Books & Films, Gender, Media & Culture

There’s More to the Dick Pic Than Meets the Eye

August 9, 2023 by Emily Mendelson

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a dick pic, there’s a high likelihood that it was unsolicited. For this reason, a majority of public discourse surrounding dick pics has focused on their potential to cause harm. Dick pics are often generally categorized as dangerous expressions of masculinity and as technologically mediated forms of sexual harassment. 

However, dick pics aren’t always unsolicited. And, when shared in an appropriate way, there can be a positive side to them worth acknowledging. In her new book Exploring the Cultural Phenomenon of the Dick Pic, Dr. Andrea Waling argues that a sole focus on these photos as harmful limits our understanding of expressions of masculinity and sexuality. Waling widens the current frames we use to think about dick pics in order to look beyond criminological and sexually aggressive intent. 

What do we currently know about who sends dick pics?

Previous research has demonstrated that the majority of dick pics are sent without the consent of the recipient, and women who receive unsolicited dick pics have largely negative reactions to them. [1] Additionally, those who send unsolicited dick pics have been found to have higher levels of both narcissism and hold more hostile sexist attitudes than those who do not. [2].

However, this finding has not been consistently replicated, with other research finding that heterosexual men who send unsolicited dick pics are not necessarily more narcissistic, but may have lower self-esteem than those who do not send such photos. Notably, a relationship between personality traits and dick pic sending habits was not found for gay and bisexual men. 

How might we think about dick pics in other ways? 

Although Waling seeks to understand dick pics outside the context of violence, she is exceptionally clear in recognizing the importance of pathological frames and argues that her work sits alongside these other narratives. She explains, “Rather than dismissing or disregarding forms of violence that some women have experienced through receiving unsolicited dick pics, I seek to explore dick pics from several framings in order to consider the multitudes of dick pics” (p. 8). In this context, motivating questions for Waling include “What does it mean to take a dick pic? What does it mean to receive one?” and “What can dick pics tell us about masculinity, bodies, and sexuality that we have yet to consider?” (p. 3). 

The book is organized into five chapters that reflect a variety of data collection methods and collaborative research. The first chapter explores cisgender male bodies as sexualized and eroticized, and the second chapter outlines contemporary framings of dick pics. Chapter 3 provides a reparative reading of dick pics as they relate to a variety of online forums, including an analysis of posts on r/softies and the (now archived) Tumblr blog Critique My Dick Pic. Lastly, Chapters 4 and 5 draw on interview data to understand cisgender men’s process of creating dick pics, sharing them, and steps taken to mitigate risk when doing so. 

What can we learn when we expand our thinking toward dick pics? 

1. Dick pics can be an opportunity for intimacy

Waling articulates that the frame of dick pics as “disgusting” may prevent women from feeling comfortable in affirming their desire to receive these pictures consensually from sexual partners. As Waling states: “Women framing the penis as disgusting sets up a discourse in which the penis is always to be seen as disgusting through women’s eyes. Where dick pics are concerned, this leaves women who may enjoy dick pics feeling ashamed, unnatural, or out-of-place in potentially expressing this desire” (p. 99). In reality, many women have explicit criteria for what makes a “good” dick pic, such as an obvious display of effort, a clean background, and videos instead of pictures. 

Additionally, because romantic and sexual conversations are becoming increasingly digital, consensual dick pics may serve as a way to accelerate an intimate online relationship, especially if pictures are reciprocated by the other person.Waling argues that this is particularly true in the case of sexting, where sending nude pictures back and forth can serve as a way to establish sexual interest and generate intimacy between individuals who are talking to each other online. 

2. Sending dick pics is relational

One of the sites Waling analyzed was the Reddit page r/softies, where individuals could post photos of their flaccid penises in order for others to comment on their appearance. On this page, The need for compliments and positive comments–for example, gratitude for sharing images–”highlights the relational nature of sharing dick pics…and the lack of attention given to the penis as a site of vulnerability” (p. 105). Here, posting a dick pic is not necessarily a process of building intimacy with a partner, but rather, a way of constructing one’s self as desirable through comments from others. “Those who engage with r/softies do so to seek reassurance about their own pensises. Such reassurance typically focuses on the normality of the poster’s own penis and the diversity of how penises in general can look”(p. 105). 

Waling explains that sending dick pics to others within online communities can be especially reassuring for members of marginalized communities. For example, the Tumblr blog Critique My Dick Pic was a forum where individuals could submit their dick pics to be rated in an art-critique style that focused on criteria such as lightning and posing instead of physical attributes. Through her analysis of this blog, Waling found that marginalized men, such as transmen and men of color who are often underrepresented in social imaginations of dick pics, could use these communities to affirm their sexual desirability and relate to others who may also need reassurance. 

3. Dick pics can be both vulnerable and affirming 

Lastly, the process of sending a dick pic can represent a vulnerable position if a partner does not respond positively, but can also be affirming if a partner responds with interest. Through a series of interviews with cisgender men, Waling found that “Sexting is a forum through which heterosexual, cisgender men can consider and explore their bodies as sexual objects, actively present themselves, and ask for affirmation. This was a vulnerable position for the men in this study. They described how they considered the lighting and composition of photos–including what parts of their body to photograph–to present their bodies as desirable and as objects of desire. Attending to these considerations could also evoke anxieties about their bodies, including the aesthetics of their penises” (p. 134). Through this process, it was found that men were able to explore their own sexualities in the context of masculinity, desirability, and the considerations they made when staging and sending dick pics to others. 

In sum, there is no single “right” way to understand the phenomenon of dick pics. Yes, it is important to acknowledge that many individuals receive them without their consent and the harms this can cause. However, as Waling demonstrates, there are instances where understanding dick pics from a reparative frame can illuminate the ways that dick pics can generate intimacy, create relationships and help individuals explore their sexualities. In this way, “there is significant opportunity here to think about penises, phalluses, and dick pics across cultures, across practices, and across varying bodies, genders, and sexualities” (p. 169).

Later this month, Dr. Waling will be a guest on the Sex and Psychology Podcast to talk about her book and some of her other research areas. Stay tuned to learn more! 

Want to learn more about Sex and Psychology? Click here for more from the blog or here to listen to the podcast. Follow Sex and Psychology on Facebook, Twitter (@JustinLehmiller), or Reddit to receive updates. You can also follow Dr. Lehmiller on YouTube and Instagram.

[1]: Marcotte, A. S., Gesselman, A. N., Fisher, H. E., & Garcia, J. R. (2021). Women’s and men’s reactions to receiving unsolicited genital images from men. The Journal of Sex Research, 58(4), 512–521.

[2]: Oswald, F., Lopes, A., Skoda, K., Hesse, C. L., & Pedersen, C. L. (2020). I’ll show you mine so you’ll show me yours: Motivations and personality variables in photographic exhibitionism. The Journal of Sex Research, 57(5), 597–609.

Image Credits: charlesdeluvio via Unsplash

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Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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