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Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history education at the Graduate School of Education. Credit: Stuart Goldenberg

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history education at Penn's Graduate School of Education, came under fire on social media this past week for his controversial op-ed in the New York Daily News, which many perceived to be making unjust excuses for The New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Toobin's workplace masturbation scandal. 

Toobin was widely criticized for engaging in workplace harassment by masturbating with his camera and mic on in front of colleagues during a meeting, but in the op-ed, Zimmerman argued that the scandal was instead about society's unease with masturbation. The column ignited an online outcry, with social media users alleging that Zimmerman was defending Toobin's workplace misconduct. Zimmerman told The Daily Pennsylvanian that he stands by his op-ed, but he added that he did not intend to excuse sexual harassment. 

“I did not write this piece to defend what Toobin did because what Toobin did was indefensible,” Zimmerman said.

The New Yorker suspended Toobin last week after the incident. The scandal raised concerns of workplace sexual harassment and prompted comparisons to the #MeToo movement, with the hashtag #MeToobin trending on Twitter. 

Zimmerman argued in the column, which was published on Oct. 21, that the public outcry regarding the Toobin scandal stems from society's uncomfortable attitudes about masturbation. He said he wanted to use his op-ed to start discussion about why the scandal "has become such a punchline in a million different American jokes."

“That’s what this pseudo-scandal is really about: our collective unease with masturbation. We Americans love to talk — and talk, and talk — about sex. But there's one topic that remains taboo, and Toobin is paying the price for it,” Zimmerman wrote in his op-ed.

Zimmerman's column was widely criticized on social media. The New York Daily News's tweet promoting the op-ed was "ratioed" on Twitter, with the number of critical responses vastly outnumbering the numbers of likes and retweets. The tweet, posted on Oct. 21, had by Wednesday received more than 8,100 quote tweets and 12,100 replies, most of which mocked the op-ed — compared with only about 300 retweets and 680 likes.

In one of the most liked replies to the op-ed, one Twitter user noted that the public outcry against Toobin was because he exposed himself in the workplace, not because of society's unease about masturbation. 

“Really can't fathom the response to this. No one cares he was masturbating. They care he was intentionally doing it *in the middle of* a work meeting. Why is this so hard for men to grasp?” the user wrote in a tweet that garnered 3,000 likes.

Some frustrated Twitter users tagged Penn GSE's Twitter account in their responses, demanding that the school take disciplinary action.

The GSE wrote in an email to the DP that it “takes sexual harassment very seriously and does not tolerate sexual misconduct of any kind,” but did not specifically reference Zimmerman or his op-ed. 

Other Twitter users accused Zimmerman of making excuses for Toobin’s behavior.

“How in the hell are we at the ‘defending masturbation in front of co-workers during work events’ phase of 2020?” one Twitter user replied.

Many media figures — most notably, male journalists and columnists — were criticized for offering defenses of Toobin. 

"What is bizarre and unsettling is the rush of voices in journalism trying to excuse or normalize Toobin’s behavior," The National Review reported in an article that named Zimmerman as one of these voices.

Zimmerman said his critics were drawing the wrong conclusions from his op-ed, adding that he was not making excuses for sexual harassment.

“I want to be really clear. I have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, which I define as any act that happens without the consent of other people. I thought that was just a given,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman stands by his op-ed, but said he regrets not articulating more clearly that he understands that Toobin’s behavior constitutes sexual misconduct. Zimmerman said he welcomes criticism of his writing but feels that some of his harshest critics made unfair assumptions about his motives.

“My job as a writer is not to make you happy or sad,” Zimmerman said. “It's not to make you comfortable or uncomfortable. It's not to make you offended or unoffended. My job is to give my best take on the world, no matter how people feel about it.”