We’ve all had them. On a Thursday afternoon or at 3am on a Saturday night, from a stranger or someone we’re dating, on Twitter or WhatsApp: the dreaded unsolicited dick pic. It used to be kind of funny – “look at this weird penis I got sent!” – but as more and more women have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances online, the joke has started to wear rather thin.
So news that the police are investigating a case of unsolicited dick pic sending comes as somewhat of a relief. Lorraine Crighton-Smith was on a train to work when, via Apple’s Airdrop function, a nearby stranger sent her pictures of his penis. It’s actually the first time I’ve heard of Airdrop being used like this so, while obviously horrible, hats off to the guy for innovating new ways to make women feel threatened while they go about their daily business.
It’s pleasing to see that this kind of cyber harassment is finally being taken seriously – after all, an unwanted dick pic is just as bad as someone standing and flashing at you in the street. It’s still a violation, still unsettling and uncomfortable for women, many of whom have been victims of unwanted sexual contact before. There’s this weird idea that because it’s online it’s somehow totally fine – there’s no direct threat, sure, but it’s still deeply unnerving. There’s this sinister undertone, a sexually aggressive thread that runs through messages like that, whether it’s from someone you know or not.
So what could this new police support mean for the rest of us; those of us who are sent unsolicited dick pics on Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp or on dating sites? Could this be the start of a glorious new age of penis-free browsing?
I’d love to be hopeful here, but… probably not. While a certain type of man still exists, there’s probably going to be a woman on the end of some pretty shitty harassment, and there’s going to be a bunch more people who couldn’t care less.
How we conceptualise this stuff is fairly telling. I often tell friends who don’t live online about the massive amounts of harassment I, and other women, get, and even when they understand how horrible it is there’s still the sense that simply existing online is invitation for this kind of stuff. It’s jarring, really, because none of those people would ever say a woman deserved to be flashed because they were wearing a revealing outfit or dared to leave the house alone. So why is it different online? Why is merely being a woman on Tinder invitation for sexual harassment? We might want to get laid, sure, but that doesn’t mean we want to see a close up of your genitals. Even on a date, when the promise of sex might be looming heavily on the horizon, someone (hopefully) wouldn’t whack their dick out for no reason.
So why is it fine online? Why do we make it seem like it’s harmless? Even the term “dick pics” is pleasantly inoffensive, an assonant soundbite that removes any of the threat from the act. It’s the complete antidote to the feeling of skin-crawling discomfort they actually invoke.
And to say “dick pics are a feminist issue” is like a hilarious spoof clickbait headline, but it’s true – all women want is to exist in a public space, whether that be the train to work or the internet, without being reminded of the visceral sexual horrors of living in a phallocentric patriarchy. The thing about unsolicited dick pics is they really do bring you down, make you feel like you’ve been put in your place. You’re just going about your day, doing your thing, when suddenly you’re reminded that your comfort and safety is secondary to the sexual pleasure of men. To be ineloquent: it sucks. It really sucks.
For progress to be made, we need to understand that unsolicited sexual images aren’t funny or harmless, and we should stop assuming that existing online is invitation or explanation enough for receiving them. We need to stop being twee about it, stop saying “lol, got another dick pic!” or thinking that we’ve deserved this unwanted attention simply by being present on the internet. Hopefully, in time, not only will public opinion change, but the law will come to reflect it too. And that’ll be a good day for all of us.
Main image © iStock/jessekarjalainen