Emma Grey Ellis
Dick pics are everywhere, and nobody knows what to do about them. Sometimes they’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 they’re amorous, like those allegedly exchanged between Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sanchez and then obtained by the National Enquirer as blackmail. Sometimes they’re awkward teen flirting that ends in child pornography charges, sometimes they’re body-positive internet art, and sometimes they’re a vile, violating digital catcall, a so-called cyberflash. In Euphoria, HBO’s bleeding-edge teen drama, Zendaya’s character, Rue, gives a wry lecture on the practice. “Some 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 pic—so commonplace, so controversial—has undeniable cultural importance, but media coverage of it tends to strike a single chord: “Ew, bad.” 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 discourse—and explore just why men are sending these nudes in the first place.
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 pics—that they’re the province of self-absorbed people who don’t care about the recipient. Still, Pedersen has also found evidence that that characterization is too simple. “Only 6 percent actively endorsed misogynistic reasons for sending pictures of their dicks,” Pedersen says. “Most aren’t actively trying to annoy or frighten people. They were hoping women would feel turned on.”
People have worn out their keyboards over that 6 percent. They’ve named crimes after them, the most recent being “cyberflashing,” 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 “malicious” sexting, positioning dick pics on the continuum of sexual violence. Fair enough—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 you’ve probably intuited, is hope of reciprocity—the old “I’ll show you mine so you’ll show me yours” routine. The other, more strangely, is partner hunting. “Poor sexual socialization might lead to an atypical understanding of normal or appropriate sexual behavior, “ 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 Harper’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 “short-term mate” by signaling their availability and interest. Pedersen found that many of the men in her study shared that mate-seeking mind-set. “It’s an honest error,” Pedersen says. “Many [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.”
Here’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. “I’m interested in whether any of the men’s motivations are actually on track,” Pedersen says. “It might only take one of two positive hits to encourage that behavior, even to disregard all the women saying they’re gross or skeevy.” Sure, the internet contains a wealth of anecdotes suggesting that women are typically put off by photographs of genitalia, especially those they didn’t ask for, but there’s next to no empirical evidence.
“Men’s bodies are afforded a kind of playfulness that women’s bodies never are. The public discourse around women’s nudes is one of shame.” —Andrea Waling, sociologist
Some, like La Trobe University sociologist Andrea Waling, who has studied the cultural framing of dick pics, think they’re an example of society encouraging more “yuck” than “yum” in women’s sexuality. “Media suggests that women do not like dick pics, which reinforces the idea that women do not ever have a visual component of their sexuality,” Waling says. “Lots of them do! But that’s counter to the narrative that all women want romance. That there’s no room for a more open, raunchier sexuality.” Also implicit: Nobody likes looking at men’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 men’s bodies as sexy is also a reluctance to acknowledge women’s sexual desires. Talking about unsolicited dick pics as if they are inherently gross misunderstands what’s “gross” 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 “low stakes” for boys (but rarer and a “bigger deal” for girls) is ingrained in people as young as 13. “Men’s bodies are afforded a kind of playfulness that women’s bodies never are,” Waling says. “The public discourse around women’s nudes is one of shame.” Many of the female teenagers in Riccardelli’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 humanity’s new high-tech existence, but people’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. “People need to understand that there’s nothing sexier than consent!” 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.
More Great WIRED Stories