Between the Pages: New Perspectives on the 'Dick Pic' Phenomenon
Drawing on an array of disciplines, cultural analyses and interviews, sexuality researcher Andrea Waling, Ph.D., looks at the multifaceted nature of penis photos in "Exploring the Cultural Phenomenon of the Dick Pic."
The 184-page book, part of Routledge's Masculinity, Sex and Popular Culture series, examines historical and contemporary theories concerning the penis, public discourse surrounding the dick pic, men's experiences with sending dick pics and more.
The dick pic is often viewed as harmful. However, Waling said there is little research that explores dick pics outside of framings around violence, pathology and moral panic.
"Dick pics are polysemous," Waling wrote in her book. "They are not one thing, but rather, they are many things, overlapping and shifting and, in their open-endedness, offering countless readings depending on relational contexts of production, dissemination and reception."
Waling is an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
In this exclusive interview, Waling discussed her inspiration for the book, what makes a good dick pic, what men hope to accomplish by sending one and the importance of consent.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little about your background in sexuality research and how it led you to write this book.
As an undergraduate, I did a minor in sexuality studies at Carleton University in Canada. That's where I started to get introduced to this study of sexuality back in the early 2000s. We weren't really at a point where everyone was talking about sex and gender in public discourse. People were alluding to it. We had gay and lesbian rights and stuff in the '90s. Beyond that, it wasn't really talked about.
So it really blew my mind when I started taking classes in the study of sexuality and learned about how the way we think and talk about sexuality can be complex and nuanced.
That opened my world to the study of sex. I diverted a bit and did a Ph.D. on men and masculinity in Australia. My first book looks at Australian masculinity and identity and how young men are navigating new ways of being men in relation to a history of Australian masculinity. I started to get really interested in thinking about men's bodies, and how we write about and talk about men's bodies.
In 2012, [the movie] "Magic Mike" came out, and everyone was obsessed with "Magic Mike." Since the 1950s and '60s, we've had shirtless men on screen. People have been talking about this for decades, but with the "Magic Mike" series there was this reinstatement of it for a woman's gaze that was really in your face. Also, there was the rise of Instagram and body fitness.
I started to get interested in this idea about men as sexual bodies, particularly heterosexual men. We have a long history of that for gay men. All this led me to a postdoc at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, where I am now, working on a project about men's bodywork practices and how they navigate working out and how they feel about themselves as sexual beings.
Do they feel sexual when they're doing it? Or are they doing it for a female gaze?
All of that messiness led me to, strangely, dick pic research. Because part of that body project is we asked the question: Did they take sexy photos of themselves and send them to people? And so, dick pics started to emerge in that way. We started to see it emerge in the public with the rise of dating apps and people sexting.
You interviewed 15 Australian heterosexual cisgender men. What was something they said about dick pics that you found particularly interesting?
I think it was the vulnerability and uncertainty that they had about their bodies and being really concerned if the woman receiving the dick pic is actually going to like what she sees. There was a lot of anxiety around that and [they] really wanted reassurance. They were worried about the shape and if it was thick enough.
One participant said, "Mine leans to the left. I don't know what women think about that."
They felt they didn't really have a lot of opportunities to find diversity and representation. That's really interesting because we're in an era where we expect men to be confident in their bodies. In many ways, men have a lot of privilege with their bodies.
You think about television shows like "The Big Bang Theory." You've got these geeky guys who don't have great bodies, and yet they've got these beautiful girlfriends. When you look at movies like "Old School" and "Knocked Up" and cartoons like "Family Guy," you've got these men who are what we might call average men with these incredibly attractive women, and so, you have inherent body privilege.
That's shifting now with Instagram and expectations around working out and looking good. We know men have a really intense expectation to look good—something women have dealt with for centuries. The penis becomes a part of that concern.
Pornography can certainly contribute to this as well, because in porn all we're seeing are these big, hard cocks. We're not seeing diversity in the same way that we don't see diversity of women's bodies in mainstream porn. We don't see diversity in the shape and look of the vulva either.
One participant talked about how it's not just the penis, but he also takes photos in such a way that women can't see the rest of his body because he feels a bit overweight.
Researchers have talked about how a big shift has happened in the last 30 to 40 years, where men are being upheld to body expectations in the same way women have for a very long time. That's quite confronting for a lot of men to manage.
Say a hetero man is going to send a consensual, solicited dick pic and he wants some advice. What types of dick pics tend to be the most popular among hetero women?
It's so hard because people have different tastes. I think a good dick pic is one where effort has been put into it. Not a "quick down the pants" shot.
Is something unique in the setting? Are they including more of their body? Are they laying down as their hand is wrapped around it? Some people love cum shots. Is that included? Some people don't like it, etc.
If you're sending one for the first time, you may want to do a bulge pic instead. Instead of a dick pic, you send the bulge and then you could use that as a starting point with your partner and see what they might want to see. See if they can engage, provide feedback and say, "I would love to see X." Then you can engage in a back-and-forth.
It's about lighting. It's about the way you're holding it. It's about how you might position your body.
If you're wanting to send dick pics, look at examples online and see what's working or how it looks or what you think might look good for yourself. Your partner might not want to see the full dick pic. They might prefer a bulge or they might prefer something peeking out. Or they might want a close-up, or they might like seeing it around the whole body.
Talk to your partner and see what they like.
What do men generally hope will come from sending a dick pic? What do they want to accomplish?
It depends on the man. Some men have talked about this idea of a numbers game. They think if they send 100 dick pics to women, maybe one or two of those 100 women will respond in kind or be interested in hooking up.
They think, "Well if I just spam everybody, someone's gonna respond."
For men who are doing it in a more consensual manner, it's about reassurance.
It's about wanting to incite desire and arousal in their partner. If they're sending a dick pic, they're hoping she's feeling turned on by it and is going to either send a photo or engage in sexting.
Some participants talked about how they and their partners send dirty photos back and forth, which allows for a curation of arousal, and it can build up until they're in person.
One participant talked about it creating more intimacy. When they saw each other the next time, they actually felt a lot more comfortable engaging each other sexually because they'd had this intimacy and sexuality created via sexting.
Some of the men who do it without consent think that's what women want. They assume that because if they received an unsolicited image of a naked woman, they would be ecstatic. Some men think women feel the same.
And a lot of women actually don't feel this way. Some may, but a lot of women want more of an "ask permission first."
Get consent before you start engaging in the practice.