Any woman who has ever ventured into the world of online dating, or almost any form of modern electronic communication, will tell you that one of their main complaints is that men routinely send them unsolicited pictures of their genitals. Women understandably complain about this for two main reasons:
"Men are GROSS" is the most common explanation that women have for this. Others might add "They're GROSS and STUPID. Do they really think I'm going to magically want to have sex with them now, after seeing their penis?"
This definitely appears to be more of a male thing. At least, in terms of sending the pictures unrequested. Both males and females are commonly sending nudes of themselves to people they meet online, but women tend to wait until asked. That distinction may simply be an expression of gender differences in mating and dating strategies. The fact is, women are told that being sexually bold in such a manner is shameful and makes them a slut.
There really aren't any research studies looking at this question, and so all we can do right now is speculate, though with some informed psychological wisdom:
It's important to note that within gay male circles, this behavior is very common, and is not viewed as a problem. In fact, many men are happy to get such pictures, and usually respond in kind. That's important. because it offers some confirmation that many men want to receive such pics, and are really hoping their recipient will enjoy it and be turned on. But, for some reason, whether biology, psychology or social suppression of female sexuality, women don't enjoy this the way men do. In a clever twist, one woman started sending men pics of female genitals. She was surprised that overwhelmingly, men loved it, found her boldness both sexy and fun, and wanted to meet her. So, again, we have evidence that men are sending such pictures because they think others will like them, as much as they do.
Smartphones, texting, email and online dating are the current vehicle for this behavior and sexual dynamic, but let's not pretend that this is a new issue. The underlying sexual processes and dynamics have always been with us. One issue is that men just aren't good at hearing, or responding to "No." I'm not excusing that. But this same dynamic, that men think women are sexually as excited as they are, is getting in the way of men hearing the "No, we DON'T want to see that!"
There ARE men who've gone to jail and been put on sex offender registries for sending such pictures to persons they didn't know, who turned out to be underage. This behavior is sometimes much more serious than we may know.
Many women are genuinely bothered by receiving such pictures and view it as an unwelcome intrusion. Some feminist writers have described this as a form of sexual assault, and a way in which men assert the dominance of their sexuality over that of women. Such pictures can be a form of sexual harassment when they occur in a work/professional environment.
I empathize with the women who are offended and grossed out at receiving such images. Women, and all people, should be able to have some safe spaces. Unfortunately, safety on the Internet is hard to come by. I do think that this is a particular issue in our society, where nudity is sexualized and taboo. I wonder if women have as strong a reaction in societies where intersex nudity is common in bathing and beaches?
Ultimately, the answer here lies in greater dialogue with men and women, over what they actually want in sexual communications. This might reach some of these men, those who are genuinely not understanding some sexual differences. But, this requires for women to have the safety to be honest about their sexual interests. For instance, could women ever say, "Look, I probably WOULD like to see your penis pic, but I'd like to be able to ASK for it..."? The shaming and suppression of female sexuality is part of the issue here, as men don't feel they understand what women actually want sexually, and women don't feel they can express it safely.
Unfortunately, I don't think such dialogue is happening, or even possible right now. People who are offended and grossed out at such images would like them banned. They want men to understand that such behaviors are rude, unacceptable and should simply stop. Many women have tried attacking such men, flaming and shaming them, both online and in personal communications. But such strategies probably won't work.
A tenet of psychology is that negative reinforcement is still reinforcement. The more uproar, outrage and disgust that such pics get, the more powerful some men feel. They feel some pride that their penis generated this strong reaction. So, shaming, banning, flaming strategies are unlikely to be successful. A better strategy is to ignore it. I know that probably feels unsatisfying. But if we remove as much of the reinforcement, including negative attention, many of these men might view this behavior as ultimately unrewarding.
It's important that women, and men, understand that this behavior, even when it feels distasteful and rude, is not personal. It's not actually about you, the person receiving these pics. This dynamic, silly as it can be, is not proof that men are disgusting perverts and women are prudes. This behavior reveals some core differences between men and women's sexual personalities, and that men need to work harder at understanding women's actual sexual interests and motivations.
The more we engage in open dialogue about these issues and sexual motivations and miscommunications, the better.
Follow David on Twitter. (But please don't send him pics of your junk).