing records suggest that white judges regularly understood the actions of racial minorities and poor white men to be indecent. These men sometimes suffered jail sentences or fines and frequently suffered public humiliation; their names and the charges against them were published in local papers.
Notably, the meaning and consequences of these men’s self-exposure also hinged upon whether they had wealth and status. White men of means were able to muster vigorous public and legal defenses. For example, in 1882, defenders of a Captain Henry of Louisville Kentucky, took to the pages of the Courier-Journal to rebut accusations of “indecent exposure and obscenity to ladies.” They dared his accusers to “not beat about the bush of defamation with innuendos, let them cause him to be arrested and arraigned, trot out their witnesses and destroy him at once with their ‘legal testimony.’” Even more striking was the 1895 case of the Reverend E.L. Prather, a Baptist minister from Abilene Kansas. Prather showed his genitals to women repeatedly on passenger trains. Witnesses from Colorado, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri all testified about his behavior in a highly publicized multi-day trial that resulted in a hung jury. A second trial saw Prather plead guilty, jump bond, and flee Abilene, only to seek pulpits in other churches where his reputation had not yet caught up with him. Such high-profile cases, alongside thousands upon thousands of crime reports in local papers, allowed Americans to recognize the behavior of men who exhibited their genitals to women in public as widespread. What was unresolved was whether this behavior was pathological, criminal, dangerous, or humorous.
“What city woman has never seen a flasher?” wondered one woman in the feminist journal Sojourner in 1976; even earlier, a 1950 Sexology article matter-of-factly stated that, “In every large city there are many persons walking around who have this urge to exhibit their persons and their private parts publicly.” It wasn’t just an urban problem, either: Men’s exhibitionism haunted countless crime reports in rural areas, too. Most stories contained little more than a perpetrator’s name and the location of their activity. But some stories shared more detail, like that of a flashing jogger who terrorized female pedestrians in Binghamton, New York, during the summer of 1979. Or the Baltimore man who in 1980 stood on a busy street wearing only a waist-length shirt, showing his genitalia to passersby. (Attorneys attempted to charge the man using a 1906 provision designed to curb a rash of men exposing themselves on steamboats passing through the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)
These public decency laws continued to be unevenly enforced. Police and prosecutors used these laws to target sex workers, racial minorities, and queer people. The archives of the NAACP and ACLU, for example, contain records of where men of color, accused of “indecent exposure,” were sent to work on chain gangs or imprisoned for prolonged periods. Straight white men’s public exposure, on the other hand, was often treated as a misdemeanor. These same men increasingly benefited from psychologists’ efforts to decriminalize the offense. Mental health professionals spilled tons of ink on what they called exhibitionists. They mapped their motivations, their patterns of behavior, and their treatments, saying that “exhibitionists” deserved understanding and pity.
Even as authorities, psychologists, and even jokesters all discussed “the flasher,” his behavior, and what was to be done, there was less of an emphasis on how this behavior impacted unwilling spectators. Those women and children subjected to flashers reported feeling anger, shame, fear, guilt, and confusion. C.A. Lee, in the pages of the feminist journal Sojourner, reflected on how repeated encounters with flashers haunted her. “I used to wonder if there was anything to be done to discourage these men,” she wrote. “I used to make up withering remarks to be addressed to them if they should happen to be close enough to hear, such as, ‘I wouldn’t be so quick to show THAT off if I were you.’”
In the 1970s, feminists began to draw connections between these activities in the street and similar aggression in the office through the terms “sexual harassment” and “sexual violence.” In their consciousness-raising sessions and in feminist literature, women increasingly recognized how men’s public masturbation in the office and street spoke to men’s power. Judith Pasternak, writing in the New York Radical Feminists Newsletter in 1976, succinctly explained that “in the patriarchy flashing is an act of aggression against women and children.” Drawing from numerous testimonials and legal complaints made by women, feminists came to understand that men’s indecent exposure belonged within the constellation of harassing behavior women experienced in the workplace. As one author put it in a 1980 issue of Big Mama Rag, this web of “unsolicited, nonreciprocal behavior” included but was not limited to: “staring at, commenting on, or touching a woman’s body, constant leering, ogling, whistling (or moaning), brushing against your body ‘accidentally,” a friendly pat, squeeze or pinch or arm against you, catching you alone for… whatever they have in mind, requests for participation in sexual acts, demands for intercourse, and even rape.”The high profile cases of Roger Ailes and Matt Lauer, both of whom allegedly exposed themselves to employees in the office, spotlight how ‘flashing’ and ‘self-stimulation’ properly belongs within this pattern of harassment.
In 1976, the woman’s magazine Redbook surveyed 9000 women about their workplace experiences. Nearly 9 out of 10 women reported that they had experienced unwanted attention on the job. Half the respondents indicated that they or a woman they knew had quit a job or had been fired because of unwanted sexual attention. A sales trainee explained her lingering resentment at men’s behaviors: “Why should I be the one to change the way I behave or dress?” Forty years later, in 2016, Redbook invited its readers to take the same survey. This time, Redbook found that 64 percent of respondents had experienced inappropriate sexual behavior (which included unwanted verbal or physical acts). While the survey methods were imprecise, the self-selecting sample told a story in which a majority of female workers encountered unwanted sexual behavior from men at the workplace.
Which brings us back to Jeffrey Toobin. Toobin and his defenders are attempting to frame the public nature of his performance as an accident. Our reaction, these commentators claim, speaks to our prudery and pearl-clutching over what comes naturally to men. These explanations gloss over the sticky fact that nobody walked in on Toobin. Instead, he thrust his own genitals into the spotlight and illuminated, not a history of prudery, but a history of men’s prerogative to be pricks in private and public. The hard history at stake here is one in which white men have used their genitals to claim public space and to sexualize their interactions with unwilling spectators.
Gillian Frank is co-host of the “Sexing History” podcast and a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Virginia’s Program in American Studies.