The pandemic has had unprecedented effects on our lives. With offices, schools, colleges, and venues being shut, humans have had to pivot to living and finding comfort in isolation. But let’s face it—it’s all boiled down to most of us discarding undergarments, mainly because video calls now allow us to curate how much of our homes and bodies others get to see. But that said, an unsolicited penis is seldom what someone wants to witness in the middle of a work call. Shockingly though, the rate at which dicks keep getting flashed on video calls is rather alarming.
Ever since New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin was fired for masturbating on a work call (making “Zoom Dick” trend on Twitter), similar news has unfolded around the world. An Argentinian politician was caught sucking a woman’s breasts on a Zoom call broadcast to the country’s congress. In the UK, a college lecture was flooded with extreme pornography links by the students. Incidents have also been reported closer to home in India, where bosses allegedly conducted meetings with their employees in vests and boxers. As comedians, we love to poke fun at such events, citing the obvious logical error in trusting technology in the hands of inept humans. But now, there’s growing concern over safety of performers and audiences online. Because the dicks have forayed into our territory too. Quite literally.
Jeeya Sethi, a comedian and producer based out of Mumbai, was getting ready to perform at a free digital comedy show on a Sunday afternoon in October. Now Sethi is a seasoned comic who knows how to put down hecklers and miscreants, but what came next took even her by surprise. “It’s compulsory to have your camera and audio on for all of our shows because we don’t want to perform to black voids of nothing,” she tells VICE. As the show began, she noticed one of the participants had their camera on but not directed to their face. “All I could see were his legs, and before I could tell him to flip the camera around, there it was: his dick.”
Sethi managed to immediately kick the guy out, and hoped that nobody else on the show witnessed the screen with the penis. “But he kept trying to come back into the show, changing his ID and image, just to annoy the participants. I didn’t realise it was him again till he started playing porno in the background.”
This phenomenon has come to be known as “Zoombombing”, where attackers take over Zoom calls with pornographic or explicit content. School and college kids can also hit one of these groups up on Instagram that will bomb a call on request. “This usually happens at comedy shows run by women,” comments Agrima Joshua, who has had her fair share of trouble over her material this year. “I have noticed this pattern that these men have so much pent-up frustration that they just want to tell women off.” Joshua also notes that free shows are easy fodder for such perverts, and a paywall always helps. But there’s a reason comics have to host free comedy shows nowadays.
“At the beginning of the lockdown, it was easier because there was an outlet for our skills, we could hone our craft, and most importantly, people would buy tickets and show up,” says Sethi. “However, with time people have become jaded and even the regular audiences have stopped showing up, unless you lure them with a free show.”
Mohit Kumar, a comedy producer based out of Mumbai, agrees that on a virtual platform, it becomes impossible to control unruly audience members and comics. “We’ve had cases of audience members smoking or drinking on video, private messaging other women on the call, heckling and sometimes even harassing them verbally between sets,” he says. And all Kumar and other producers can do is kick these people out. “One heckler who started arguing with the comic had to be barred from the Zoom call but then he started emailing me threats of legal action,” says Kumar.
It’s not just the dick flashing that’s driving the women away from such shows and making them less of a safe space for the other women still showing up. The fact that a lot of toxic comedians (mainly open micers) get to flaunt their stupidity and sexism to people from all over the country is also a major factor for a lot of female audiences turning away from Zoom shows. Aditi Warrier, an illustrator and comedy aficionado, tells us how she noticed a pattern with male comics commenting on her appearance or singling her out despite asking to be left alone. “This one comic once got excited about me being the only female audience member,” she recounts. “So he asked me, ‘Do you think generalising people is okay?’ I said no. Then he asked, ‘Do you think all Muslims are terrorists?’ I said no. Then he asked, ‘Then why do women say all men are trash?’ I said, ‘Ask the one who said it.’ People hooted in my favour and I think that hurt his ego. He got defensive, called me pseudo-feminist and didn't let me talk. His whole set was sexist after that.”
Sethi believes that Zoom should take responsibility and handle some of the blame. After the incident, she couldn’t get hold of a Zoom executive to help her or get her access to the email IDs with which people had signed into the show. “They took their time to respond to me and the answer given by them in the end was rather generic and robotic,” she laments. It also took VICE over a week to get someone from Zoom to respond to the query at hand.
When asked about Sethi’s penis perpetrator, officials at Zoom said, “Please know that we, here at Zoom, take these interruptions very seriously. Indeed, in this particular investigation, Zoom has taken action causing the offender mentioned by you and identified during our review of the meeting metadata to be blocked from the Zoom platform.” They refused to reveal the identity of the pervert in question, even to Sethi, and further reinstated the various security measures one can take while hosting a Zoom call.
Before 2020 happened to us, barely anyone knew about this little video calling app. But now that it’s exploded big time, one needs to take stock of the risks that also come with modern-day video chatting. One would assume that now that technology has become such a major part of our daily existence, the final frontier for humanity would be a wider expanse than one that involves shoving random dicks in strangers’ faces. But it’s not to be. Not yet at least.
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