Dick pics are everywhere, and nobody knows what to do about them. Sometimes theyâ€™re a joke, like the photos snapped by a bored Subway worker in Ohio, who put his phallus on a footlong and was fired for it. Sometimes theyâ€™re amorous, like those allegedly exchanged between Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez and then obtained by the National Enquirer as blackmail. Sometimes theyâ€™re awkward teen flirting that ends in child pornography charges, sometimes theyâ€™re body-positive internet art, and sometimes theyâ€™re a vile, violating digital catcall, a so-called cyberflash. In Euphoria, HBOâ€™s bleeding-edge teen drama, Zendayaâ€™s character, Rue, gives a wry lecture on the practice. â€œSome people say that eyes are the windows to your soul,” she says. “I disagree. I think it’s your dick, and how you fucking photograph it.”
The dick picâ€”so commonplace, so controversialâ€”has undeniable cultural importance, but media coverage of it tends to strike a single chord: â€œEw, bad.â€� Research on the phenomenon, according to the researchers themselves, is thin, preliminary, and mostly focuses on the dick pic only in association with other forms of online harassment. A spate of recent papers seeks to engorge the discourseâ€”and explore just why men are sending these nudes in the first place.
Emma Grey Ellis covers memes, trolls, and other elements of Internet culture for WIRED.
According to Cory Pedersen, a psychologist and human sexuality researcher at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, about 50 percent of the dick pic senders she interviewed had no qualms sending an unsolicited photo of their genitals. The difference between the groups came down to two variables: narcissism and sexism. Men who exhibited higher levels of both tend to send nudes without asking. The finding conforms to general suspicions about unsolicited dick picsâ€”that theyâ€™re the province of self-absorbed people who donâ€™t care about the recipient. Still, Pedersen has also found evidence that that characterization is too simple. â€œOnly 6 percent actively endorsed misogynistic reasons for sending pictures of their dicks,â€� Pedersen says. â€œMost arenâ€™t actively trying to annoy or frighten people. They were hoping women would feel turned on.â€�
People have worn out their keyboards over that 6 percent. Theyâ€™ve named crimes after them, the most recent being â€œcyberflashing,â€� which involves sending a picture of your genitals to a stranger via AirDrop. New York City has even tried to legislate against the practice, though any law would be hard to enforce. Other places, like the state of Washington and Victoria, Australia, have criminalized â€œmaliciousâ€� sexting, positioning dick pics on the continuum of sexual violence. Fair enoughâ€”but what about the 94 percent of seemingly innocent senders?
Pedersen hypothesizes that for some of these men, the dick pics are an expression of subconscious misogyny, but the explicit motivations fall into two major categories. The most obvious reason, the one youâ€™ve probably intuited, is hope of reciprocityâ€”the old â€œIâ€™ll show you mine so youâ€™ll show me yoursâ€� routine. The other, more strangely, is partner hunting. â€œPoor sexual socialization might lead to an atypical understanding of normal or appropriate sexual behavior, â€œ says Dean Fido, a psychologist at the University of Derby who has authored two papers on dick pic psychology along with collaborator Craig Harper, a psychology researcher at Nottingham Trent University. According to Fido and Harperâ€™s research, jilted men may send dick pics to communicate sexual prowess to potential new partners, a kind of digital-era courtship display. More often in the age of online dating, men seem to see sending dick pics as a viable way to attract a â€œshort-term mateâ€� by signaling their availability and interest. Pedersen found that many of the men in her study shared that mate-seeking mind-set. â€œItâ€™s an honest error,â€� Pedersen says. â€œMany [straight] men would be happy to receive such an image [from a woman], even unsolicited. Perhaps they have a hard time understanding that the reverse might not be true.â€�
Hereâ€™s the thing: Nobody knows whether women like receiving dick pics or not, which researchers were quick to point out as the key limitation of these studies. â€œIâ€™m interested in whether any of the menâ€™s motivations are actually on track,â€� Pedersen says. â€œIt might only take one of two positive hits to encourage that behavior, even to disregard all the women saying theyâ€™re gross or skeevy.â€� Sure, the internet contains a wealth of anecdotes suggesting that women are typically put off by photographs of genitalia, especially those they didnâ€™t ask for, but thereâ€™s next to no empirical evidence.
Some, like La Trobe University sociologist Andrea Waling, who has studied the cultural framing of dick pics, think theyâ€™re an example of society encouraging more â€œyuckâ€� than â€œyumâ€� in womenâ€™s sexuality. â€œMedia suggests that women do not like dick pics, which reinforces the idea that women do not ever have a visual component of their sexuality,â€� Waling says. â€œLots of them do! But thatâ€™s counter to the narrative that all women want romance. That thereâ€™s no room for a more open, raunchier sexuality.â€� Also implicit: Nobody likes looking at menâ€™s bodies. Both of these assumptions are wrong, hurtful, and interconnected. In the cisgendered, heterosexual context in which dick pics are usually discussed, reluctance to see menâ€™s bodies as sexy is also a reluctance to acknowledge womenâ€™s sexual desires. Talking about unsolicited dick pics as if they are inherently gross misunderstands whatâ€™s â€œgrossâ€� about them: the lack of consent.
When you take the abject inappropriateness of nonconsensual image sharing as a given, and consider that only a small fraction of dick pics are sent in overt malice, penis pictures become a much more interesting barometer of cultural progress. Consider the youth, who have never known a world without nudes flying from smartphone to smartphone. According to Rosemary Riccardelli, a sociologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland who has studied teen sexting, the idea that sending nudes is normal and â€œlow stakesâ€� for boys (but rarer and a â€œbigger dealâ€� for girls) is ingrained in people as young as 13. â€œMenâ€™s bodies are afforded a kind of playfulness that womenâ€™s bodies never are,â€� Waling says. â€œThe public discourse around womenâ€™s nudes is one of shame.â€� Many of the female teenagers in Riccardelliâ€™s study reported being instructed to guard themselves against sexting, which, as the University of Derby’s Fido points out, reflects cultural myths around older crimes like sexual assault. The ubiquity of dick pics may be the result of humanityâ€™s new high-tech existence, but peopleâ€™s reactions to them still follow ancient beats.
Sexual discourse is full of unseemly, unhelpful silences, and until very recently, the no-malice dick pic has fallen into one of them. Fido worries about the inconsistency of legislation around nonconsensual image sharing, which he thinks might add to (or reflect) public confusion. â€œPeople need to understand that thereâ€™s nothing sexier than consent!â€� Pedersen says. Waling hopes the conversation catches up with what, for many, is the reality of dick pics today: that they are expressions of horniness and intimacy, a chance to engage with the male body as erotic rather than threatening. She thinks dick pic acceptance might even help put an end to that eternal measuring contest and other anxieties men have about their bodies. As scientists build a more nuanced picture of nude-sharing psychology, they hope culture will embrace dick pic pluralism too.
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