We don't know whether we've all seen Rep. Anthony Weiner's wiener -- and, apparently, neither does he. What we do know, though, is that the schlong shot is having its day.
Before the New York congressman's Twitter scandal, there were of course the Brett Favre and Kanye West incidents -- but you need only go as far as Craigslist's casual encounters, Chatroulette or certain 20-something dudes' iPhones for proof that it isn't just male celebrities who are ready for their crotch close-up. It's often intended as a come-on, but the common response from women -- particularly when it is unsolicited -- is, "Ew, gross."
So: What's with the penis pics?
It might be that straight men are simply assuming that women's desires mirror their own. Charlie Glickman, a Good Vibrations staff sexologist, points out that many straight men like looking at the female equivalent. "Larry Flynt's empire grew in part because he showed the 'split beaver' shot," he said. "Maybe straight men are projecting onto women that women like the equivalent." Cindy Meston, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees: "I think men think this would work because it works for them," said Meston, co-author of the book "Why Women Have Sex." (Hint: It isn't because of crotch shots.) "Images of women's genitals trigger availability -- an explicit, immediate sexual cue, which turns them on."
Speaking of evolutionary sexual cues, cognitive neuroscientist Ogi Ogas points out, "Men who send off penis pictures probably aren't thinking at all, they're responding to an unconscious, evolutionary urge likely inherited from our primate ancestors: male monkeys and apes routinely display their penis (usually erect) to females to indicate sexual interest," he wrote in an email. As I reported in my interview about Ogas' book, "A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire," when browsing for Internet porn, men search for penises (i.e., "big dick") nearly as often as they search for vaginas (i.e., "small pussy"), which he similarly attributes in evolutionary terms to the penis' function as an indicator of aggression and a "sperm competition cue."
It might also have something to do with our cultural view of men's physiques. "The penis is the only part of the male body that is sexualized," says Glickman. "In the last couple of decades, we've seen more of an emphasis on men's abs or whatever, but they're still not sexualized in the same way that women's bare midriffs are." The penis is "the only part of the male body that one can take a picture of and have a definitely sexual message," he says. When women share sexy photos of themselves, though, it's usually of their breasts, butt or a cute pose while modeling lingerie. Sex writer Susie Bright, author of "Big Sex Little Death," told me by phone, "They don't think of their cunt as the seat of their power. Guys don't have to go through a consciousness-raising party for that. They just think: 'Hey, it's my dick! It's the real me, the Titanic me.'"
Ironically, while some of the women I heard from expressed an interest in receiving a photo of a man's chest (or, as one woman specified, "Send me shirtless Bradley Cooper"), it seems the penis is one of the last male body parts women want to see. The response to a call I put out on Twitter for women's feelings on guys pointing a camera between their legs was one of total repulsion. Specifically, I asked whether these photos "do it" for them, and one tweeter responded, "If by 'do it' you mean 'send me to the toilet retching,' then yes, they do." Another woman responded with "ick" and the hashtag "#thankgodimnodatinganymore"; and yet another tweeted, "Not at all. The penis is ugly. End of story." In the penis' defense, I have to note that plenty of women think it can be quite the opposite. (I'll have to save the discussion of why disgust over the male member is so common for another day.) Rachel Rabbit White tweeted that junk close-up "should never be an opener," but "if you already know and love the member in question, hay!"
Asking women how they feel about, um, Peter portraits -- I'm running out of slang here -- is kind of like asking whether they like giving blow jobs or watching porn. Some love it, some hate it -- and opinions are often extreme in one direction or the other. Those that are fond of a penis shot typically prefer that it come within a sexual narrative of some sort. "It's true that erect penises have beginnings, middles and ends -- but the story they tell is all too obvious and not very romantic and rather self-absorbed," jokes Toby Miller, a social scientist who focuses on sex and gender. "Many women prefer their narratives to take a wider form that include more people -- and don't always end up in an action-adventure climax. So to speak." He says the fantasy men are entertaining by sending cock shots is one of women desiring "the 'zipless fuck' a la Erica Jong."
Straight women aren't the only ones who prefer that a penis pic come with some context. Josh, a 27-year-old gay man, told me, "A cock shot on its own, without context around it, would only make me laugh, and do nothing for me sexually." He's come across both cases on Grindr, a location-based gay hookup service. In that venue, he says, "it's hard to be grossed out because it's not like you're expecting people to send you photos of their doily collection" -- but unrequested penis shots usually come from "sketchy" sorts who are misreading social cues. (Although he makes an exception for a guy showing off that he has a "huge cock" rather than an average-length member.) If you're into a guy, though, "and he sends you a picture of his dick, proving that he's into you, or horny or whatever," he says, "it can actually be really hot."
Whether one of these photos is hot or not, welcome or unwanted, threatening or alluring, all depends on the circumstances, which is true of all sexual overtures, right? A dick flash from a lover is a far cry from a wanking stranger on the subway or an unsolicited "sext" from a professional athlete. The cock shot phenomenon is not just an example of that yawning divide between intention and effect when it comes to sex, but also the importance of context and consent.