When Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, then died realising it couldn’t possibly consummate his affection, he was, most likely, naked (heroes in Greek mythology often wore nothing, or next to nothing).
Whatever wild attraction Narcissus felt looking at himself in the buff is actually what men think women, or other men, feel when they unlock their phones to find they’ve just become the latest recipient of a popular genre in amateur photography: a dick pic.
A recent study, which was presented at the Society For The Scientific Study of Sexuality last November and will be published in The Journal of Sex Research in the near future, found that men really do think women like their unsolicited nudes.
Apparently, the research found, men who send women unsolicited photos of their penises are — surprise! — bigger narcissists than the ones who don’t. Narcissists, if you aren’t familiar with the category, are big-egoed people, of any gender, who take excessive interest in themselves — an interest that can, in some clinical cases, lapse into grandiosity.
For this new report, more than 1,000 straight men, ages 16 to 75, were measured on levels of narcissism, exhibitionism, sexism, and endorsement of sexual behaviours. Just under half of them (48 per cent) reported having sent an unsolicited dick pic — a logical statistic, considering almost half of millennial women report having received them.
Most of these men were white, married or in a serious relationship, college or university educated, and about 31.
“Scholars have argued that men are conditioned to view their penis as central to their experience of pleasure, and that penetrative sex is the ideal to achieve,” Andrea Waling, a researcher with the Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health & Society, told MEL Magazine in an interview last year. “The dick pic is an extension of that.”
The question, though, is not really what the dick pic symbolises, but rather why it’s become such a recurring phenomenon. Why are men, or at least men who also happen to be narcissists, sending dick pics that were never asked for?
Well, because they haven’t categorised it, in their heads, as a form of sexual harassment.
“For me, dick pics are the ultimate sign of confidence,” one man said, when The Cut asked him to explain his personal philosophy for sending them. “It’s important to let a girl know exactly how ready I would be in a situation where she would need me to be naked.”
This idea, confirmed in the study, runs counter to a common belief, which is that straight men are sending dick pics to assert power or control. Many people have theorised that men deploy these photos as a way to be crude — to respond sleazily to an opinion expressed by a specific woman, or to display a pointed hatred for women in general.
To these men, though, it seems sending a dick pic is no more complicated than laconic expression, a reasonable shorthand for saying, “I’m into you” — or, more accurately, “I’m into myself,” considering the narcissism thing. The study found that, more or less, men who send unsolicited dick pics are not-so-secretly hoping that (1) the recipient will, out of a sudden inspiration, send nudes back, and/or (2) the dick pic in question will lead to a steamy, real-life hookup.
“You might not explicitly ask for a dick pic, but it may be an outcome through intimate interactions of sexting each other back and forth.”
In fact, 82 per cent of the study’s respondents also admitted they hoped their target would feel “sexual excitement,” that finding a dick pic on their phone would be not only titillating, but would also make the recipient feel valued and attractive.
Is this really so? The logical counterpoint here is that this pipe dream perfectly summarises the tendencies of a narcissist — an inability to understand why anyone wouldn’t want to see a snapshot of their posing, menacing dick.
Also discovered in this study: these men display higher levels of sexism, both of the overtly hostile, negative variety, as well as the “benevolent,” “woman-on-a-pedestal” one. (The study also found that men who send women unsolicited photos of their phallus are no more sexual, no more oversexed, than those who choose not to.)
It should be noted, though, that the primary term used in this study —“unsolicited” — carries with it a number of murky assumptions. “Unsolicited” seems to imply something that was not asked for, in any fashion, explicitly or implicitly. But Waling, widely known as among the world’s first dick pic researchers, told HuffPost Canada that the word, in this context, lacks nuance.
“You might not explicitly ask for a dick pic, but it may be an outcome through intimate interactions of sexting each other back and forth,” Waling says. She distinguishes this from sexual harassment, which is what the word “unsolicited” seems to unequivocally imply. “This is, of course, very different from when someone receives a dick pic [when] the conversation has not entered any kind of erotic realm, or is sent as a form of harassment.”
Waling argues that it’s important to think about this language, and to understand that, in the event that an appropriate environment was already present, some women do happen to enjoy receiving dick pics.
“A lot of public discourse frames women as not wanting dick pics generally, that they find them disgusting and grotesque, and that women want romance and connection rather than a purely sexual encounter,” Waling says. “This is a form of shaming women who might be visually stimulated, might genuinely enjoy receiving dick pics, and might only be looking for casual sexual encounters.”
She also notes that this isn’t the first study to find these men are narcissists: in 2017, another one came to the same conclusion.
“Unsolicited dick-pic sending can be a common practice in gay and bisexual men’s sexual subcultures.”
It’s imaginable that the whole narcissism fact wouldn’t really deter men from sharing pics without asking first, since having bigger things than other men — cars, pay cheques, dicks, egos — is often the point. Is being more vain than someone else so categorically bad, or is modesty just an aspirational virtue?
It’s imaginable that, though the scope of this particular study did not include them, gay men also participate in this expansive problem of narcissism — a problem that is, unfortunately, equally distributed across the spectrum of sexuality.
A study published by HuffPost in 2015 found 83 per cent of gay men have sent a dick pic on a dating app, though it didn’t make the distinction between solicited and unsolicited, and it was also, unlike the straight-male-survey, confined to the space of actual dating apps.
“Unsolicited dick-pic sending can be a common practice in gay and bisexual men’s sexual subcultures, where there may be an established precedent for sending each other erotic photos without asking,” Waling says.
A similar perspective, echoed in more colourful terms: “Dick pics in the straight world seem to offend at an alarming rate,” one presumably gay man told The Cut, in 2016. “In gay circles and/or networks and/or apps, not only is the dick pic a courtesy, many decide to skip the dick pic altogether and go for the asshole pic, a starfish selfie.”
I don’t know that this is universally true (nothing is) and to be clear, I certainly don’t know that, as gay men, we’re any more inclined to send nudes than anyone else is. Nor do I believe, even in the slightest, that gay men are any more or less prone to being offended should they find that, while they were out buying peaches or probiotics, some random guy decided to send an artless photograph of his penis.
None of this excuses dick pics that appear out of the blue, but Waling argues that much of the conversation we have when we talk about dick pics veers toward disgust, as though nobody, in any situation, has any desire to see what’s in someone else’s pants.
“It ignores the ability to perceive the male body as erotic, particularly the heterosexual one,” she says. “Dick pics are a way for heterosexual men to begin to see their bodies as erotic, as well as a recognition of women’s sexual desires that may include the visual.”
Narcissus was stimulated by the visual, too: if he hadn’t died gazing into that pond, at his reflection, he likely could have just texted himself a picture of his penis — the difference being, of course, that it would have been, without a doubt, a solicited one.