When Variety’s story about allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior by Matt Lauer hit the internet on Wednesday, readers seized on one particular detail in it: the button. Lauer “had a button under his desk that allowed him to lock his door from the inside without getting up,” the piece revealed. In a story full of upsetting details—Lauer reportedly once gave a colleague a sex toy and was known to play the game “Fuck, Marry, Kill” with co-workers as the objects—the button stood out as one of the most horrifying, dominating social media discussion and showing up in other publications’ headlines summarizing the allegations that got Lauer fired.
There’s something so perfectly nefarious about a secret button. Twitter users were quick to draw comparisons to Bond villains, who might be able to punish their underlings or enemies at the push of a button—dropping them into a tank of piranhas, for example. But Lauer’s button straddled cartoonishly evil and all too real.
Why would a workplace ever allow such a button? At first read, it sounded like NBC had more or less sanctioned in-office sex dungeons. But while Lauer used the button to lock the door before allegedly assaulting at least one unnamed woman who spoke to the New York Times for an article that was published Wednesday evening and added even uglier allegations to what had already come out, the button itself may not be quite so alarming. “People who worked at NBC said the button was a regular security measure installed for high-profile employees,” the New York Times reported. Fox News found that Today’s executive producer had a similar button. Its actual purpose was to open and close the door, an “insider” told Fox, explaining that “It was more of a gimmick, an ego thing so the [executive producer] didn’t have to get out of his desk to close his door for a private conversation.” It is unclear if the button locked the door from the inside, but it’s safe to assume it locked outsiders from barging in—outsiders who could, in theory, intervene if something horrible was happening inside the room.
According to Fox News, “Such mechanisms currently retail for about $250 to $575 and the key fob or remote control retails for another $30.” Websites like maglocks.com and sdcsecuritysystems.com sell a range of electromagnetic locking systems and accompanying accessories, most of which are intended to make doors automatically lock for building-security purposes, such as an active shooter. (Which might be another problematic aspect of the buttons: They turn executives’ offices into panic rooms while employees who don’t have such perks are left to fend for themselves against whatever the threat is.)
The button itself may not be so out-of-the-ordinary. But in the hands of an abuser, even a silly gadget like a button for bigwigs can be a tool of terror and oppression. And it’s no surprise that after weeks of horrific sexual assault revelations, we’d assume the worst.