Last Mother’s Day, news had just broken that then-Congressional Representative Anthony Weiner had tweeted a picture of his erect penis to a woman, thinking the tweet was private. The blogosphere immediately erupted in debates over the relative merits of women over men, the moral weight of adultery (Weiner is married), and the need for public officials to stop thinking they understand new media.
For me, however, a central question raised by the event was never fully addressed: what is it with men and photos of their erect penises?
In the 12 months that have passed since the Weiner incident, I have received unsolicited penis pictures from several men I wasn’t dating, didn’t plan on dating, and in some cases didn’t even really know.
And I am not alone. Only just this week, a friend of mine received an erect-penis picture via text from a coworker who had intended it for his girlfriend but then thumbed in the wrong number.
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In fact, a quick poll of those of my (male and female) friends who cared to answer the question shows that un-solicited penis pictures are not all that uncommon. Interestingly, the women I asked all said they had never sent photos of their genitalia to anyone. Absent more representative polling (and somehow I don’t think this question has ever made it into a survey), let’s just say for now that men are more likely to take and send photos of their genitalia than women.
The question is why? And… so what?
Here’s my theory.
Men and women are taught to deal with social situations differently. Men and boys are overwhelmingly taught to depend on themselves, to be direct, and to celebrate their physical strength. Women and girls, on the other hand, are taught the value of social coherence and politeness, and are often not encouraged to celebrate their bodies at all. Whether these are innate sex differences or acquired characteristics is an open question, but socially, for most people, and in varying degrees, the sciences agree that gender (i.e. learned norms), if not sex (i.e. biological distinctions), makes a difference.
This is the framework that makes a man more likely than a woman to think a photo of an erect penis is a good way to communicate something positive about a man’s body. And it is the same framework that makes a woman more likely than a man to worry if she is overweight or unattractive (which according to prevailing norms often is seen as synonymous).
Like most internalized behavioural patterns, the difference is the starkest when the individual feels threatened.
In the context of an inter-personal relationship this means — to be slightly clichéd about it— that men are more likely to react to insecurity by reasserting their physical superiority (“You have never seen a bigger dick than mine!”) and women are more likely to react by begging for approval (“Does this dress make my ass look big?”). Both proclamations get old fast, not least because anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of either knows there is only one appropriate answer, regardless the truth: “Of course not.”
But even if you transplant this dynamic to a professional or other public arena, these somewhat primitive reactions are problematic. Men are more likely to assert their superiority — despite and often because of any insecurity they might feel — whereas women are more likely to phrase statements as declarations of submission — despite being experts in their field and sometimes precisely because they are.
This very real gender difference is at least partially at fault when it comes to companies and society more generally valuing women’s work less than men’s: women, themselves, tend to play down their own value.
To be sure, there is no research on the relation between penis pictures, gendered social cues, and how it relates to job performance and pay rates. Moreover, I am certainly not trying to blame women for the discrimination they suffer. And I don’t believe any of these tendencies are universal, absolute, or inevitable.
However, there is more than enough science to support the existence of gendered reactions to threats and insecurity, and to point out the different ways in which boys and girls are taught to think about and enjoy their bodies, even today.
Perhaps more to the point, male (sexual) aggression — even when solicited, welcomed, and enjoyed — is part of a gendered framework that, if imposed in a general and mechanical manner, hurts us all. In fact, research shows that gendered norms make men much less likely than women to seek medical or other help for physical and mental health issues, with very real consequences for their health and happiness.
So, gals, next time you put on your favourite dress, ask yourself how you feel, not how someone else might think you look. And guys: if you find yourself about to snap a picture of your junk, ask yourself if that really is your best side, and if you wouldn’t rather be known for who you are.