I can’t tell you how many times I’ve opened my email to find an unsolicited photo of a man’s penis. No, I’m not a “friend” of Anthony Weiner. I’m a journalist who delved into the everyday world of online sex in order to research the sex practices of average Americans – not the powerful or the rich or the famous. I’m talking the neighbors next door – Joe and Jane Schmo.
And if there’s one thing I discovered in nearly eight years of talking to people about their sex lives, it’s that a whole lot of Americans are taking pictures of their genitals and proudly posting them for others to see.
Within two days of beginning my research in 2004, I received an email from a man in his thirties whom I'll call Jim. Jim had answered my Craigslist casual encounters ad seeking men and women willing to tell me the intimate details of their sex lives.
Quickly Jim told me that he was a bit of an exhibitionist who fantasized about getting caught masturbating. Therefore, he masturbated when anticipating a hotel maid would walk in on him, which had happened. Jim also sent me photos of him, his wife, and their baby. They looked like the cliché perfect American couple – blonde, blue-eyed and athletic. That’s when I asked Jim why he was on Craigslist.
He wasn’t sure, he said, but he guessed he was on there because he yearned for sexual excitement with someone other than his wife. “Yet I’m probably too chicken to actually do anything.” A minute later he asked if I wanted to chat on Yahoo Messenger. (This was 2004.) Eleven minutes later he asked for a photo of me.
I turned down both requests.
But Jim found a photo of me online. And, a week later, he admitted that he got hard while emailing me and that I entered his thoughts when he masturbated.
I made the mistake of thanking him for the ego-stroke. I was feeling insecure – I’d just turned 50 – and was vulnerable.
A psychiatrist friend warned me that I shouldn’t have thanked Jim. “He will take that as a green light to get more sexually seductive with you.”
She was right. He asked me if I wanted to see some nude pictures of him. I ignored his question. He then sent me five nude photos of him lying in bed, his penis prominently displayed, his hand looking as though he was massaging himself.
I tried to avert my eyes from the photos, but I couldn’t stop staring at them either. Jim was good looking, and it’d been years since I’d seen a penis. Plus, we had a bit of a relationship. Admittedly, it was a tenuous email relationship, but we had one – a sexually frustrated young man and an uptight, but sexually curious, 50-year-old journalist.
I tell this embarrassing story to try to explain how a woman might get enticed into receiving unsolicited penis pics … and to tell how she can occasionally enjoy them, despite knowing she shouldn’t, i.e. not with a man who is married to someone else.
Finally, I politely but firmly emailed Jim that I didn’t need photos, only words.
He never replied.
Eventually, I went on AdultFriendFinder.com and Alt.com, again seeking men and women who would talk to me about the details of their sex lives. For the most part, women didn’t reply, but men did, too frequently using photos of their penises as their introductions. I got so tired of receiving such unsolicited photos that I resorted to telling one man that I’d respond when he came up with a more original way of introducing himself.
I never heard from him again.
But I did hear from another man after I asked him why he’d changed his AFF profile picture from a photo of him standing on a golf course holding a driver to a picture of his penis.
At first “Mr. Golfer” responded politely that he just regularly rotated his photos. Then he firmly stated that his G-rated pics never got a response and whenever a woman who’d posted a nude picture of herself answered his emails, the first thing she asked for was a picture of his “equipment,” since people were on the site looking for sex.
He then provided me a “testimonial” from a woman who wanted the “opportunity to feel [his] balls in [her] hand” as his “huge cock begins pulsating in [her] mouth.”
“That is not because I was holding a golf club,” he declared.
I would be remiss if I left the story at that. For one thing, many of the men I talked to stated that many of the women on AFF were professionals seeking clients. Mr. Golfer – a gray-haired, self-proclaimed multi-millionaire – never stated whether his “testimonial” came from a professional. Nor did he say whether they’d ever met and had sex.
For another thing, I learned from Jim and my shrink friend to be very clear in what I was seeking – words only, for my book only, not sex – and I’d been very clear with Mr. Golfer. Instead of “disappearing” like a chastened boy, Mr. Golfer became aggressive.
“Sex begins in the mind and then builds to the physical touching, kissing, hugging, and finely [sic] the intimate act itself,” he emailed me. “In this case you have stimulated me as much as a cold shower so at this point the chances of me having sex with you are slim and slimmer.”
“Please don’t think I changed pictures for you, I have 20 women in my network that really want to get laid and some for the second time so please don’t think that was done for you, it was not!”
I wondered if it was just me, the 50-year-old uptight white Southern Baptist chick, who, for the most part, didn’t like receiving unsolicited penis pics. So I emailed Jessica, a 25-year-old, bisexual chef who cruised Craigslist in search of men for casual encounters, and asked her if penis pics were a turn-on to her.
“Jesus, such a male ego thing,” she wrote. And I did find it narcissistic that men seemingly thought that women who had no emotional connection to them would find their penises as amazing as they did. (When Jim was a boy he “constantly” dropped his pants to watch his penis grow and rise, which probably isn’t uncommon for young boys.)
But Jessica found “penises to be more comical than hot. I mean, they have their own agenda. They can stand up. Whee. It’s like a toy. I always just want to flick them with my fingers.”
I was beginning to feel that way too.
Jessica did appreciate a nice penis and loves to go down on a perfect one. But she didn’t need a Polaroid of one to put on her mantle – “no thanks” – and that “looking at pictures of dongs is not, in itself, a turn on.” She was more interested in what a man was going to do with that penis.
So while Mr. Weiner may be impressed with his penis and think it is photo-worthy, he is far from the only American male thinking that. Mr. Schmo is too. But Mr. Weiner and Mr. Schmo may want to realize what Dr. Debby Herbenick of the Kinsey Institute told me: “It can be a healthy form of sexual expression when it's wanted and well-received. However, men and women should avoid sending photos that are sexual in nature if they are unclear as to whether the other person wants them. If they are not sure, they can ask.”
But as I learned in my years of conducting sex interviews, rarely do men ask. Then again, in my experience, there’s rarely a need for a man to ask because when a woman wants to see a photograph of a man’s penis, she says so.
And I’d add that in this age of the Internet and social media, there is no such thing as a secret sex life. Thinking there is – well, that’s a fantasy.