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The first time I received an “unwanted penis photo” I felt a mixture of disgust and disbelief. I had recently met a guy on Tinder who seemed quite interesting, nice and even had a sense of humor. After a few days of chatting on the app, we decided together to continue our conversation on WhatsApp. I was reading in my hammock in the garden when I received the notification of his first message there: a picture of his erect penis.
Unexpected, sudden and disgusting, that image shocked me deeply.
I wanted to call him and shout that he should never have allowed himself to behave in such a way, with me or with anyone else, that he was just a loser, slimy and violent, and that his horrible dick would have rather been better cut off. Instead, I blocked him, without telling him anything, but still, I was left with the very unpleasant feeling that I had been abused.
A few months later, a stranger on Facebook decided to “delight” me with another unwanted image of his genitals. He had asked for my friendship pretending to be interested in an event I was organizing, but on the second playful banter, he sent me a very sleazy picture of his erect dick sticking out of an equally sleazy jogging pants. Despite my reaction of indignation and appalled perplexity, that time I at least had the promptness to retort: "Sorry, I'm a journalist, not an andrologist!" shortly before deleting him from my new contacts list.
I shared with my friends the absurd story of “the two guys who sent me random penis pictures” and to my amazement, I discovered that it had also happened to many of them, to some even more than once. Trying to find out more about it on the net, I discovered that thousands of unwanted pictures of penises are travelling through the ether every second to reach as many women, mostly from strangers. The sixth annual study on the attitudes and behaviors of 5,500 singles conducted by Match.com and ResearchNow in the US reported back in 2016 that 49% of women surveyed had received unwanted genital photos from a stranger, and the following year a YouGov study revealed that 27% of American Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) had sent at least one dick pic in their lifetime.
But what drives men to do these things? Do they really believe they can attract a woman’s attention with such an abusive, one-sided, pathetic and totally counterproductive gesture, even on a presumably seductive level? Do they hope, perhaps, that the recipient will respond with equally explicit photos of her own body? Or do they rather intend to generate disgust, fear and anger in her? Lastly, are they aware that they are acting out a form of sexual harassment?
“Sending a dick pic can be perceived as an attempt to experience a low-risk form of connection and intimacy,” explained addiction and trauma psychologist Sarah Davies in an interview; “Something we all have a deep, human desire for. In this manner, a man can be protected behind a very masculine physical form, without the risk of being too emotionally vulnerable. An element of fear of rejection is natural, but if that rejection is in response to a piece of flesh perhaps it is more bearable than rejection that concerns a more significant part of his identity.”
In “DTR – Define The Relationship”, the podcast produced by Tinder to address the issue of relationships in the modern world, the practice is described as “inexplicably common but with uncertain goals” when it occurs in a context other than an erotic interaction between two people consensually flirting through explicit messages or sexting.
According to the European Institute of Gender Equality (EIGE), 1 in 10 women in Europe has experienced cyber violence by the age of 15, and 7 in 10 have been victims of cyberstalking
On his blog Sex&Psychology, Harvard psychology professor Justin Lehmiller devoted an entire article to the subject. The article reads, “such behavior is a variant of exhibitionism.” Lehmiller continues, “Although most people think of exhibitionism in terms of men showing off to strangers on the underground or in a park, similar behavior can also occur online or over the phone. Regardless of the context in which it takes place, exhibitionists find shocked reactions exciting. This is related to having poor social and interpersonal skills, so some psychologists believe that exhibitionist tendencies develop as a result of the inability to establish relationships in a more conventional way.”
The study I’ll Show You Mine so You’ll Show Me Yours: Motivations and Personality Variables in Photographic Exhibitionism published in 2019 in The Journal of Sex Research attempted to outline the personality and motivations of those who send unwanted pictures of their penis by analyzing a sample of 1,087 cisgender, heterosexual men. Forty eight per cent of them (523 people between the ages of 16 and 75) said they had sent at least one dick pic in their lifetime.
Participants were asked to fill in the Narcissism Personality Inventory Scale, a questionnaire that reveals traits of sub-clinical narcissism, and the Sexual Opinion Survey, another questionnaire that determines the degree of erotophilia or erotophobia, i.e. positive or negative attitudes towards sex or certain aspects of it. Lastly, they were asked to respond to the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, a form that highlights forms of sexism in both deliberately disparaging and “benevolent” forms.
The results of these surveys confirmed that the phenomenon of dick pics is related to both narcissism and sexism, and that a certain tendency to exhibitionism, clearly present in those who expose their genitals to a stranger, may be related to negative feelings about some aspects of sexuality, increased insecurity or fears about the sexual act.
As for personal motivations, 43.6% of respondents confirmed that they act in the hope of receiving an equally explicit image in return, while 32.5% do so to approach a potential partner, hoping to arouse interest or excitement in her. Fifty per cent imagined that the recipient would feel desired by receiving that message, highlighting a possible cognitive bias that leads many men to assume that anyone would react as they do, i.e. feeling arousal at the sight of someone else’s genitals regardless of whether or not they have expressed a desire to see them.
Finally, a significant proportion of the participants stated that they act with the aim of eliciting a negative reaction, mainly shock (17%), fear (15%) or disgust (11%), confirming that this practice must be considered as sexual harassment.
Those who engage in abusive behavior towards their partners also monitor their computers in 71% of cases and 54% track their mobile phones with special software (Source: EIGE)
“Those who send these photos are not trying to interest their interlocutor in their genitals at all," clarifies Lorenzo Gasparrini, feminist philosopher interviewed by Medfeminiswyia(1). "It is, rather a form of violence that falls within the so-called camaraderie: it is a way of reassuring oneself of a certain masculine identity because one feels one can do something, exhibiting the most evident and inescapable part of one’s masculinity to whoever one wants, beyond the reaction of the recipient, which is almost irrelevant. It is actually the same dynamic that animates the Alpine soldiers who once a year hold a city hostage: they have no sexual interest in the women they harass but they are saying to their fellow soldiers: “You see? I’m male too, like you!”. The context of this behavior includes a range of harassments aimed at reassuring each other that gender identity is protected and shared. I am also referring to groups of men exchanging pictures of women and passing sexist comments: using a person’s image as you wish confirms your power to do so.”
Some women have reacted ironically and creatively to this kind of abuse, highlighting its more pathetic and ridiculous side and partially reversing the perspective. Among them, Madeleine Holden, a writer living in New Zealand who, after hundreds of unwanted ugly pictures of penises, was sent one that she described as “high quality”. She has since created the blog Critique My Dick Pic where she offers a critical analysis of any penis picture sent to her. “The site was a way to give a woman the last word on the subject,” she explained in an interview. “Often, as women, we are sent these things without any regard for how we feel, so Critique My Dick Pic was an ironic way to take back some of that control.”
Every month, Holden receives between 250 and 500 e-mails from strangers and comments on them according to their real photographic merits, taking account of technical and artistic factors such as lighting, composition, framing and posing, but never judging the condition of the sender’s body or the size of the organ.
“It started as a body positivity project, which began as a hobby but is now a job that makes up a significant part of my income,” she says. “The money comes from those who want a review on the site ($25) and those who want a private review because they don’t want pictures of their penises floating around the net ($10). I also write and speak about the various philosophical and practical implications of dick pics and I am sometimes even paid to do so.” Although hers is a project born ‘with a light heart', the essential point for her is to continue to stress that “a good penis photo only works when the recipient has asked or agreed to see it.”On 8 April 2016, Whitney Bell opened the photo exhibition “I Didn’t Ask For This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics” in Los Angeles. The exhibition featured some 200 pictures of penises received over the years from strangers or acquaintances or sent to her by friends for the occasion. The pictures were set up on a wall behind a sofa that reconstructed the interior of her home. “The dick pics will be displayed in an exhibition that feels like the inside of my home. I want you to feel as if they are in someone's private safe space, like you've been welcomed in, but that even in this space you are unsafe. That even in this warm comfortable environment they are still bombarded by male dominance and aggression. That there is no escaping the patriarchy”, she had written in the Facebook event advertising the vernissage.
(1) Interview Lorenze Gasparrini :
On everyday sexism: an interview with feminist philosopher Lorenzo Gasparrini (1/2)
On everyday sexism: an interview with feminist philosopher Lorenzo Gasparrini (2/2)
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