As a queer man who uses dating apps, I engage with a sphere of virtuality and social interaction, the primary function of which is to objectify men—to reduce identity to sexual commodity. I have had my fair share of interactions with nude photographs—and for the past year and a half, I’ve been collecting unsolicited ‘dick pics’. I do not do this for the satisfaction of some fetishistic or voyeuristic desire, but I collected these images mostly because I am perplexed by how many I receive. After doing some casual reading about the correlations between mental illness in gay men and dating apps, I now realize that this has been a somewhat masochistic, dependant kind of endeavour. Between September and December 2016, I received over 200 unsolicited nudes through apps such as Grindr and Scruff. In this work, I want to explore, preliminarily, the dick pic as an extension of the sexual encounter, as well as the social conditions—of power, of dominance, and of aggression—that drive the production and transmission of the dick pic.
I am making an intentional semiotic delineation, here, between the penis and the dick: the penis is anatomical, possibly erotic, but the dick is something more. For me, the dick is purely sexual. These images in which I am interested are concomitantly sexual, are often aggressive, and can, at times, be violent. These images are pornographic. They are not ‘photographs of penises’. Mapplethorpe took photographs of penises. These are dick pics.
I want to situate the dick pic as a permutation of the selfie. Like the selfie, the dick pic functions in a way to “get closer” to the people who interact with it.1 In a 2013 New York Times article, James Franco talks about engaging with the selfie as a one-way interaction, deferring to a reader–subject relationship, and I’d like to suggest that the transmission of the unsolicited dick pic follows in this vein. What makes the unsolicited dick pic interesting, though, is in its mode of transmission. By its very nature, unsolicited dick pics, often sent through cellular devices, aren’t often posted widely for a broad audience, and this introduces some volatility to the reader–subject relationship. More importantly, it introduces a kind of biopolitical objectification. Franco writes that “the noncelebrity selfie is a chance for subjects to glam it up, to show off a special side of themselves—dressing up for a special occasion, or not dressing, which is a kind of preening that says, ‘There is something important about me that clothes hide, and I don’t want to hide.’” While Franco isn’t referring explicitly to nudes, there is an element of exhibitionism involved in sending dick pics that communicates ‘give me your attention—I don’t want to hide.’ The dick pic, as I figure it, is proliferated by way of the cell phone. This is the key modal difference between the dick pic and any other pornographic photographic artifact. Indeed, Franco remarks that “in the end, selfies are avatars … that we send out to give others a sense of who we are.”2 On ‘dating apps’ (read: casual sex apps) like Grindr or Scruff, men have options in what some scholars have called the ‘sexual marketplace’. Not only can men select sexual partners based on their facial characteristics and physique (and, more problematically, by race or ethnicity), they can also inquire about more intimate details, like penis size and circumcision status.
This really is a meat market.
For Foucault, sex is the pivotal factor in the proliferation of mechanisms of discipline and normalization. It is also the centre of a system of “dividing practices” that separate off the insane, the delinquent, and the homosexual.3 Speaking to the representational and spectacular power in relation to the photograph, Paul Frosh argues that photography is a “performance of representation” where both the act of photography and the photographic image generate “multiple, inter-related meanings.”4 The separated homosexual population themselves employ these mechanisms of discipline within ‘the community’ in an attempt to replicate or sub-simulate the same mechanisms of power under which they have been marginalized—and this is exactly the source of my interrogative inquiry: the power, control, and attention that drives the transmission and consumption of the dick pic, and how the gay community uses these photographs to execute this biopolitic of subjugation and oppression.
Ray Kurzweil, Donna Haraway, and other cyber- or digital scholars might consider the phone and the dating app to be cybernetic or cyborgic extensions of the self. Lisa Nakamura notes that “the proper relationship to the [computer] interface is codified quite clearly: competency or mastery is defined by the level of immediacy the user experiences in relation to it.”5 We can come to understand immediacy as the use of media to the extent that the medium itself—the ‘window’—disappears, bringing forth a kind of direct experience where technology becomes transparent, unnoticed by the subject.6 The dating app and the communications therein have become so transparent that we take for granted the nuanced cultural differences that play out when we communicate via these technologies than when we communicate in person. Indeed, the dick pic is one of these differences.
Can we imagine a world in which gay men go to bars equipped with Polaroid shots of their dicks and hand them out like business cards? It’s unfathomable. I am particularly interested in the ways that the dick pic mediates conversations on dating apps, but first, I want to create a division here between the solicited and the unsolicited dick pic.
If it has been established that both parties on an app are looking for sex, there is an unspoken expectation that dick pics (among other nudes) will be exchanged. The entire conversation then revolves around this expectation—this anticipation—of the dick pic. Though some men will outright ask for (or demand) nudes, there is, generally, a tiptoeing around initiating this exchange. Often, one member of the conversation will ask for ‘more pics’. This first request for photos generally involves the exchange of more photographs of the other person’s face and chest—the ‘safe for work’ photos, which the solicitor will often reciprocate. Following this, they will ask for ‘other pics’ (note the difference, here, between ‘more’ and ‘other’ pics). Once superficial physical attraction is established, the implication here is that more ‘risqué’ photos will then be exchanged. This is the dynamic that underlies the solicited dick pic. This is not my subject here. The solicited dick pic espouses a morality which is predicated on the willingness of both parties to engage with these media, even if this solicitation has only been tentatively established.
The unsolicited dick pic raises Foucauldian questions about power, and also allows us to further engage with the social discourse surrounding sexual harassment and consent, especially in virtual contexts. Paul Frosh asserts that the power of a photograph depends on viewers’ understanding of the “social context and technical processes” through which the image is created, and that the “knowledge of photography’s representational power is dramatized, in part, through the iconography of the image itself: content, compositional clues, focus, [and] colour.”7 Most dick pics are similarly composed, with the erect penis the centrepiece of the shot, taken either from the photographer’s perspective—from the top-down—or in a mirror, pelvis thrust ever so slightly so as to draw attention to the penis, with the corollary effect of making it look bigger, more present—a sure sign of virile masculinity, dripping with penetrative ability.
As ‘unsolicited’ might suggest, some men will send a picture of their dick that hasn’t been requested by the other member of the conversation. Most often, this manifests itself in the form of a conversation-‘starter’—the dick-as-icebreaker. One man will message another on Grindr, but rather than greeting the user with their words, they will send a dick pic. Here, the body becomes a “political field,” (re)inscribed and (re)constituted by power relations.8 The unsolicited dick pic is a statement: ‘This will penetrate you. Your body is mine. I will colonize it.’ Indeed, the penis itself is a symbol of domination—of patriarchal and colonial, and, as I argue, necropolitical conquest. The receiver of the unsolicited dick pic should not be mistaken to be a participant. Participation requires some form of willingness to engage, and this is not the case for the recipient of the unsolicited dick pic. My interrogation here focuses exclusively on the dick pic that is forced upon the viewer.
The dick pic arouses big questions for me. How can we come to read these unsolicited dick pics as judgments of human subjectivity? To what degree, in Hegelian or Deleuzean terms, are we ‘becoming(-)subject’? Moreover, how can we figure a necropolitical understanding of the ‘non-human’ as a result of Grindr users’ transmission of unsolicited dick pics? For Georges Bataille, life is defective only when death has taken it hostage. It is in terms of this process of ‘taking hostage’ that I want to think through the dynamic of the dick pic. Death “obliterates what was supposed to continue being” and reduces life to nothing — similarly, the dick pic markes an end, but not for the individual who sends it. Mbembe and Bataille, among others, see sexuality as being inextricably linked to violence and to the erasure of the body and self by way of “orgiastic” impulses. This figures into Foucault’s figuration of the term ‘racism’ as a technology aimed at permitting the exercise of biopower—particularly when he takes from Arendt’s composition of the politics of race being inextricably linked to the politics of death.9 These figurations of death, through a necropolitical lens, need not be literal, material deaths. Social death also renders people desubjectified, or rather, objectified, stripped of their agency. These reifications of colonial terror constantly intertwine with colonially-generated fantasies of wilderness and ‘liberation’ to create the effect of the real. For gay men of colour on these dating apps, their mere presence—their lack of whiteness—constitutes this same social death by which Mbembe is fascinated. The unsolicited dick pic has the effect of deprotagonizing these men of colour, rendering them socially irrelevant, unnecessary, dead. If the erect penis is connotatively associated with these ideas of conquest and violence—of impalement—then so, too, should the unsolicited dick pic.
Frosh reminds us that spectacular power creates this connection between photographic significance and the question of cultural agency—thus he suggests a “‘pragmatics’ of photography” in which interpretation is as much about what photographs do within social contexts, as it is about what the content of photographs mean.10 To be clear: in interpreting photos, we cannot separate the meaning of the photograph from the social power that it wields. It is not the mere presence of the penis in the photograph that makes these images violent, it is the context in which the photo is sent as well as its underlying message, and, indeed, its composition.
If the dick pic is an extension of the sexual encounter, which I argue it is, then the unsolicited dick pic—irrespective of the sender’s intent—must be understood as sexually violent. If we approach this from feminist frameworks of consent, the unsolicited dick pic stands to perpetuate a rape culture.
I would now like to present somewhat of an ethical quandary with respect to my archiving of, and resulting critical academic study into, the dick pics that have been sent to me in absence of any request. On the one hand, these individuals did not consent to having their dick pics subjected to such academic and critical scrutiny; but on the other, I didn’t consent to receiving any of these photographs, either.
Levinas argues that the encounter of the Other through the face reveals a certain poverty which forbids a reduction to Sameness, and, simultaneously, installs a responsibility for the Other in the Self.11 Is the unsolicited dick pic, under a Levinasian framework, an Other? Must we, as subjects, give in to and serve the Other? Is the dick pic facialized? Ethically, are we responsible to the dick pic in our face-to-‘face’ encounter with it? For me, these questions are of vital importance. Moreover, what are we to make of the subjectivity of the dick pic if we grant it the status of Levinasian Other? If we provide the dick pic with agency, will we not be made to swallow the power it enunciates?
I think that it is important to engage with these images directly to truly understand the exertion of power here. I think it’s important to remember that one dick pic cannot stand in for all the rest: that there is something particularly desubjectifying or deprotagonizing about being inundated with dick pics—and while in this work I have embedded my own subjectivity, particularly with respect to my experiences interacting with these dick pics, I know that men are not kind to women, either. This has not escaped me. Let’s not forget: this is how hundreds of men have chosen to impress upon me their identity—this is supposed to be their business card, their face, their name, and their personality. The unsolicited nature with which these photos were sent also says a lot about how these men view me: with no value once they have ejaculated, and no regard as to whether I am even interested in such an encounter. When dick pics are forced in front of me, I am reduced, crudely, to just a set of holes.
- James Franco, “The Meanings of the Selfie,” The New York Times, December 26, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/29/arts/the-meanings-of-the-selfie.html. ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Reissue edition (New York: Vintage, 1990), 139.; Monique Deveaux, “Feminism and Empowerment: A Critical Reading of Foucault,” Feminist Studies 20, no. 2 (1994): 224, doi:10.2307/3178151. ↵
- Paul Frosh, “The Public Eye and the Citizen-Voyeur: Photography as a Performance of Power,” Social Semiotics 11, no. 1 (April 1, 2001): 43, doi:10.1080/10350330123316. ↵
- Lisa Nakamura, “The Social Optics of Race and Networked Interfaces in The Matrix Trilogy and Minority Report,” in Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet, Electronic Mediations 23 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 95. ↵
- Eugene Thacker, Biomedia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 8. ↵
- Paul Frosh, “The Public Eye and the Citizen-Voyeur: Photography as a Performance of Power,” Social Semiotics 11, no. 1 (April 1, 2001): 44, doi:10.1080/10350330123316. ↵
- Monique Deveaux, “Feminism and Empowerment: A Critical Reading of Foucault,” Feminist Studies 20, no. 2 (1994): 224, doi:10.2307/3178151. ↵
- Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” in Foucault in an Age of Terror, eds. Stephen Morton and Stephen Bygrave (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2008), 155. ↵
- Paul Frosh, “The Public Eye and the Citizen-Voyeur: Photography as a Performance of Power,” Social Semiotics 11, no. 1 (April 1, 2001): 44–45, doi:10.1080/10350330123316. ↵
- Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 1995), 95–119. ↵