Sherrie Hewson, a TV presenter in the UK, recently revealed that after signing up for an online dating website she received an unexpected and unsolicited full-frontal image of her correspondent’s genitals. It’s something many women have experienced online and, although Hewson tried to make light of it she was left feeling shocked, and quit the site.
If you’re feeling brave (warning: graphic content), then take a look at ByeFelipe or visit Anna Gensler’s Instagram account for her artistic approach to dealing with the deluge of sexual suggestions and images she receives. Indeed, unsolicited “dick pics” have become such a problem on online dating services that one site, OkCupid, actually removed the capability to send images.
What would possess someone to send a graphic image of themselves without ever being asked for one, or even thinking to check if it might be appreciated?
When it comes to the internet, it seems common sense to think that the physical distance and anonymity the online world provides allows, even encourages, people to do things they wouldn’t normally do “in real life”.
If you don’t believe your actions hold any consequences for you, then there is no fear of the social ramifications which might normally keep certain behaviours in check. John Suler called this the “online disinhibition effect”.
Put simply, if an online suitor can send an image of a disembodied penis to someone they don’t have to face, they are much more likely to do so than, for example, exposing themselves in public with all the social and legal consequences that might bring.
But this doesn’t explain the underlying motivations to send such images on a dating site. Do senders really hope to woo a potential date with the equipment on display? Well, according to some senders: yes. In a piece from online lifestyle magazine Refinery29, several of those men interviewed who had sent dick pics said they assumed women would want a nude image of them, because they would be more than happy to receive one from a woman.
Perhaps they should have taken note of a survey by Match.com which concluded receiving “sexts” is a turn off for women who use online dating – presumably because there is something very unsexy about ignoring the requirement to obtain consent first.
But to assume that these “misguided” attempts at seduction explain the rise and rise of such cyber-flashing tells only half the story. Misogynistic harassment is a serious issue for online dating services. Violent threats, hostile outbursts and being blackmailed into sending explicit images, are just some examples of the potential fall-out a woman might face – even for just ignoring or rebuffing a would-be suitor. The unwanted dick pic appears on this spectrum of behaviour.
A hypothesis I’m exploring concerns men’s responses to rejection on dating sites. Online dating offers dramatically wider opportunities to find and approach other singles. But this also means the scale of rejection may be amplified for someone who casts out many lines but receives few (or zero) bites. This particularly affects men, whom research shows initiate contact almost 80% of the time on dating sites.
Add to that the heightened amount of control that women have over online conversations (politeness norms can make it more difficult to assertively deflect romantic advances in face-to-face conversations, nudging women toward showing greater politeness than they might otherwise feel) and you have what social psychologists might call “a masculine identity threat”. In a culture where men are generally still expected to take the lead in sexual relationships, being denied all of these opportunities may make some men feel powerless in the online dating game and so turn to harassment or intimidation to try and re-establish a sense of power.
Love and sex news: in pictures
Love and sex news: in pictures
1/13 Timetable of Love
A new study has revealed that Sunday at 9am is the most popular time of the week for Brits to get busy in the bedroom. Our weekends tend to be a lot sexier than our weekdays, with three of the top five most common times for sex falling on a Saturday, at 11.30am, 10.30pm and 11.30pm
2/13 Singletons judge potential partners on their phones, says new study
A new study has found that women are 92 per cent more likely than men to judge a potential partner negatively for having an older phone model.
3/13 Online dating risk
A new report by the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau has found that last year, singles were conned out of £39 million by fraudsters they’d met on dating sites and apps. Con artists are increasingly creating fake online profiles and tricking people on dating sites into handing over often large sums of money.
4/13 Sainsbury’s sells same sex valentine’s day cards for first time
For the first time, Sainsbury’s is selling a range of Valentine’s Day cards that represent same-sex couples. The simple designs feature illustrations of a woman and a woman, and a man and a man, with the caption ‘You + Me.’
5/13 Mother's blood pressure before conception could influence sex of child, study suggests
Pregnant woman measures the blood pressure with automatic sphygmomanometer.
6/13 Couples oversharing on social media do so to mask relationship insecurities, expert suggests
Couple sitting on couch with their phones in their hand
7/13 Injection of ‘romantic’ hormone could help treat psychosexual problems
8/13 One in ten British women experience pain during
9/13 Erectile dysfunction 'linked to risk of early death'
Men who suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED) are 70 per cent more likely to die early, a new study has found. US scientists believe that the disorder may be linked to poor cardiovascular health, and suggested that men with ED should be screened for health issues that could cut their lives short
10/13 Watching porn does not cause negative attitudes to women
The average porn user may have more egalitarian views towards women than non-users, a contentious new study has suggested. Researchers at Western University in Canada have even argued that many pornography fans might be “useful allies” in women’s struggles for equality in the workplace and in public office. They reported in the Journal of Sex Research that the 23 per cent of people who said they had watched an “X-rated” film during the previous year were no more or less likely to identify as feminists than those who did not watch porn.
11/13 The characteristics of men who pay for sex
Men who pay for sex share similar traits to rapists and sex offenders, according to new research. A study from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), claims that men who have sex with female sex workers feel less empathy for them than men who do not buy sex. Part of this reason is due to the fact that they view them as "intrinsically different from other women,” according to the authors.
12/13 Heartbreak can actually change the rhythm of your heart
Losing a loved one really can break your heart, research suggests, although not for ever. People who lose a partner are at an increased risk of developing an irregular heartbeat for the next 12 months, scientists found. The risk seems to be greatest among the under 60s and when the loss of the partner was least expected
13/13 'Weird' sexual fetishes are actually very normal
A number of sexual fetishes considered anomalous in psychiatry are actually common in the general population, a study has found. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), sexual interests fall into two categories: normal (normophilic) and anomalous (paraphilic). Researchers asked 1,040 Quebec residents, representative of the general population, about their experiences of sexual behaviour considered abnormal by the DSM-5. The study, published in The Journal of Sex Research, found that of the eight types of anomalous behaviour listed in the DSM-5, four were found to be neither rare or unusual among the experiences and desires reported by men and women
Consider the following story relayed to me during my research: my interviewee, after declining a man’s interest on a popular dating site, described receiving a message from him with a picture of an erection next to a kitchen knife. This disturbing juxtaposition suggests an intended reading of the penis as a weapon, with the ability to hurt or “punish” this woman for her apparent “transgression” by rejecting him. Quite clearly this person meant to frighten and intimidate her.
Some men even speak frankly about harassment as a motivation. In the Refinery 29 article, one person agreed that dick pics are a form of “lashing out … caused by being so thoroughly ignored by so many women.” A male participant from a study on young adults’ sexting was more unequivocal still, comparing those who send unwanted images with a “flasher in a raincoat”.
Flashing in public is illegal. In the UK, a conviction under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 can lead to a two year prison sentence. It’s not yet clear how the law might apply to the sending of unsolicited dick pics or sexual images, but British police have investigated at least one case. It’s essentially cyber-flashing, the real world’s online equivalent, and should be treated as seriously. There is no excuse for sexual harassment, online or offline.