This article originally appeared on Broadly.
On most days, I receive up to 100 messages in my combined Instagram, Facebook and Twitter mailboxes, usually from men who want to tell me something about the way I look, the way their dicks look or to ask me questions like, “Is it safe to have sex with a woman on her period?” “Are you a whore?” “When are you coming to Milwaukee?” The unwelcome input from male strangers is such a routine, mundane part of my life as a sex columnist and woman on the internet that I barely even notice it as I go about my business: working a full-time job, texting my friends nudes, forcing myself to hydrate, and eating Cheez-Its from whichever surface presents itself. Yet I’ve always had a perverse curiosity about these men, especially the ones who reach out to me from faraway places to say: “exchange pics?” Sometimes, they send pics of their dicks, and when they do, by the way, they almost never know their angles. My DMs are graced with at least a handful of dick photos every week from men I have never met—and likely never will.
I wonder: What’s their best-case scenario? That I send them a nude and the address of my home, where I’ll wait for them in my bathtub, Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” blasting? Are they out of their minds? I’m the kind of woman who’s only ever comfortable getting hit on by Wawa hoagie-ordering kiosks asking me if I want extra meat—but that’s not the reason why I’m scandalized by an unsolicited dick pic. First of all, sending your genitalia to strange women cannot possibly count as “hitting on” them. Moreover, I wonder how these men view their outreach initiatives. Do they think of it as a somewhat bold but possibly effective move, one that costs them zero and is still arousing, whether or not I respond? It turns out—yes.
When I receive a photo DM in Twitter or Instagram from someone I don’t follow, I’m given the option to press the blurred box to see the photo, or decline the message entirely. As a sex scientist and self-saboteur, I always click. When it’s a penis, I delete right away, almost instinctively, and then spend days meditating on the man attached to the member. What made him like that? What did he want to accomplish—and has he ever succeeded? And why didn’t he kick that dirty shirt out of the frame before taking the photo? (A little art direction goes a long way.) This week, I received a blurred photo from a man, as well the proposition, “exchange nudes?” I clicked on the photo to see it, even though it was obviously going to be genitalia. And it was genitalia, indeed.
I needed answers.
(By the way, before I get any further, because I know people drop off as articles plod on: A good rule of thumb for fellas reading along at home: No one ever wants to see a penis they didn’t ask to see or express interest in seeing as part of some long-running, consensual sex game.)
First I wanted to know: Had this guy ever sent his penis to a random woman before, and if so, had it ever worked out for him? His answer shook me to my core.
That’s a 2/5 success rate. Forty percent. WHAT? So this behavior had been validated? I couldn’t tell if he was just trying to save face and/or impress me with the persuasive power of his penis. But now I had to figure out what “success” meant in this context.
He’s right about something—sending a dick does cut through the clutter. I do receive a lot of messages, and I don’t respond to most of them, though I try to read as many as possible so I can get a good pulse on The Culture. But what shocked me here is that he thought this was his best foot—the penis is the foot of the groin, the Florida of the pelvis—to put forward to build the foundations of a casual sex relationship.
He said this wasn’t a routine strategy for him, and he didn’t necessarily consider me a “random woman” either, because of my sex column. (He says the other “four” women have been cam girls or sex workers in some capacity.) This bummed me out—a reminder of the pervasive perception that people who deal with sex professionally are unworthy of basic decency and invite off-the-clock advances. Men on the Internet have the distinct luxury of viewing me as not a real person, but rather a sounding board for their one-way flirtations and innovations in setting up jerk-offs. (Men are always trying to disrupt the jerk-off space.) If my years writing about sex have taught me anything, it’s that many men become aroused at a woman’s mere mention of sex, let alone her intensely descriptive columns where, quite often, she’s putting items inside of her. So he decided that the possibility of me being turned on by his unsolicited penis was more likely than the possibility of me being upset or disgusted. Or, even if he knew the odds were stacked against him, he was still willing to risk me being hurt.
I told him that receiving a random dick photo, to me, felt dehumanizing. He was apologetic. We had a back-and-forth, and he was honest with me about why he did it: He’d genuinely wanted to set up a regular sex thing with me. Encouraged by our hour-long conversation, he asked if we could still salvage something. I said no, he’d botched it, but thanked him for taking the time to explain the psychology behind his strategy.
Time and time again, the men I confront about sending me unsolicited dick pics are unwilling to see the act as harassment
It’s worth mentioning that random men don’t have a monopoly on unsolicited dick pics. Men you know will send them to you, too. In early 2013, after a week of flirty back-and-forths, a man I’d matched with on Tinder sent me footage of his penis ejaculating, unprompted. A video! We’d never met in person – nor would we, until last year, when I asked him to meet me in a Brooklyn dog park so I could ask him: “Why though?”
“Something about you just turned me on and I felt really comfortable with you,” he said. I asked him if me writing about sex had felt like an invitation. “Partly,” he said. “But I think we have a lot in common. It was more than sexual in terms of comfort. I feel like you’re not a judgmental person and pretty open.”
Time and time again, the men I confront about sending me unsolicited dick pics are unwilling to see the act as harassment; they insist it’s an unconventional courting method, at least until I take the time out of my day to tell them, “This feels bad.” And then I feel even worse for losing two minutes I could have spent counting my pug’s face folds.
The vast majority of women I spoke with for this article who reported receiving random dicks also told me it feels awful and violating, and I can corroborate that it does. One woman told me via Twitter that a man she barely knew in high school reappeared years later, via dick pic. “I come in from a run after a great day at work,” she said. “I'm making tacos. I look down at my phone and see I have a DM on Instagram and there it is. I ask him if there had been a mistake, hoping he'd be like, 'Oh god, wrong person or something.' He said no. I say, ‘I'd like an explanation for this behavior then.’ He said, ‘Come over and find out.’ I went off. He tried to blame it on being drunk. Then he gave the line: ‘I don’t like myself very much right now. Now you see why.’"
This man genuinely thought he was going to get laid. And when she said no, instead of apologizing for his behavior, he centered himself as the victim. To many men, it seems, sending a dick feels lower risk than, say, trying to solicit sex or romance in more vulnerable ways, like with words or Instagram story views.
“Sending out dick pics can be seen as an attempt at experiencing a 'low risk' form of connection and intimacy," psychologist Sarah Davies told Esquire. "Something we all have a deep, human, yearning for. But, in this way, it can be protected behind a very masculine physical form, without the risks of being too emotionally vulnerable. An element of fear of rejection is natural, but if that rejection is in response to a lump of flesh, that is perhaps more bearable than the rejection being about a more meaningful part of his identity."
In a blog post cited by The Guardian, a Harvard Psychology professor suggests that most likely explanation for the dick pic phenomenon “is that men are simply misperceiving women’s interest in receiving photos of their junk,” though exhibitionism can fuel it. This checks out.
In my research for this piece, I did hear one inspiring story of a woman taking the power back after seeing dicks she didn’t asked to see. She managed to turn unsolicited dick photos into a business, selling the men who sent them to her a “naughty” subscription to her private Snapchat account and making good money off them. “The random Twitter dick DMs is how I find people to buy the subscription,” she told me.
I think that’s beautiful. How rare is it that everybody wins?