They aren't just perverted exhibitionists ...
Any woman who has ever ventured into the world of online dating, or almost any form of modern electronic communication, will tell you that one of their main complaints is that men routinely send them unsolicited pictures of their genitals.
Women understandably complain about this for two main reasons:
1. They really don’t want to see these pics.
2. Guys send the pics without asking, often without any explanation or context. Typically, sending such a picture is one of the first communications women receive from these men.
“Men are GROSS!,” is the most common explanation that women have for this.
Others might add, “They’re GROSS and STUPID. Do they really think I’m going to magically want to have sex with them now, after seeing their penis?“
As silly as this issue might seem to be, it offers some genuine opportunity for insight into what modern technology reveals about aspects of sexuality and gender.
This definitely appears to be more of a male thing — at least, in terms of sending the pictures un-requested. Both males and females are commonly sending nudes of themselves to people they meet online, but women tend to wait until asked.
That distinction may simply be an expression of gender differences in mating and dating strategies.
The fact is, women are told that being sexually bold in such a manner is shameful and makes them a slut.
There really aren’t any research studies looking at this question, and so all we can do right now is speculate, though with some informed psychological wisdom.
It’s most likely that this behavior represents an aspect of men’s misperception of female sexual interest.
Men love the idea of receiving such pictures from strangers, and they assume women do too.
Men notoriously misperceive women’s sexual interest in them and project their own sexual interests and desires onto women. In this situation, men really are hoping and thinking that she’ll be turned on and send them a pic in response.
It’s probable that some of this connects to the fact that in an anonymous environment, people, and especially men, are likely to engage in more sexualized behaviors. Psychological research demonstrates that in anonymous environments, people, both men and women, engage in fairly casual sexual behaviors, including exhibitionism.
Male mating strategies have always included an element of “boldness,” where men who are bold and brash sometimes garner female attention they wouldn’t otherwise receive if they were nice and polite. This is a key tenet behind the Pick-Up Artist strategies, where men are encouraged to be bold and impulsive.
So, the “shock value” is a way for men to get attention. And negative attention is better than no attention at all.
It’s probable that at least some of these men receive a sexual thrill at the idea of an unknown woman seeing their genitalia. It may be an aspect of exhibitionism, and some of these men probably masturbate as a part of the act, imagining that woman seeing the picture they sent. The fact that a woman rejects them for it is not salient, because for many such men, it is the woman’s disgust and rejection which is actually part of the turn-on.
These are likely the same men that used to be in trench coats on street corners. In Ohio, one man was dubbed “The Naked Photographer” because he would jump out and expose his penis to women, then take a photo of their reaction. When he was caught, he later admitted that he would masturbate to the pictures of the women’s reactions.
Men fear sexual rejection, and by sending pics of their genitalia, they are almost getting “pre-approval.” This way, they get the chance of rejection out of the way early, so they don’t have to worry about being rejected or shamed once they drop their pants on a real date.
It’s important to note that within gay male circles, this behavior is very common, and is not viewed as a problem.
In fact, many men are happy to get such pictures, and usually respond in kind. That’s important to note, because it offers some confirmation that many men want to receive such pics, and are really hoping their recipient will enjoy it and be turned on.
But, for some reason, whether biology, psychology or social suppression of female sexuality, women don’t enjoy this the way men do.
In a clever twist, one woman started sending men pics of female genitals. She was surprised that overwhelmingly, men loved it, found her boldness both sexy and fun, and wanted to meet her.
So, again, we have evidence that men are sending such pictures because they think others will like them, as much as they do.
Smartphones, texting, email and online dating are the current vehicle for this behavior and sexual dynamic, but let’s not pretend that this is a new issue. The underlying sexual processes and dynamics have always been with us.
One issue is that men just aren’t good at hearing, or responding to, “No.”
I’m not excusing that. But this same dynamic — that men think women are sexually as excited as they are — is getting in the way of men hearing the “No, we DON’T want to see that!“
There ARE men who’ve gone to jail and been put on sex offender registries for sending such pictures to persons they didn’t know who turned out to be underage. This behavior is sometimes much more serious than we may know.
Many women are genuinely bothered by receiving such pictures and view it as an unwelcome intrusion. Some feminist writers have described this as a form of sexual assault, and a way in which men assert the dominance of their sexuality over that of women. Such pictures can be a form of sexual harassment when they occur in a work/professional environment.
I empathize with the women who are offended and grossed out at receiving such images. Women, and all people, should be able to have some safe spaces. Unfortunately, safety on the Internet is hard to come by.
I do think that this is a particular issue in our society, where nudity is sexualized and taboo. I wonder if women have as strong a reaction in societies where intersex nudity is common in bathing and beaches?
Ultimately, the answer here lies in greater dialogue between men and women regarding what they actually want in sexual communications.
This might reach some of these men, those who are genuinely not understanding some sexual differences—but, this requires for women to have the safety to be honest about their sexual interests.
For instance, could women ever say, “Look, I probably would like to see your penis pic, but I’d like to be able to ask for it first…”?
The shaming and suppression of female sexuality is part of the issue here, as men don’t feel they understand what women actually want sexually, and women don’t feel they can express it safely.
Unfortunately, I don’t think such dialogue is happening, or even possible right now.
People who are offended and grossed out at such images would like them banned. They want men to understand that such behaviors are rude, unacceptable and should simply stop. Many women have tried attacking such men, flaming and shaming them, both online and in personal communications. But such strategies probably won’t work.
A tenet of psychology is that negative reinforcement is still reinforcement. The more uproar, outrage and disgust that such pics get, the more powerful some men feel.
They feel some pride that their penis generated this strong reaction. So, shaming, banning, flaming strategies are unlikely to be successful.
A better strategy is to ignore it.
I know that probably feels unsatisfying. But if we remove as much of the reinforcement, including negative attention, many of these men might view this behavior as ultimately unrewarding.
It’s important that women, and men, understand that this behavior, even when it feels distasteful and rude, is not personal.
It’s not actually about you, the person receiving these pics. This dynamic, silly as it can be, is not proof that men are disgusting perverts and women are prudes.
This behavior reveals some core differences between men and women’s sexual personalities, and that men need to work harder at understanding women’s actual sexual interests and motivations.
The more we engage in open dialogue about these issues and sexual motivations and miscommunications, the better.
This article was originally published at Psychology Today. Reprinted with permission from the author.