Why do men send unsolicited dick pics?

By Hayley Gleeson
ABC News
July 09, 2016
Click here to view original

One of the most under-reported parts of the experience of women online is the fact that they regularly receive unwanted photos of men’s penises. It’s almost so common that it merits little discussion. Sarah, a 27-year-old student in Melbourne, has about 50 in her inbox.

Random men regularly direct message her unsolicited images of their junk, seemingly for no reason at all, but typically whenever she mentions sex or sexuality in her tweets.

“I think it’s really important for women, if they want to be, to be open about [sex] on social media,” Sarah tells ABC News. “But men see that as an invitation when it’s certainly not.”

Rather than react or retaliate, Sarah says she just ignores and blocks the men, but would like to see social media platforms take a stronger stance against the behaviour – with a ‘no-tolerance’ approach to image-based sexual harassment as well as improving victims’ ability to block and avoid users who harass them.

“I think men get off on shocking women and making women upset,” she says. “I feel like, it’s 2016, you have to be aware of how women feel about dick pics.”

Naming and shaming

Indeed, the number of women who openly complain about men sending so-called unsolicited ‘dick pics’ on all social media platforms, including dating sites, seems to be increasing every week, with many going out of their way to publicly call the behaviour out.

new online petition urging Facebook to ban users from sending unsolicited dick pics has so far garnered almost 20,000 signatures, while a British woman’s recent ‘naming and shaming’ of a man for doing so made headlines around the world.

And, as author Tara Moss discussed the dick pic phenomenon at a Melbourne event at the end of June, blogger and activist Carlay Findlay documented the conversation on Twitter… only to receive a photo of a penis for her trouble.

Needless to say, the women in attendance were never going to let it go unnoticed, and posed for a group photo to mock the sender.

“This is what we all think of it, ‘Big Dave’,” Moss wrote.

Yet beyond sullying the odd political career (hello, Anthony D Weiner and former Liberal MP Peter Dowling), experts say the consequences for perpetrators are not as severe as they perhaps should be given the practice is widely considered a form of online sexual harassment.

It’s a loophole many men treat as a license to snap ‘n’ send as they please, but it only partly explains their motivations for doing so, which evidence might suggest stems from the same impulse to graffiti images of phalluses in public places.

Importantly, both Facebook and Twitter prohibit users from sending unsolicited dick pics: Twitter counts it as harassment and advises users on how to mute, block and report sensitive content, while Facebook’s Community Standards prohibit both harassment and nudity — a policy which, according to a Facebook spokesperson, extends to its Messenger service.

“Photographs of people displaying their genitals violate our Community Standards,” the Facebook spokesperson told ABC News.

“We encourage people to use the reporting links on our site and within Messenger to report content so we can review and take action against content that violates.”

When it comes to unsolicited dick pics, however, it seems the issue is less about the actions women can take to ward them off than changing the culture that encourages men to believe sending them is acceptable behaviour.

How big a problem are dick pics?

Despite the endless stream of social media posts of women detailing their personal experiences with the issue, the prevalence of unsolicited dick pics has not been explored in academic research.

“It is a growing problem but there isn’t much data about the prevalence of this phenomenon,” says Dr Nicola Henry, a senior lecturer in crime, justice and legal studies at La Trobe University.

“In some cases, people are doing it as a form of sexual harassment; they are deliberately trying to harass and intimidate another person.

“I think it’s an issue that needs more attention.”

Dick pics and the law

Dr Henry stresses that while exchanging sexually explicit images is acceptable behaviour between consenting adults – a form of “modern day flirtation” – sending unsolicited images may constitute a form of sexual harassment. Prosecuting it, though, can be tricky.

Women don’t want dick pics

Research suggests many women don’t want to receive the unsolicited sexually explicit images men often send them on social media:

  • 2015 survey of 5,675 single Americans by Match.com found men were into “sexy texts” but women were loathe to receive them
  • Recent research by Plan International and Our Watch found Australian teenage girls now consider it common behaviour to receive unwanted and uninvited sexually explicit content online.
  • Of the 600 women aged 16-19 who took part in the survey, 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.

“Under Australian law, sexual harassment is only unlawful [under the Sex Discrimination Act] in specified areas of public life, so for instance a workplace, an educational institution, or purchasing goods and services,” Dr Henry tells ABC News. (The exception is Queensland, where it is unlawful for a person to sexually harass another in any circumstance, not just specific parts of public life.)

“So if you’re on a dating site and you receive images that constitute sexual harassment [such as unwanted sexually explicit images], that’s not unlawful under Australian law.”

However, sending unsolicited dick pics may in some instances constitute a criminal offence under Commonwealth legislation (Telecommunications Act 1997), in which it is a criminal offence to use a carriage service to harass, offend or intimidate another person.

“But,” says Dr Henry, “to date, there’s been no prosecutions under that law for [image based sexual harassment]. So … at the moment, we don’t have any specific legislation designed to address this type of harassment.”

Taking matters into their own hands

Which is exactly why many women are resorting to extrajudicial measures after being sent unwanted photos of men’s junk.

Australian model Emily Sears, for example, contacts the partners of men who send her unsolicited dick pics on social media in a bid to raise awareness of the problem and hold the men accountable.

“I think the best thing to do is to just keep the dialogue happening,” Ms Sears told Buzzfeed earlier this year. “We have to keep telling the guys why what they’re doing is wrong.”

But these kinds of actions have the potential to backfire on victims. Certainly in Victoria, under so-called ‘revenge porn’ laws, it is a criminal offence to maliciously distribute intimate images of another person without their consent.

“If the recipient of those images then goes on to share them with somebody else [to ‘name and shame’ the perpetrator], what would the consequences be?” asks Dr Henry.

“Would that be considered a criminal offence?” This has not been tested.

Still, Dr Henry likes the often creative approaches some women take in response to receiving dick pics.

Like Anna Gensler, a young artist who drew – then posted on Instagram – nude portraits of men who harassed her on Tinder. Or Whitney Bell, who showcased the 200-odd unsolicited dick pics she’d received in an art exhibition called I Didn’t Ask For This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics.

“It’s using humour and it’s also communicating that this kind of behaviour is not going to land you a date or sex and so I think those kinds of creative approaches … are really important,” says Dr Henry.

“As are public awareness campaigns and respectful relationships education.”

Why do men send dick pics in the first place?

So then if men know sending women photos of their penis doesn’t result in sexy times or lifelong love affairs, why do they do it?

“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.”

When the New York Magazine called on men to explain their motivations, the responsessuggested it was partly a way for them to communicate confidence (though some admitted sending dick pics was, in fact, a dick move – a “colossal tragedy”).

“I send dick pics,” said Kevin, “because – at the risk of sounding cocky … I have a truly beautiful dick. In a world of tragic penises, I have a stun-gun of a phallus. Women who don’t even like me have slept with me and said, ‘You’re kind of an asshole … but damn that’s a nice dick’.”

Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer specialising in gender and sexuality at the University of Melbourne, says the behaviour can partly be explained by the anonymity the internet purportedly affords us. 

“But then the question is, if we’re all feeling that [sense of disinhibition], why don’t women send vulva shots to random men? There is absolutely a gendered component – it’s the same motivation that has men, for example, drawing dicks on walls. 

“So it’s like, ‘I was here’ and marking territory, much like a dog would piss on a wall, with the penis,” Dr Rosewarne tells ABC News. 

It’s also about pushing boundaries and indulging fantastical whims: “I think the thrill [of sending dick pics] comes from doing something naughty and doing something that perhaps is curious to do in real life, but there are too many sanctions prohibiting it,” Dr Rosewarne continues.

“I don’t think there are any social clues that a man gets that would make him think that women would actually like to receive a dick pic … as part of a ‘getting to know you’ act. 

“It’s more about the fact that [men] find it fun, they find it sexy, they find it thrilling. And their entertainment in doing so trumps the consequences.”