I’m Asking Men To Send Me Dick Pics To Create A Solution To Cyberflashing

As exciting as the project is, I’m disappointed it's a victim of cyberflashing like me who has to help solve harassment online, writes Kelsey Bressler.
Getty Images
Getty Images

For better or for worse, by force or by choice, chances are that by now you have heard of unsolicited dick pics. Today’s technology means, within just a few clicks, anyone can send you a photograph of their genitals – even if you did not ask for it.

Cyberflashing – where someone exposes themselves to you without your consent online – is now so commonplace folks will often laugh it off and go about their day when it happens to them. Unsolicited dick pics are so common in fact, solicited dick pics are considered the true oddity. I know this because when I solicited dick pics in September, I was treated like some sort of deviant… even though it was for science.

You’re probably asking what brought me to this point in my life where I am soliciting dick pics en masse. Well, the answer is long and nuanced, but the simple explanation is that I am trying to help solve the problem of unsolicited dick pics and make the internet a safer and more inclusive place to be, especially for women.

Like most people, the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is reach for my phone. Normally, I wake to missed texts and emails. One morning this September was different: I was greeted by a photo of a man’s penis. Along with it, a message: “why don’t you talk to me?”

“Being a creep these days is easier than ever, thanks to the anonymity the internet offers. Thankfully, the laws are starting to catch up with technology...”

He got my attention, though not in the way he’d have liked. Like countless other women each day, I complained to my social network about what an unpleasant experience it can be to receive an unsolicited dick pic. The replies were what you’d expect: a mixture of surprise and condescension. Most comments told me to close my DMs, while others asked “this actually happens?!”

Yes, it happens. And it happens a lot.

The internet can be a weird place, especially if you’re a woman. More than half of millennial women have reported experienced cyberflashing. Being a creep these days is easier than ever, thanks to the anonymity the internet offers. Thankfully, the laws are starting to catch up with technology – here in the US, the state of Texas recently made cyberflashing a crime punishable by a $500 fine.

In most places though, victims of cyberflashing have no legal recourse. When it happens, we are told to close our DMs, thus rendering ourselves unreachable by anyone, including those we want to have open communication with. It’s a double standard and just another example of how women are subtly discouraged from participating in online discourse – men, by and large, do not have experience with the issue. They leave their DMs open without fear. But if something happens to a woman online, it’s our problem because we should not have left our DMs open. “We should have known better?” Bullshit.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could prevent people from having to view these photos while still allowing them to interact with others in the DMs? Why are we telling women to change their behaviour, when it’s men’s behaviour that is the problem.

This is where Manuel comes into the picture. Manuel, a cyber security professional and internet friend, saw what happened to me and instead of offering useless comments or blame, he came to me with a solution to the problem of unsolicited dick pics. He proposed the idea of a system that would automatically identify and delete dick pics so the user doesn’t have to see them in the first place. I told him if he could build something like that I’d be happy to test it out.

Manuel himself doesn’t experience this type of harassment, but still he saw the need for a change and decided to make it happen – he says he thinks online harassment is horrible and that nobody should have to “just live with it” when technology exists that could help address the problem. I agree.

Within days, he had a proof of concept ready for testing. The problem? I’d be waiting a while because though this kind of thing has happened to me before, I don’t imagine it happening more than a couple of times a year. I needed a way to acquire lots of dick pics, fast.

That’s how @showYoDiq was born. I created a new account where I invited users 18 and over to send in consensual photos of their genitals. For the first time in recorded history, a woman appeared to be soliciting dick pics.

People went crazy. Over 1,300 images of penises were received in our first week. At one point, the functionality broke because there were simply too many dicks. I don’t know if most people were excited about the possibility of someone seeing their penis, or if they actually thought they were helping us to end unsolicited dick pics. Either way, there was no shortage of dicks.

“You may be wondering how the AI know what a penis looks like. Well, someone (not me) has trained it to recognise genitalia by feeding the model thousands of confirmed penis photos”

It wasn’t all dicks though. Folks were also sending in dick-like objects. I got phallic produce pics, politician pics (mainly Donald Trump, obviously), hot dog pics, you name it. Turns out there are a surprisingly large number of things that can resemble a dick if positioned just right.

The @showYoDiq account has evolved over time to be more interactive. It now lets followers know how many dicks were deleted that day, and we added another feature that sends an automated response to anyone who’s dick pic gets deleted. Our most dedicated testers have sent over 130 photos.

The filter, which we are calling safeDM, uses artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify photos with penises in them and delete them from your messages. It works like this: our system monitors your messages for incoming photos. When a photo is received, the AI determines if the photo contains a penis. If the photo is a penis it gets deleted automatically, and a message is sent to both parties letting them know what has happened.

You may be wondering how the AI know what a penis looks like. Well, someone (not me) has trained it to recognise genitalia by feeding the model thousands of confirmed penis photos, so that it can now spot them on its own.

The filter isn’t perfect, however. It catches over 99% of penises, although certain scenarios may be missed: if your penis is gilded in glitter, if your penis is trapped in a cage, or if you penis is encased with a hotdog bun, just to name a few examples. When it comes to your ‘standard’ dick pic though, we are catching almost every one.

“As exciting as it is to be a part of this project, I’m disappointed it has gotten to the point where a victim of cyberflashing has to help come up with the solution”

It’s hard to say where safeDM is headed. What I am sure of is that there is a clear need for this technology. Manuel and I intend to launch the filter as a free service that Twitter users can sign up for. Women with a large social media following, celebrities, and journalists would find it particularly helpful. I also imagine most parents would want this feature enabled on their childrens’ accounts. There are countless use cases for this and no reason why the social media companies can’t start working right now to address the issue of unsolicited dick pics and online harassment.

As exciting as it is to be a part of this project, I’m disappointed it has gotten to the point where a victim of cyberflashing has to help come up with the solution. This has been a problem for years and I can only imagine the reasons why there has not been more done. It’s frustrating, and it’s as if our concerns have not been listened to. Perhaps if there were more women making decisions in big tech, this work would have been done already. My hope is that those in positions of power will see the need for this technology and the possibilities it can bring. I hope they begin taking their customers concerns and safety more seriously and prioritise this work accordingly .

So let’s make the internet a safer, more inclusive place. One dick pic at a time.

Kelsey Bressler is a technologist and activist against online harassment. Follow her on Twitter at @raeBressa

Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on ukpersonal@huffpost.com