The Huffington Post and your masturbatory co-workers

This post isn’t about “fake news“, a term which has gone from useful to meaningless in a record time. It’s about nonsense published as if it’s news, and about the willingness on the part of some publications (okay, one in this case) to take a published piece of nonsense and then make it even worse in order to get you to visit their website.

But first, of course I must confess to the horror that – in order to write about the nonsense in question – I had to read the nonsense in question, which included clicking on the website in question.

We used to have DoNotLink, which allowed you to send people to a website without adding to their traffic numbers. Today, we have, which even has a handy Chrome extension so that you can right-click on a link, and follow it without being counted as a reader. But the cunning clickbait-mongers at HuffPo have found a way around that.

So, my name is Jacques, and I have clicked on a HuffPo story that is headlined “Masturbating At Work Is More Common Than You Think”, so I am aware of the irony in writing to complain about clickbait.

You lucky folks can read it from Wayback Machine, thereby not contributing to HuffPo’s readership numbers [edit: as a friend pointed out to me, if the Google Analytics tracking code is included in the cached version, you’d still be contributing to pageviews]. But you really don’t need to read it, because it’s nonsense. Let me tell you why…

First, the headline: leaving aside the point that you’ve got no idea how common a practise I believe masturbating at work to be (if I can count university students as being part of the workplace, then it’s probably more common than even the Huffington Post think), that headline implies that it’s at least very common.

How common, you might ask? Well,

According to a recent survey by Time Out New York, 39 per cent of office workers admit to masturbating in the office john — slightly more than the 31 per cent of men that admitted to rubbing one out in 2012 according to Glamour.

Let’s look at the recent survey, then. In a piece dated December 21, 2015 (recent-ish?), Jillian Anthony tells us that she a) got some anecdotes from her friends over brunch; and then b) “blasted out a survey on all my social media channels”.

Do you see how many times that was retweeted? [zero is the answer, in case you don’t do Twitter.] Well, hopefully her brunch companions filled in the survey, at least.

The next survey will no doubt be even more robust, seeing as Anthony has now “started asking anyone and everyone—including second dates” whether they masturbate at work. By the way, with the stories she’s heard, she’s “starting to think the percentage is higher than people are letting on”.

The survey question, by the way, requested a yes/no response to the question “Have you ever masturbated at work? (At any job you’ve held, ever)”, and then had an optional comment field.

Which means that, if you simply take the raw data of yes and no responses, a 65 year-old who is a month from retirement, and who once masturbated mid-10-hour shift at McDonalds when he was 17, would count towards that 39% figure (ominously up from Glamour magazine’s no doubt equally-robust survey results of 31% in 2012).

Both the HuffPo and the TimeOut piece refer to “office workers”, by the way, which is also at odds with the survey question, which stresses that your masturbation could have occurred at “any job, ever”.

In short, a piece of fluff published in TimeOut, which might or might not be fun to read, depending on your predilections, was made to sound scientific-ish by HuffPo (in that the details of the terrible “survey” were omitted), and given a completely misleading headline, in order to make you click on it.

So, why I am writing about this? For two reasons: first, to make you aware of ways in which you can share this sort of nonsense without adding to viewership figures (using caches, and/or a service like, and second to remind you that unless you do either that or, better yet, don’t follow clickbait links at all, “they” will keep publishing it.

Many of us complain about sensationalism, misleading content and “fake news”. In all these cases, it’s worth remembering that the market tends to give us what we ask for… and that we should therefore ask for more things worth reading, in part by not reading the things that aren’t worth it.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.