WIRED Takes a Good Hard Look at Dick Pics

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.

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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.”

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