Sending an unsolicited dick pic is the digital equivalent of flashing someone on a train. Which – fairly obviously – is a terrible vibe. The only difference, in fact, is that by sending a photo you're leaving very identifiable evidence of what a creep you are. So why do men continue to do it?
That's the question researchers behind the first ever empirical study into unsolicited dick pics were trying to answer with "I'll Show You Mine so You'll Show Me Yours: Motivations and Personality Variables in Photographic Exhibitionism". Using an online survey, the team asked 1,307 respondents about their dick pic activities, and included a questionnaire measuring personality attributes like levels of narcissism and sexism.
Dr Cory Pedersen from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Canada was the principle lead on the study. "We learned that there were a number of different reasons for why men do this, but the most predominant, frequently endorsed reason was what we called a 'transactional mindset'," she explained over the phone. "Men send these images with the hope that they'll receive a similar one – a nude – in return."
"The second most commonly endorsed reason was a 'partner hunting' perspective," Dr Pedersen continued. "This involved responses like 'this is how I express my interest in someone' or 'this is a normal way of flirting'." Which would be sort of grimly funny if it wasn't so profoundly depressing.
Sophia, a 22-year-old student, told me that she's received about five unsolicited dick pics on Snapchat. "It's the younger guys, I've noticed," she said. "They might try to get your Snapchat on a night out, or if you're just walking down the street. Then they'll pop up randomly with a dick pic."
For her, the dick pics evoke a combination of feelings. "I think, 'Fuck you,' but it also makes me feel a bit of pity towards them; they feel the need to send photos of their dick out to people."
A 27-year-old bank employee called Ed told me he's "sent a good amount" of dick pics – well over 100, in fact. "I've never done it completely out of the blue, but I have sent risky ones," he said. "I've been having a dirty conversation and just gone for it." What reactions has he had? "There's been some bad ones – the conversation gets cut off there and I get blocked. One girl got really angry... I thought the conversation was going that way, so I sent one over and she threatened to post it on social media."
Dan, a 32-year-old who preferred not to divulge his profession, told me he used to send women unsolicited dick pics – "probably 30" in total – until he realised that, actually, it's not a great look, i.e. disrespectful, intimidating, potentially harmful for the recipient and just hugely tragic. He appears to have done it in an attempt to project his problems onto others.
"I think a lot of it was to do with a lack of self-worth," he said. "Any girl who'd be willing to still talk to me after doing that, I would make the assumption that they have little self-respect, therefore I'd be OK for them. But any girl who had enough self-respect to tell me to go and fuck myself would probably be too good for me. That's the mentality I had; I really lacked self-worth."
Anna, a 40-year-old trainee clinical psychologist, reported her dick pic sender to the police. "I met him on Match.com and then we went for lunch," she recalled. "He was a really charming chap, but the connection wasn't there." Six months later, he sent her a dick pic out of the blue. "I rang the police on the non-emergency number," Anna continued, "and said, I''m sure you've got better things to do, but I thought you should know about this guy.'"
The police were "respectful" and dealt with it as a domestic abuse case, but that didn't stop Anna from feeling angry and "intruded upon". "Violated is a strong word; that's not the one – but it's not far off," she said. "It's your personal space."
So what kind of men think it's OK to encroach on a woman's personal space with an out-the-blue photo of their dick? All of the study's participants were asked to respond to questions that would measure aspects of personality such as narcissism and two subsets of sexism: hostile sexism (overt prejudices against women) and benevolent sexism (the "women must be protected by men" school of thought).
"The men who send dick pics scored higher than the men who didn't on measures of narcissism, benevolent sexism and hostile sexism," Pedersen explained.
Was she surprised by the findings? "Some of the results are surprising," she said. "Some of the discourse around this suggests that men send the images because they hate women. Or some feminist discourse might suggest that this is a strategy that men use to maintain the patriarchy. But our research suggests that, yes, men who send dick pics score higher on hostile sexism and benevolent sexism – but when you ask them why they send these pictures, sexist rationales were not highly endorsed."
The research concluded that a lot of dick pic senders could be misguided rather than hateful; only around 6 percent of the sample endorsed misogynistic reasons for sending these types of images.
"It's important to remember that consent is pretty sexy," said Pedersen as we wrapped things up. "If a woman wants to see a picture of your dick, she'll ask."
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.