Editor’s Note: The article was first published on December 5, 2017.
Last year, Andrea Waling, a researcher with the Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health & Society, was invited to discuss dick pics on the radio with a female journalist who insisted that men only send them to sexually harass and intimidate. Waling, however, corrected her: The male motivation behind dick pics is largely unknown because everything we do know about them is anecdotal, any actual science nonexistent.
After that interview, Waling set out to attempt the first scientific study of the dick pic — at least as far as she can tell — by examining numerous articles, blog entries, forum discussions and social media posts about the infamous bare-bottomed male selfie. Her findings, “‘C’mon, No One Wants a Dick Pic’: Exploring the Cultural Framings of the ‘Dick Pic’ in Contemporary Online Publics,” were published last month in the Journal of Gender Studies. I recently spoke with her about man’s fascination with his phallus, why sending “close-up” dick pics is particularly aggressive and how porn makes it seem as though thick, veiny dicks are the only kind of dicks out there.
What’s the relationship between dick pics and masculine heterosexuality?
Scholars have argued that men are conditioned to view their penis as central to their experience of pleasure, and that penetrative sex is the ideal to achieve. The dick pic is an extension of that — that only the penis in sex matters, either as a form of threat to women or as an expectation in that’s what women are mainly interested in. It isn’t surprising considering that mainstream, heterosexual pornography is so focused on the penis and penetrative vaginal or anal sex that some men might actually believe that’s what women really want.
It’s been suggested that men are more visually stimulated sexually than women, which might explain the gendered difference in the perception of dick pics. Has this been proven, or is it a widely accepted myth?
I don’t really have an answer for that. Psychology studies would argue that men’s sexual interest is aroused through visual stimulation, but how much of that is a biological aspect of men, and how much of it is social conditioning, especially in the wake of easy access to visually stimulating material like pornography? We also have to keep in mind that women’s sexuality and active engagement in seeking pleasure from the Victorian era onwards has been heavily restricted.
All of which is to say that I certainly don’t think that women can’t be aroused by visual stimulation. But I do think that what’s available to women in way of pornography and visual stimulation is pretty crap. That alone could account for women seeking stimulation via other means. Recent research has shown that women enjoy gay male pornography, with one of the reasons being that they can “choose” the perspective they enjoy — top or bottom — and that gay male pornography often engages with pleasure of both the top and bottom, whereas with heterosexual pornography, they often feel like they’re stuck in the female role — one which is usually experiencing a lot of abuse and little to no pleasure.
Based on all of this, what’s the primary motivation for guys to send dick pics?
It depends on the context. A guy sending a woman a dick pic while attempting to engage in some kind of courtship (i.e., through a dating app) versus a guy who might send a woman a dick pic because he’s angry about her political platform are two very different motivations. That said, research hasn’t been done to talk to men about why they might randomly send women dick pics, which is the next stage of this project. The data points to a lot of discussion about men’s motivations, but apart from a couple of pieces, we don’t actually know why men engage in this practice and have no data to support any hypotheses.
How does the “close-up aspect” — an erect penis pictured on its own as opposed to featuring more of the body — make the dick pic more “aggressive”?
The close-up aspect renders the dick pic as separate from a man’s body — you lose sight of who that person actually is. It’s a bit like what you see in heterosexual pornography — a lot of up close shots of the penis and the vagina and no connection to the persons to whom they belong. It’s a form of objectification in this sense, but it’s aggressive, too, because the dick pic is quite “active.” The penis plays a very active role in normative beliefs about heterosexuality and masculinity.
You write that shaming tactics and satire have become common forms of resistance to dick pics. Have any of these campaigns been successful?
Campaigns have been successful so far as showing women that they don’t necessarily have to put up with the behavior if they find the constant barrage of dick pics an issue. There’s an idea that men sending dick pics is a natural thing to happen, and women should learn to deal with it. These campaigns are providing women some confidence to say, “This isn’t okay.” They aren’t stopping the practice, so in that way they probably aren’t as effective, but it’s a start.
Would public shaming have any real social consequences?
Not unless such actions are associated with major political figures or underage persons. Whereas for women, such shaming involves things like revenge pornography, which has often led to women losing their jobs and causing major problems in their personal and social lives. On the other hand, if men get caught sending a dick pic to someone, they aren’t going to lose their job. In fact, they’ll barely get a slap on the wrist unless such images involve minors. Anthony Weiner is a good example. Had he been an everyday guy and not sending some of his dick pics to a minor, his story would’ve been very different.
Have humorous responses to dick pics from places like Bustle been effective?
It’s hard to say. Without adequate data to support whether or not incidents of dick pics have decreased, we can’t really say whether or not these kinds of humorous approaches have been effective. The humorous responses are ways to make light of the situation, but also continue to frame men sending dick pics as “no big deal.” This is problematic as it downplays women’s experiences of receiving dick pics as forms of harassment. It also downplays how society might react to men sending dick pics, which is to be dismissive of it.
And yet, you write that there are positive and transformative responses to dick pics such as Tumblrs like critiquemydickpics. How so?
One of the things we noticed in our research is the way in which the penis is set up as grotesque — something that no one wants to see. Critiquemydickpics aims to show that the penis can be erotic, desirable and beautiful, and it attempts to do so by offering an artistic take on dick pics. Nor does it limit itself to heterosexual men or cisgender male bodies, but anyone, including women, can partake in this practice.
In terms of fragility, Madeleine Holden highlights that a lot of heterosexual men seem vulnerable when it comes to their penis — the size and how it looks. This isn’t surprising, considering that most representations of the penis in contemporary society come from pornography and are often the extreme in terms of size, look and shape. As such, Holden notes that many men she encounters seem genuinely unsure if their penis is “okay.” This is a very new and challenging experience for a lot of men, though it’s something women have been experiencing for a number of decades — the scrutiny of their bodies.
Mainstream porn doesn’t help. Not just with its focus on an ideal penis, but the way it promotes that women can only get off through penetrative sex with a big cock, or that women prefer men with big cocks. Neither of those beliefs are true.