Assigned to write this story for another venue about men who send photographs of their penises to people they'd like to get to know better, I found myself talking not only with guys who send such photos but also with sexuality experts on why this is becoming an ever-more-common step on the postmodern road to relationships.
"Something about this particular type of exhibitionism is really irresistible to some men," and always has been, says San Francisco sexologist Carol Queen. "The thing that's new is our mode of transmission: electronics have let this happen so much more quickly and easily. ... I think that males sexualize their penises to such a degree that they may not understand how women's eroticized view of them even works.
"Women are so acutely aware in our culture that their entire body is a zone of erotic contemplation -- and I think when women feel sexy, they understand that feeling to inhabit and inform their whole body, too, not just their genitals," Queen adds. "Few women appear to want to primarily show off their own junk. This does strike me as some variety of gender difference."
Sexuality educator Robert Lawrence, who cofounded the Center for Sex & Culture with Queen, adds his perspective:
"What most men think of when looking for sex is their own penis. ... Men use it as a mating device, thinking that its shape and size must be the thing women are looking for in a partner." Penis pictures, sent electronically, are "shorthand for 'I'm ready and willing; are you?'"
The sending of such pictures is part of a larger movement -- a populist, DIY trend that finds millions of men posting images of their own organs at websites such as ErectionPhotos.com and RateMyDick.org.
It's part porn, part public service as such sites are forums for alleviating the insecurity and shame over penis size that plagues so many men.
Rob Holt created ErectionPhotos.com in order "to allow anyone who feels they need this information (or is just curious) to see the natural variation that exists in male erections." Scanning the images posted by fellow users, "many are simply thankful that they were able to compare with normal regular men instead of selectively casted, oversized porn actors," whose penises were the only ones on public display until recently, Holt points out.
Some users "actually take the time to read the clinical goal of the site and write a page-long commentary about their experiences feeling diminished, psychologically and sexually, with the peens of porn," Holt says.
After launching RateMyDick.org in 2005, Tim Wendell was startled by its popularity; over 70,000 men are now profiled on the site. Wendell attributes this to "simple exhibitionism -- men liking to show what they have between their legs in an anonymous way," but also to "guys wishing to get some honest feedback. Many of the comments are reassuring to them." Endowment "is often a subject of huge insecurity, and many members have told me that they feel strengthened by comments they have received."
It gives others a newfound sense of freedom, Wendell says:
"I got a message from an 80-year-old once who was using the site. For him it wasn't a sexual thing, but he just felt hugely liberated to be able to show himself on the site and discuss penises openly and honestly -- something he hadn't been able to do previously in his life."
A small subset of users, he notes, "are into 'penile humiliation' -- they tend to be of a small size and invite others to insult them."
Having received many penis photos, Carol Queen is most interested in what motivates the senders.
"Whether they take the time to occupy the mind of the recipient, or try to, is a fascinating question. ... What does he imagine I think when I get his picture? I bet what I actually do think is a good deal more complicated than what he thinks I think."