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Why do men send women 'dick pics' without consent?

Sascha Schüler
February 21, 2020

Whether dating apps or texting, it's all too common for women to receive random, unsolicited sexual images from men. Scientifically, cyberflashing hasn't received much attention, but initial studies offer some answers.

A woman looking at a smartphone in a state of shock
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Klose

A sex scandal is shaking up French politics these days. Parisian mayor candidate Benjamin Griveaux has abandoned his campaign after a video allegedly featuring him masturbating surfaced online.

Believed to have sent it to a love interest, Griveaux has not yet confirmed or denied if the video indeed features him. Although the clip was apparently sent in a consensual context, men's proclivity for sending random, unsolicited sexual images or videos to women, commonly known as "dick pics," is a familiar phenomenon in the digital age.

In 2017, 53% of 18 to 35-year-old women surveyed by British market research and data analytics firm YouGov said they had received unsolicited dick pics. For those between 35 and 54, it was 35%.

There's nothing inherently wrong about sharing sexual images or videos — for some, it's exciting and erotic. Snapchat's particularly useful in this regard — images only last a maximum of 10 seconds, after which they're deleted by the app (to what extent this is permanent is unclear, but that's another story).

But three in four women say they've been sent pictures of men's genitalia without their consent; in social media chats, for example, while online-dating, or even in public, through sharing functions like Apple's AirDrop. 

Read more:  Scared of getting attached ⁠— Why we run away from relationships

A man typing into his smartphone in public transport. In the background: A woman looking into another mobile device.
Even in public places, men anonymously send obscene photos to women using sharing functionsImage: picture-alliance/empics/K. O'Connor

What is "cyberflashing"?

Why are men compelled to send photos of their genitalia to complete strangers? A Canadian study from 2019 was one of the first to examine the motivations and expectations of the men sending these images, as well as their demographics.

It found that cyberflashers were most commonly motivated by a "transactional mindset." Most of the anonymous 1087 men who were surveyed as part of the study said they sent these pictures in the hope of receiving similar ones in return. 

The second most common reason given by respondents was that they were searching for a partner.

Results also showed that men who admitted they had sent a picture without being asked showed a greater degree of narcissism and sexism. However, explicit misogyny could only be inferred from very few of the questionnaires. Researchers found this mindset in only 6% of respondents. They concluded the majority of senders could be described as "misguided" rather than "hateful."

But... why?

In early 2019, Moya Sarner made a similar observation for the Guardian UK when she decided to conduct research inside the epicenter of digital sexism: Reddit, one of the largest online forums. There, she asked men directly if and why they had ever sent a dick pic. The men were allowed to answer anonymously. The thread exploded.

Again, different motives were given. These ranged from a desire for validation and a confidence boost due to low self esteem, to the goal of arousal, to some kind of probability calculation. They hoped, at some point, a woman would engage with them, Sarner said.

In 2016, American clinical psychologist David Ley attempted to consider the phenomenon using a scientific lens. But as there weren't any empirical studies to draw on until after the publication of his essay, he had to limit himself to comparisons and speculation. As the Canadian study suggested, Ley concluded that this behavior is often based on men's misinterpretation of women's sexual interest.

Read more: Infidelity: A fling doesn't have to end everything

A man standing next to a lawyer, covering his face with a folder
The unsolicited sending of pictures of one’s penis is a criminal offenceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Becker

Inconclusive scientific evidence

According to Ley, in anonymous environments, men, in particular, tend to display more sexualized behavior. In addition, male mating strategies are historically characterized by a certain boldness and audacity, Ley says. From this perspective, negative attention is often better than none at all.

For some, the thought of sexual rejection is the main source of excitement, for others, it's exactly what they fear. Ley suggests men with a heightened fear of rejection use dick pics to gauge whether their naked bodies are considered attractive, figuring an online interaction might be less painful than in real life.

The Canadian study results show sending unsolicited sexual content is mainly a result of men's ignorance. Too often, men assume what they think is an appropriate message to send will also be received as such by the women they send them to. 

The fact that this might not be the case might not be clear to all, especially "first-time offenders," Ley says. There exists a lack of necessary clarification, he adds, suggesting young adults be taught to speak openly about their feelings and preferences from an early stage.

What to do?

Often, women simply ignore these unwanted images in order to avoid giving the sender the attention they are asking for.

But there are other options the senders should be aware of. After all, sending unsolicited obscene pictures is not a trivial offense. Recipients can make them public or have them prosecuted. In Germany, sharing sexual content without consent is a crime, which comes under the unsolicited distribution of pornographic material. This is punishable by fines or imprisonment of up to one year.

As of February 2020, those affected can protect themselves from having to see such unwanted content while using Twitter. With the twitter extension safeDM, inappropriate pictures can be filtered out of personal messages using artificial intelligence.