Warning! Academia ahead!!!!
This was a paper I wrote for an undergraduate university course on feminist communication. It is NOT a beginner feminist friendly read, and is full of academic style writing and references concepts such as the “male gaze” that I had to assume the reader understood. You have been warned. If you do intend to read it, however, you might just discover something about how the dick pic works and why it happens! It’s not all very good news, but it is pretty informative. I’ve kept it mostly the same and just made some edits for readability. As such, my in-text APA citations have been reduced to make this a slightly easier read, but I will provide my bibliography at the end. Please keep in mind, this was written out of curiosity and interest but was also written by a very tired student that was required to also use the course material (this is also pretty much the only reason why I’ve had to reference something published by Aziz Ansari). Other things that may trigger you, reader, include a mention of the dick pic as a form of rape, sexual harassment, intimidation, men exerting power, and so on. This paper does not hold back, but it is scientific in how it explains all of these things. You have been warned!
Having said all of that, if you’re still here to read it, I really hope you enjoy the read. ❤
Term Paper: The Dick Pic – Examining Sexting and Where The Unwanted Appendages Come From
In today’s digital world, one does not need to be on any kind of digital dating site to find themselves on the receiving end of an expected or unexpected dick pic – social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat with its inherently convenient self-destruction of images upon opening, are all sources that men and women can use to send random messages and solicit nude images from strangers with varying levels of perceived intimacy and privacy and/or security. The digital realm is one where consensual sexting is a good thing that can supposedly add spice to relationships, and yet a traumatising event if images are sent without consent. Further still, it appears that there’s starkly different information that is being published when it comes to looking at men and women’s sexting practices. So is sexting good or bad? Is the dick pic welcome or not? Is it cheating? Why do people sext, and perhaps most bewildering, why does it seem like some men love sending disembodied images of their phalluses?
The answers are varying, as are the definitions of sexting. Further, amidst all of this, if we are to talk about connection in a digital society, we must note that outside of North America, there are still parts of the world where the internet is still new, such as in rural parts of India, where 2G internet has only arrived in the previous few years as have cell phones for individuals, rather than a shared device for a family (Kesvani, 2018), which would be akin to a North American family’s experience with the computer first arriving in the home in the 1990s and 2000s. These late arrivals to the digital world, according to Kesvani’s discovery, are still learning to navigate how to interact online in ways that the modern world already takes as a given and find themselves confused when they are blocked for their tentative attempts to communicate. Further still, it may be possible that through The Online Disinhibition Effect (Suler, 2005), sexting and internet technologies create the sense of “respite” or freedom from the day to day mundane, and a chance at sexual expression. Clearly, the world of digital relationships, selfies and sexting, the dick pic or “nudes”, and technology are all rather nebulously tangled together with rules that can seem bendable and very fine lines that can be blurred. This paper, through an attempt to make sense of an array of different sources and perspectives, will argue that sexting (both in the welcome consented form and the unwelcome dick pic) is primarily used by people of all genders as a method of disinhibition and respite from their day to day; it is a way of portraying themselves in manner they wish to be portrayed in – though that’s not always a good thing.
In order to begin discussing sexting, first, a definition is required. Sexting can be interpreted in various ways. To Amy Adele Hasinoff (2012), sexting is defined as “the practice of sending sexually explicit images or text through mobile phones or via internet applications”, yet she also aims to present sexting as a form of “media production” (in which the image in a sext can be considered content in the same manner that social media content producers have ownership over their private images), particularly in the context of teenage girls. But multiple other definitions do exist, such as three different definitions found in Rebecca Adams’ 2014 Huffington Post article on the “insidious and adulterous world of sexting”. Instead this article, through offering multiple definitions of sexting, essentially demonstrates that sexting means different things to different people. While the premise is the same, an alternative definition differentiates itself by stating that “true” sexting occurs within the context of a longer exchange, rather than a one-off act that may simply be dismissed as perverted behaviour. Adams’ many sources offer a third definition: that sexting is not sexy texting or messages, but strictly involves the exchange of images. For the purposes of this paper, sexting will be defined as the transmission and/or exchange of sexual images, with consent. Random unsolicited dick pics could also be considered sexts, but they are at heart an inherent violation of consent. This concept is excellently illustrated by Bahukhandi (2017): “the idea of an unsolicited dick pic is similar to flashing a person’s genital organs … what one needs to understand is that when you send someone an unsolicited dick pic, you violate their consent”.
Consent is one of the key differences in true sexting, as well as in sexting that is not a form of adultery. Bahukhandi writes, “violation of consent is a phenomenon that is practiced both in the offline and online worlds,” and that in the case of an unsolicited image, it not only violates consent but also, “the shared content could be obscene, offensive and traumatising to [the receiver],” whereas participants in sexting that is done with mutual consent are responsible for their own actions and reactions. Similarly, the Adams article on sexting and cheating states that it is the act of lying to a partner that turns sexting into cheating, and not the physical contact (or lack of) with someone outside of the relationship. She adds that with discussion, “some couples may decide that sexting outside the relationship is OK, as long as it stays within certain parameters”. This emphasis on consented upon sexting can be seen as a sex-positive approach – so long as there is informed consent, sexting is okay and can be seen as fun and sexy. In fact, Hasinoff too argues that sexting should be viewed as fun and flirty not just for adults, for whom sexting is celebrated as a way to spice up a relationship, but that the same reason exists for why teens are sexting too.
So why do people sext? What inspires this behaviour? In order to answer this, we need to first examine selfie behaviour (key to the image portion of sexting), the gaze, and, The Online Disinhibition Effect, written about by John Suler (2005). Suler writes about several factors of which a variety come into play when we are online and that contribute to “disinhibition”, which leads to us behaving differently online than we do in real life (such as trolling, sharing selfies, or perhaps being more open to discussion of topics we normally would not discuss – such as sexting!). The first is Dissociative Anonymity, in which one’s identity can be partially or completely hidden online. This anonymity leads to the “online self” becoming a “compartmentalised self”. A practical use of this is demonstrated in Hasinoff’s article on teens and sexting, in which online anonymity “may help provide girls, queer teens, and other marginalized youth, in particular, find a refuge from some of the stigmas and restrictions they experience at home and at school … which in turn provides an important way to connect with communities and romantic partners, find information, and gain confidence”.
Next, Invisibility is defined by Suler as giving “people the courage to go places and act in ways that they otherwise would not.” This is different from anonymity in that rather than the concealment of identity, invisibility seeks to address the lack of visuals – in text, we cannot see or hear the other person. Therefore, even if “everyone’s identity [is] known, physical invisibility may create the disinhibition effect. People do not have to worry about how they look or sound when they type a message, or about how others look or sound in response.”
Third, Asynchronicity refers to the fact that in online environments, people do not react to each other at the same time, but rather can take hours, days, or even weeks to reply. Solipsistic Introjection is another factor, in which:
“reading another person’s message might be experienced as a voice within one’s head … Within the safety of the intrapsychic world, people feel free to say and do things they would not in reality. … In this projecting of voice, and along with it, elements of one’s self, into the other person’s text, the conversation may be experienced unconsciously as talking to or with oneself, which feels safer than talking with others.”
Further, Dissociative Imagination is defined as creating our online self as a separate imaginary or fictional person in our minds, rather than real. And finally, Attenuated Status and Authority suggests that in cyberspace, traditional authority figures are not given the same weight and are instead viewed as peers. These factors can come together in various combinations to become the disinhibition we experience in the digital realm, and answers the more psychoanalytic version of “why” some people might be willing to sext – by separating the experience from their day to day lives, sexting can appear consequence free and fun.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by Holiday, Lewis, Nielsen, Anderson & Elinzano in 2016 found that while selfies inherently are a way of portraying ourselves in the manner we wish to be portrayed in, there were three major archetypal groups of selfie takers: “The Communicators,” “The Self-Publicists,” and “The Autobiographers”. The “Communicators” main intent is to take selfies to engage in conversation with other people – both the viewer of the selfie and the people within it. The “Autobiographers” focus is on authoring their own story in the name of self-discovery. This is potentially one reason behind why one may not only take a selfie but share nude or semi-nude images of themselves, as was the case in Tiidenberg & Gómez Cruz’s 2015 study of women with NSFW Tumblr blogs where they self-published images of themselves. Tiidenberg & Cruz noted that their semi-nude selfies “shape their ways of knowing, understanding and experiencing their bodies”, which is similar to the intention behind which the Autobiographer archetype may take selfies in the more mundane nonsexual realm. Finally, the “Self Publicists” are more interested in sharing photos of themselves, controlling their personal image, and can be considered a more “one-way” form of communication than the communicators, who aim to engage. It’s the final self-publicist archetype that is interesting – while all three are subject to the male gaze, this one seems more pervasive in popular culture, with famous models such as Kim Kardashian following a “self-publicist” model of selfie-taking and uploading while also being subjected to the gaze for their “liberated” images.
Dubrofsky & Wood’s (2015) discussion of Kim Kardashian highlights that women are seen as constantly provocative of the gaze, and of “exposing” or “flaunting” their bodies, while male bodies are seen as “controlling” representations of their appearance. They conclude that while for male celebs, Twitter serves as nothing more than an emotional tool, for female celebrities Twitter authenticates them as willing sexual objects. This clear disconnect between the perception of male bodies and female bodies presented on social media ties into another point, as presented by Tiidenberg & Gómez Cruz: “While we are mandated to look at naked bodies by our sexualized visual culture, this mandate only applies to easily commodifiable bodies that fit the narrow standards. Being nude in a (semi-)public way is not an allowed practice for everyone and especially not for people whose bodies transgress the consumer culture’s norms of appearances.” So for some, sexy selfies and sexting may actually be a form of self-expression that subverts normal consumer culture – and in doing so provides them with a respite from the images they see in their day to day of what normative bodies “should” look like.
Of course, sexting is not strictly about self-expression for self-understanding or for subversion of normative bodies, sexting and discussions of sex in the digital realm can be a positive or empowering experience. It is likely that sexting continues to become a form of communication in which sex can be safely negotiated because of the rise of apps like Tinder. Silgardo (2015) and Ansari (2016) both note that online dating was previously viewed as something for someone who had failed at “normal” dating until Tinder made online “dating” cool again. In fact, Silgardo proposes that in India, apps such as Tinder act as a catalyst for casual sex in addition to facilitating it, and that dating apps “have taken hook-up culture mainstream [in cities] … [because] there’s no confusion. Everyone knows what they’re using Tinder [for]”.
This clarity of “why” makes it easier for some to express their needs – Hasinoff’s research on teen girls and sexuality suggests that because of their marginalisation through age and gender (and in some cases by race, class, ability, and/or sexuality), they may struggle to talk about safer sex practices, sexual needs, and sexual desires. Hasinoff goes on to discuss studies that suggest that “teenage mobile phone use in dating relationships suggests that girls might be more assertive when communicating through texting than speaking face-to-face,” which is reflected in the pro-sexting articles Hasinoff examines that are aimed at adults. “Here lack of inhibition [provided by digital technology] is not positioned as a cause for concern but as an important feature of sexual health and clear communication of needs and desires”.
It appears, however, that hegemonic gender plays a role in what content people sext and why. The Adams article on sexting and infidelity paints a slightly less rosy picture that depends on the gender of the sexter. For men, “either they’re hoping eventually to have sex with their sexting partner, or they’re trying to get masturbation material and have no intention of actually hooking up … male sexters don’t feel like they’re missing something from their relationship – they just think that what their partner doesn’t know won’t hurt them,”. Women, on the other hand, may be looking for signs that her sexting partner finds her attractive and interesting, rather than simply seeking out the sexy photo. However, despite these general trends, sexting allegedly boils down to people seeking a feeling of excitement and an erotic experience that is outside of their relationships, or outside of their normal day to day lives – a disinhibited respite from reality.
So what then, should one make of the unconsented, unsolicited dick pic? This too is a respite and method of self-portrait that is desired by the photo taker. Bahukhandi writes, “Some flashers say they’re ‘turned on’ or that they do it to indicate that they could ‘keep you very happy’ with the size they have to offer or a straight out ‘I want to have sex with you’ … Sending unsolicited dick pics reek of male entitlement, where men believe that they have the right to show people their genitalia even when unasked for, and also believe that said recipients are happy to receive them!”
In addition to the stench of male entitlement, it’s clear that the Online Disinhibition Effect means that these senders do not feel there are any negative consequences to their actions, such as a violation of privacy or consent. It is this violation of consent that leads “others who had the unfortunate experience of an unsolicited dick pic [describe] their reactions as ‘disgusted’, ‘shocked’, ‘confused’, ‘horrible’, ‘uncomfortable’, among others,” adds Bahukhandi. This is where the line is crossed, where sexting as a respite is no longer fun, flirtatious and empowered, but problematic in it’s disinhibited nature. Hayley Gleeson (2016) dives further into the heart of why men are inspired to send dick pics in an unsolicited manner, noting that for many women, the unwanted appendages are a part of daily digital life.
Gleeson’s article paints a darker picture of the unsolicited dick pic, suggesting that in some cases it is genuinely a form of sexual harassment and intimidation, as well as of marking territory and pushing boundaries, and of a sense of confidence and pride tied to the penis.
“Of the 600 women aged 16-19 who took part in the survey [by Plan International and Our Watch in Australia], 58% agreed girls often received unwanted sexually explicit material, while 51% said girls were often pressured to take and share ‘sexy’ photos. At the same time, a strong majority (81.5%) said it was not ok for a boyfriend to ask for naked pics,”.
Gleeson also quotes Whitney Bell, who showcased 200 unsolicited phallic images she had received in an art exhibition:
“‘It’s not about sex. It’s about power,’ Whitney Bell told Vice recently. ‘It’s about these guys wanting to exert that control. These guys, they get off knowing that they forced some girl to see it … It’s like screaming at a woman from a car. You’re just doing this because you can, and because the world has taught you that that’s OK.’”
The notion that uninvited penises are a form of power and control implies that the unconsented dick pic is akin to other forms of toxic masculinity and perhaps even a form of digital rape, where men force intimate parts of themselves upon women. Gleeson’s article further goes on to discuss where the Online Disinhibition Effect ends, and where the “gendered component” begins, nothing that women don’t typically send vulva shots to random men, equating the unsolicited dick pic to the same motivation as drawing crude penises on walls: marking territory. In this light, unsolicited and consent violating sexts are the exact opposite of the sex-positive, empowering and almost liberating perspective that consented sexts take on – they are phallic images perpetuating patriarchy, in which men distanced from the consequences of their actions through digital technology are able to cause women to feel discomfort and oppression, all for the sake of the entertainment and thrill that comes with doing something “naughty”.
The realm of “unsolicited” goes one step further in two directions – the innocence of the developing world, and behaviour that is oppressive, such as coercion for sexts. Kesvani (2018) writes about the common phenomena of South Asian men sending messages in the hopes of “fraandships”:
“fraandships refer to the kind of guys who randomly add people living in the West on Facebook with an accompanying message begging you to accept their request. … Fraandship requests have become such a joke in South Asian internet culture that there are Reddit threads about it and Facebook groups dedicated to “fraandship” culture.”
Kesvani performed a social experiment in which he replied to one such “fraandship” seeker and learned that the person on the other end of the line had only recently gotten internet access in their village, and that men in rural Indian villages aren’t allowed to speak to women outside of their families. The internet “has finally allowed him and others like him to speak to women without being worried about their parents or family finding out. It’s this inexperience with women that leaves them defaulting to what they [see in Western movies], ‘We think if we talk about sex, or we try to act like people we see in films, we will be like them,’ Manish explains”. In this context, the Online Disinhibition Effect allows men of rural India to break barriers similarly to North American teen girls, but here the inverse occurs – instead of a sex-positive experience, due to the lack of understanding internet “norms” among people new to the world wide web, these men find themselves confused and often blocked. In India, the permeation of internet and digital communications still has a very long way to go: “In India, the internet is a place for cityfolk and men, and not for women or villages,” (Bhattacharya, 2018). The dark side to these new users of the internet is that they bring with them hegemonic perspectives and lack the education to understand the sort of digital domains they are wading into. Kesvani discusses how women “relay tales of men repeatedly sending them messages like ‘sexi’ and ‘beautiful babes,’ especially if they’re white and blonde. … [The messages] aren’t in-your-face perverted. It usually starts with them saying you’re beautiful and asking if you’d be interested in getting married. Most [women] ignore them — but that’s because if you respond by saying no, they get angry and start swearing and insulting you.”
Women’s strategies, such as naming and shaming in response to abusive messages or unsolicited images can also prove problematic, if “naming and shaming” a perpetrator and displaying their intimate images as a part of the shaming could possibly fall under “revenge porn” laws (Gleeson, 2016). Similarly, the body positive, self-authoring experiences of women posting semi-nude photos on places such as Tumblr’s NSFW blogs may also take a turn towards the negative and oppressive when audiences begin to make demands for more images or specific images (Tiidenberg & Gómez Cruz 2015). These last few examples illustrate how fine the line is between what falls into the “good” side of sexting and sexy selfies, and how quickly things can take a turn for the worst.
Sexting, dick pics, and everything good and bad that comes with it is likely not a phenomenon that is about to go away any time soon. Increasingly, it appears that more and more of our selfhood is uploaded to the cloud and assimilated into big data, including our most intimate body parts. Despite the difference in consensual sexting being viewed as a positive and unsolicited dick pics emerging from a place of enforcing heteronormativity, it’s clear that all around the world, sexting in some form is being used by people of all genders and identities to express themselves through intimate self-portraits, and that the disinhibited nature of digital communications technology enables users to make choices more boldly or assertively while also being free of the constraints of their daily lives. It is incredibly important that initiatives are taken in developing countries to help catch users up to the encoded digital codes of conduct that the West is so used to expecting. It is also equally important that men around the world are educated on the harmful effects of their toxic masculinity. At the minimum, an emphasis on consent must be taught at all levels of education. Ultimately, the desire to sext or not to sext is with each user – unless the unsolicited dick pic is quite literally thrust upon them. We should feel liberated to sext should we choose to, because sexting can be lots of fun! But, we must make a conscious effort do so within the boundaries of informed consent for all parties involved.