Article Thumbnail

The Great Solicited Dick Pic Experiment

What you can learn about male shame, platonic nudes and gender expectations from sending your boner to strangers who actually want to see it

“I could have used a heads-up,” Maddie, my ever-reasonable girlfriend, tells me hours after learning of my decision to share a photo of my dick with dozens of people, most of whom I’ve never met. “And then I get home from work, and you can’t even pay attention to me — because you’re still sending your dick to strangers on Twitter?”

No, it’s not the Friday evening I’d imagined for us, either. My head is swimming with caffeine and adrenaline; my thumbs are cramped from the repetitious effort of responding to wave after wave of DMs requesting the same single image of my erect penis. Click to attach a photo, select the dick pic from the camera roll, add a short message, repeat. There’s not enough time to personalize what I’m writing, unless I know the recipient well, so my phone begins to auto-suggest the phrase I’ve used over and over: “Thanks for soliciting!”

This is insane. And I should have told Maddie. I apologize to her, badly, doing a stupid voice that I hope makes it funny, and then, seeing the look she gives me, I try again, with better results. I show her some of the feedback I’ve gotten: not the appraisals of my dick, but the heartfelt words from people explaining why it was nice to see it. I’m as shocked by the tenderness of these private dialogues as I am by the avalanche of interest in my little project. “Am I too late?” people ask in their messages.

That morning, I had publicly announced, on Twitter, that I’d happily share a dick pic with anyone over the age of 18 who directly asked for it.

And no, it’s not too late.

I’m now deep into what I’d pitched, somewhat unseriously, as the Great Solicited Dick Pic Experiment — an effort to uncover the potential value of male nudity on a platform where it frequently epitomizes aggression or harassment. In truth, though, the story actually began with a tweet I’d sent months prior, with no idea what it would unleash: a communal, multifaceted investigation into the variable norms, secret hangups and enduring disagreements that surround a fleshy tube attached to half of humanity. By the end, I’d dispatched my dick to about 350 individuals who’d requested it.

One lesson here, I think, is that jokes are a way of telling the truth.

* * * * *

Christmas of 2018 turned out to be a fateful day for me — as a man, as a writer and as a dumbass on the internet. Obviously hungover and bored after my family opened presents, I logged on to Twitter and posted the stupidest thing that came to mind, driven in part by the idle horniness that comes with being apart from your significant other for the holidays — but also by the existential weirdness of staying at your parents’ house as an adult male. What can I say: I like attention, and a bit of mild whorishness fit the bill right then.   

As you might well hope, I had no intention of following through on this threat. Some things are worth a Twitter suspension (telling a neo-Nazi to “suffocate in a cloud of Jewish farts,” for example), but indecent exposure isn’t one of them. Yet a couple of dudes who have been known to get flirty in my replies appeared to encourage a dick reveal. One actually went on to remind me, every month or so, of my silly promise to drop the D. Finally, on a whim, I messaged him the dick pic he’d been angling for — one I’d taken and sent to Maddie while she was at work.

Why? I was confident he’d appreciate it, for one thing. He also makes me laugh, and that puts me in a giving mood. We’ve never met, and we live clear across the country from one another, but we have the rapport or chemistry that solidifies a mutual follow. My hopeless heterosexuality was beside the point here; upon receipt, he was pleasantly surprised and complimentary.

And so I began to understand the “casual nude,” born out of the innocent digital thirst we show toward those we haven’t encountered in physical space and the newfound simplicity of sharing images in the smartphone age. When we only know someone as their avatar, posts and selfies, we’re naturally intrigued about the rest — not only what’s under their clothes but how they are, what it’s like to know them in real life. Nudity can arouse or titillate, of course, but I’ve long believed that the urge to mentally undress people doesn’t derive from sheer horniness; we have such over-mediated ideas about what the body can or should be that it’s a relief to see the ordinariness of a human form existing in space, without filter.

Anyway, I’ve since had a look at my first admirer’s dick, too, and it’s nice enough that I’m all the more flattered that he liked mine. Moreover, these first overtures brought me to the realization that I have no problem being vulnerable in this way with a veritable stranger who wants to see what I’m packing — at least not in a sealed channel. In fact, the pseudo-anonymity of such an interaction bestows a protective freedom that may be lacking in an encounter with a close acquaintance, or a physically intimate moment. Hooking up with a genuine crush provokes a host of anxieties. Here, the barrier is lower, and so are the stakes.    

Likewise, this is a contributing factor in the scourge of unsolicited dick pics, where the urge to violate someone’s field of vision with an abrupt and typically artless view of your boner is obeyed because hey, what’s she going to do about it — call the cops? It’s the same logic that gives us trolls and “debate me” dudes, who basically get off on the power dynamic of interrupting conversations that have nothing to do with them. Given this state of affairs, and the correspondingly low reputation of dick pics in general, the opportunity to offer a solicited one (with no obligation to reply in kind, or at all, and no assumption of sexualized intent on either side) sounded perfectly novel.

It is, additionally, a sad measure of my privilege that this was an open avenue. A woman, anyone who identifies as queer or nonbinary or a person of color would face nastier repercussions for what I did, and likely endure accusations of slutty, narcissistic behavior, plus the kind of contemptuous objectification that rarely afflicts me, with all my demographic luck. They would be at a greater risk of having their nudes repurposed with malicious intent. And a hetero woman journalist might well be characterized as a one-trick pony sex writer who relies on stunts for relevance, whereas I’ve avoided that dismissal in spite of years spent writing about assembling and using a homemade fleshlight, trying herbal erection teas I bought online and a passion for messy period sex. (Which is to say: There’s a discomfort that comes with reveling in — and being celebrated for — acts of exposure that would tarnish other people’s careers.)  

The Solicited Dick Pic Experiment was, in a sense, the culmination of every shameless and/or humiliating conceit I had previously turned into paid, professional content, and it meant putting everything on the line — stripping away artifice to obtain an idea of what a naked man can mean in 2019.  

* * * * *

The initial wave of response was chaotic. As I anticipated, a handful of gay male followers were the first to DM and request the dick in no uncertain terms — the GIF of Mo’Nique saying “I would like to see it” got significant play. Some people were both impressed and baffled by what they considered a bizarre showing of courage; others commented that it sounded like a trap, asked other MEL staffers if I was serious or worried I’d simply lost my mind. Soon enough, with the aid of the brave first repliers, it became clear that I was following through on every ask, typically with the photo and the caption “Thanks for soliciting!” As momentum picked up, my thumbs started to hurt from sending DM after DM. By early afternoon, I was quickly falling behind.  

With the project gaining traction — chatter in the media industry evidently helped it along — a few critics did pop up. Two or three chided me for using faux “wokeness” as a cover for my exhibitionism, which I found odd, given that the exhibitionist’s disorder is specifically predicated on lack of consent in the showing of one’s genitals. (I also, for the record, achieve no paraphilic gratification from disseminating images of my junk, however liberating it may be to set them loose.) Another naysayer said folks could visit Pornhub if they really wanted to familiarize themselves with the male equipment, ignoring that the videos on these sites place the dick in an explicitly erotic context that my own dick pic deliberately did not offer. Controversially, a woman chimed in to say that “no woman wants to see your dick,” a sentiment many women pushed back against — including Maddie, who kindly supported her boyfriend’s idiot endeavor, notwithstanding his thoughtlessness in failing to inform her of it. (I love her a lot.)     

The claim that straight women are always repulsed by dicks and only engage with them grudgingly struck multiple nerves with women who see this argument as undermining their own agency. It stigmatizes any sex involving a penis — and implicitly shames women (note the carveout for gay men) with an aesthetic regard for the organ. It illuminates the issue of the “nude gap” that vexes women who supply the men they like with arousing self-portraits but gain scant returns, instead fielding sudden, grainy, ground-beef cocks from bros they barely acknowledge. The desired men refuse to be vulnerable for them, while the wrong ones assault their eyes in pursuit of dominance.

On my side of things, it was a glimpse into the barely spoken but widely received modern wisdom among straight men that dicks are fundamentally ugly — that a female partner who takes pleasure in stroking, sucking or inserting it is somehow conning us, or at best, pretending out of pity. (It should be noted that there are plenty of guys who adore their own dicks, although that self-worth may take a backseat to self-satisfaction.) A trans woman, after viewing the dick pic, gave me a secondary vantage on the self-loathing complication when she asked, “Why a hard dick? Seriously, do all men send only hard dick pics?” I had to admit, the prospect of sending a flaccid shot was appalling to me, an image I want to conceal, since I think of my dick as unsightly and defenseless in that state. My solicitor informed me, however, that there’s something to recommend the strategy of a guy who poses flaccid and invites you to get him hard.             

Meanwhile, I was receiving more requests from women. In fact, the people now flooding my DMs represented all gender identities and sexual orientations, and they expressed an incredible range of reasons for wanting to see the photo. Not a few hoped to find out what I was up to, and if I was really prepared to share the dong. “Sure why not, send it along. Now I’m curious about what you’re doing here,” one man wrote. “No way,” marveled another. Other, apparently straight guys sounded enthusiastic on what they regarded as the bravery or courage I’d shown, sometimes couching this sentiment in macho jargon — I had “the balls” to do this, etc. — and wished they were as self-assured.

Women, by comparison, frequently spoke of academic enticement. A female friend explained, “I love this experiment, and as someone who is generally physical, I like knowing about the bodies of my friends!” Another woman said she was eager to indulge in healthy smut: “Little pondered fact — mothers of young children like myself are an extremely horny demographic as we spend almost all of our time in service to others, plus society tells us that was must be chaste and de-sexualized the moment we bear children, except for in the bedroom with a monogamous partner,” she wrote in her request. “If that arrangement stops working for us, it’s considered shameful and incredibly taboo. As a result I am achieving near teenaged levels of horniness.”

“It’s interesting and sad,” she concluded. She’s right. And I didn’t have a clue.

* * * * *

I’ll spare you the bulk of the dick-praise, or the generous stuff people said of my writing — I think it put people more at ease to slide in with an unrelated compliment. I was, however, amazed that no one insulted my privates, even for a laugh; the lone negative review was an underwhelmed “Meh” from a woman, while a handful of observers went with comments along the lines of “Looks like a dick all right!” or “Congrats on the normal dick!” I enjoyed these “attaboys” and “good job” replies for the way they collapsed my willingness to pose nude into a genetic accomplishment, as if I’d sculpted my own penis out of clay, or raised and nourished it like a plant. Make no mistake, this validation still felt good, however ultimately hollow it was, since the appendage described isn’t my own achievement, and because, here in my mid-30s, I’m not entirely ignorant of its appeal. “Very pretty, but you knew that,” one man aptly summarized.

Was this all mere vanity on my part?

A woman posed a tricky question on that score: “Would u have sent 300+ ppl this pic if u didn’t know u had a perfectly good dick?” Probably not, I confessed, yet it was a leap of faith all the same. I was trusting the internet — the internet! — to be gentle.

Growing up, I said, I’d hated my dick; I got in the habit of sitting down to pee so I wouldn’t catch so much as a glimpse. I can’t quite account for this bodily shame apart from my broader childhood anxieties or insecurities, and a funny thing in my life has been how it took decades to even accept that it’s an average dick — or not grotesque, at any rate. Even as a sexually active adult, I can be painfully guarded and reticent in the bedroom, a nervous wreck on the first few encounters with a new partner. Despite my patient efforts, and the affections of others, I can’t completely erase the fear that my dick is, fundamentally, a problem. I wonder if the obverse of the beauty complex inflicted on women — be flawless, be radiant, be the focus of a collective gaze — is the inkling that men aren’t worth turning your head for. That we are the inelegant sex, useless as specimens, merely functional by design. It’s not that anyone tells you this, but as women suffer excess scrutiny for their looks, men may assume they don’t deserve to take pride in theirs. At the far edge of this trouble, you have the so-called incels, who debase themselves as hideous rejects of a Darwinian machine. I’m sure it’s never helped that homophobia pervades American youth, silencing gay perspective, and for straight boys, coding male genitalia as inherently repulsive — something to be avoided at all costs.    

Maybe this harebrained stunt of mine was an effort to argue, to myself and others carrying those misconceptions, that this just isn’t the case. That a dick is a dick, and any size or shape will have its fans — and men are overly preoccupied with how they look, anyway. On social media and throughout my time as a writer, I’ve routinely shared too much of my sex life, my face, my body and the countless vectors of my horniness, but this would be the optimum test of how calm I am inside my skin. It’s the opposite of that injunction to frightened public speakers — instead of picturing the audience naked, I’d be naked for a murky, undefined audience. If those parameters resembled a nightmare, well, therein lay the challenge.

* * * * *         

But that’s awfully melodramatic, isn’t it. More fascinating, in my opinion, were the odd incidentals of my photo that drew attention: Multiple respondents complimented my clean hands or fingernails; there was discussion of my grandma-style bed comforter (Kate Spade, on sale at Bed Bath & Beyond!); one woman dinged me for distracting background clutter (a common error according to MEL contributor and premier dick pic critic Madeleine Holden, by the way); a dude wanted to know where I had bought my comfy-looking boxer-briefs (American Eagle); connoisseurs were happy to note that I have an eye for proper lighting. Perhaps most unexpectedly, a guy applauded the skill of the doctor who had performed my circumcision. Once this detail was out, another man messaged, “All right, I have to see this circumcision.” He added, “I have a long-standing curiosity about friends’ penises that I think is pretty common with gay men but for a long time was only satisfied by seeing friends in porn (or by hooking up with friends).”

I was equally unprepared for the viral aspect of promising a dick pic to anyone who asked. By Friday night, the buzz itself was prompting inquiries — strangers had heard of the dick pic deal and were now concerned over being left out. Participation was, in a sense, its own reward, as was the discovery that I (or anyone) would fire off a nude to anyone seeking it. An especially amusing thread saw a friend group attempting to figure out whose dick had become a topic of Twitter discussion, and then, when they got an answer, debating which of them would solicit the pic for all to scrutinize. Indeed, the photo was now traveling in ways unknown to me. On Saturday night, a friend was able to produce it despite not directly asking me for it, and that dude had gotten it from a different mutual friend who also hadn’t gotten it straight from me. This type of sharing makes it all but impossible to say exactly how many eyes landed on my dick as a result of the experiment, though I can tell you that approximately two-thirds of the 350 direct messages came from men, the remaining third from women.

As for a sexuality ratio — the dick-positive v. dick-ambivalent — honestly, who knows? But women, bisexual people and gay men were quick to remark that among their social circles, it’s perfectly common to trade nudes with no more than platonic recognition, or even for constructive criticism if a friend is choosing which photo to send their latest match on a dating app. I developed the impression that this form of networking provided a means of saying I see you, you matter to me and you look amazing whenever someone needs to hear that to reinforce the self-esteem of a whole community. I guess the only folks not doing this are straight men, who insist on giving dick pics a bad name by plastering them where they shouldn’t. These photos wouldn’t be seen as toxic if hetero men largely swapped them within their own cliques for framing advice and approving judgments like “Cool dick, bro!” In that fraternal utopia, they might even be able to shed the harmful mindset that defines a dick as an unattractive blunt-force tool.            

Though I didn’t flatter myself by imagining I was doing anything for the greater good of the internet, let alone society, I found quite a few exchanges not only fun but genuinely touching. “I feel….. extremely shy about asking for this but uh, I guess I’d like to see that dick pic?” one man wrote, afterward appending: “Thanks for being my first one of these!” Another dude, post-dick, told me he’d gone to the same college I had; a woman related that her mom is a professor there. “Thank you for sharing!” exclaimed another woman. “This is the most wholesome dick pic experience I’ve had, tbh.”

Then there was this affecting story from a woman who didn’t actually solicit the dick but liked the idea: “There are revenge photos of me somewhere in the deep recesses of the Internet thanks to my dating an abusive POS in [high school],” she wrote. “Initially I felt so much shame and stigma over it — this was back in the early aughts, before sharing nudes was pretty common. As I’ve gotten older I care less and less about it, but when folks hear about it they go, ‘Oh I’m so sorry, how embarrassing,’ ‘How do you not constantly worry’ and shit like that. … It was nice to see someone be unashamed and willing to share. I’m not saying you’ve fixed nude shame for the whole world. But for me at least, it reinforced my attitude that I’m not some gross, awful woman for not only being on board with consenting nudes, but also not insane for not caring that her past nudes are somewhere out of her control.”

* * * * *

On and on it went. You had the lesbian who wanted to get a sense of what dicks are like, and the straight guy who (half-jokingly, I surmise) said he wanted to gauge whether his was average. Married couples looked at my dick together — and thanked me for the naughty thrill of it. A furry replied by “barking” happily at my dick, then sending his own, with mine displayed on his computer monitor in the background. A couple of women sent reciprocal nudes as well, and one vowed to send my dick to any asshole pressing her for photos. Sure, one guy liked the dick pic enough to start bombarding me with lots of his own racy content — including a nine-panel grid of varying dick shots, as if they comprised the Brady Bunch — while demanding additional material from me. But he was certainly the exception in this crowd; the great majority were respectful, polite and charmingly inquisitive. Some even voiced a kind of guilt that they weren’t matching me, nude for nude, as the regular transactional etiquette would dictate. What could I possibly be getting out of this, they wondered, if not a parallel disclosure?

I suppose my end of the bargain was the privilege of composing this piece — and of getting to know both friends and strangers better while proving that I’m really past my old neuroticism and squeamishness. I have to extend my sincere thanks to everyone who took part, both for your openness and for lifting me over that last hurdle. You have, moreover, answered a ludicrous question: Can a man blast out hundreds of dick pics to people he’s never met without being problematic?

You, dear reader, have surely decided that for yourself. But in any case, the man should really warn his girlfriend first, lest he be canceled in the most heartbreaking fashion, immediately and justifiably dumped. My biggest debt of gratitude, then, is to Maddie, who even now is waiting for me to wrap this up so we can go out to dinner and talk about literally anything else. Thank you, my love, for your patience and forgiveness — you’re far more important to me than my dick is.