The pioneers Erika Alexander, Vivica A. Fox, Tisha Campbell, and Toni Braxton sit at a high-top table in a garish, unmistakably '90s apartment, grading men. Each opening and closing of the elevator doors reveals a new specimen, with a different shade, body type, and level of sartorial acumen to consider. Some of them strip. A baldheaded boxer with unforgettable pecs and bronze-yellow skin removes his silk robe. A dude in a clashing plaid suit humps the air with his hands balled into tight fists. A guy in pink pants pulls up the bottom hem of his polo to reveal the stripe of hair spreading from his belt to his navel and abs like heavy frosting. The only thing these men have in common: wanting to be looked at. They’re happy to mug for the attention of Toni and her friends. The women, in turn, are happy to oblige, using oversize playing cards as a way to rate the displays. None of the contestants betray hurt or shame or fear, not even the men who get poor marks. Everyone’s excited to play.
Nearly two decades after the summer of 1996, when I was 9 and the music video for “You’re Makin’ Me High” introduced me to the male body as lensed by a desiring female gaze, I’m in the tiny bedroom of my third-story walk-up trying to photograph my penis with a cellular phone. Certain realities about the gulf between life and art are becoming impossible to ignore. Though I’m actively trying not to imagine it, there is no way my face resembles the expressions of any of the men in the Braxton video, not even the awkward white guy in the tacky car salesman’s suit—he was hyped. If this is supposed to be a fun game, why is the learning curve so steep?
It’s a particular kind of vulnerability when you don’t know what makes your body attractive to another person.
She sent such an artful topless shot, with shadows from her bedroom blinds and her hand resting suggestively below her collarbone. But my lighting sucks; the bulb by my bedside gives off a trashy yellow glow, like a bad Nan Goldin imitation. I don’t have a smooth, well-defined chest like the boxer in the Toni Braxton video, and I’ve never asked a past partner what she found attractive about my body. Do I really have no variety, no imagination? Why does the hair on my thighs make my skin appear so pale? Am I that pasty? Could lighting solve this? Is there an app for my body crisis? Or just a better light bulb available for purchase online? This is not an unusual Tuesday night. I pull my underwear down to my ankles and step out.
It’s a particular kind of vulnerability when you don’t know what makes your body attractive to another person. It makes you feel stupid—what you have been doing in this human suit for almost three decades if not paying attention to it and how others react to it? My body and I aren’t complete strangers. I could show you the tiny scars like bite marks around my ankle from a minor bike mishap last summer, and talk about how slowly the cuts healed, how it told me something about what it means to get older. But what can I show the woman I’m sexting with that she will find pleasurable? I don’t know, and it makes me feel like a little kid. What’s more, I’m afraid to get it wrong. I have no information to draw on—I’ve never thought to ask her. I’m alone with this camera and the pressure to respond. The only solution seems to be the stalwart companion of traditional male sexuality: dick.
If I’m alone in feeling this way as a straight cisgender male (SCM), the Internet will tell me. But I don’t think I am, and I think the preponderance of—and I’m going to speak gently now—not great dick pics that female friends have shown me seems like more evidence in my favor. I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to self-objectification. If you feel similarly, let’s talk.
There’s something inherently amateur about dick pics because good role models for an erotics of the male body are largely unavailable in mainstream, heterosexual American culture (and the spaces where they are available are ones straight men stereotypically avoid). Objectifying the male body does not come naturally to us, culturally speaking, the way objectifying the female body does—even with Calvin Klein ads and the Game’s Instagram account.
The problem is historical. As Laura Mulvey summarizes in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” her landmark 1975 essay on the male gaze as operating principle at the movies, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”
The acceptance of this as the cultural reality for many women is what makes it possible, for instance, to champion the selfie as a radical act of reclaiming the active gaze from men, of appraising yourself and finding yourself worthy of being looked at and captured by the camera. Of course, as Beatriz Preciado observes in Testo Junkie (first published in 2008, in Spanish), "the penis [has] become the object of intense surveillance," too, thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, medical advancements in penile implants, and the proliferation of camera phones. "The social anxiety and economic speculation that have sprung up around the penis during the first decade of the new millennium are without precedent."
Part of the vulnerability and anxiety of posing for the camera comes from submitting to its evaluation (and the subsequent evaluation of the person receiving the photo). If you’re a SCM, this submission is more likely to feel unnatural, but it can also be exciting, especially if you’re reasonably sure of the reaction the photo will receive. Of course, this leads back to the problem of knowing what your partner wants and enjoys.
Still, the pressing reality is that a woman has shared a photo of her body with me and I don’t want this to seem one sided. I don’t want to take advantage of her willingness to share by keeping my own skin out of the game. And the thought of getting the shot right and turning her on seems like a dream worth chasing. So I lean on my dick as a metonym for the whole of male sexuality. It’s the only card I know to reliably play. To do anything else would run the risk of being labeled aberrant or something less than masculine. Think of Kanye’s desperate tweets trying to put miles between his asshole and Amber Rose’s likely very gifted fingers. (I once spent 20 minutes trying to take a photo of my ass, which is fraught to begin with because I don’t even like my ass all that much.)
Dick pics are like product shots in an old Eastbay catalog and the insidious part is that they illustrate the selfishness prepackaged with vanilla male sexuality. The erection in a dick pic is essentially an advertisement for its own satisfaction, and thus has nothing do with collaborative pleasure. The erection is the first step toward the guy’s orgasm; it’s an alleged guarantee of my climax, but it can only hope for a good time as far as my partner is concerned.
Of course, we’re setting ourselves up for failure with this kind of erection fixation. If we only conceive of sex as revolving around an erect penis…well, we know what happens when that pressure gets to be too much. In her 1999 book The Male Body, cultural critic Susan Bordo argues that it’s easier to think of your dick as an inanimate object, like a dildo, because then you don’t have to worry about the sometimes iffy transition from soft to hard. “Much safer to have a torpedo as one’s love tool than an organ of flesh and blood,” she writes.
In The Male Body, Bordo describes the early Viagra ads of the 1990s and how partners were absent from the descriptions of the drug's effects. No sound bites from happy wives or girlfriends, just promises about performance. This falls in line with how we often perceive sex: a partner-less (or partner-interchangeable) task dependent only on our ability to perform. She writes, “The first ‘sex life’ of most men in our culture—and a powerful relationship that often continues throughout their lives—involves a male, his member, and a magazine (or some other set of images seemingly designed with the male libido in mind).” Dick pics are yet another manifestation of male sex lives as partner-less.
In an essay for BuzzFeed entitled "The Dicks of Our Lives," Mary H.K. Choi writes, “I just can’t take a man who’d take a dick pic seriously. The tone-deaf ‘ta-da’ of it all—the off-putting eagerness. It’s all so spraaaaaaaang breaaaaaaaak.” When female friends share dick pics they’ve received with me, it’s often in a similar spirit. They invite me to gawk with them at failure, like rubbernecking a car accident where dignity is the only casualty. “Can you believe he sent this after a Tinder conversation?” The phone is flipped over and I’m looking at a stranger in what appears to be a windowless basement apartment with his cock at half-mast, his shirt on, and his face visible and vacant. Choi also likens a dick pic to a banner ad for gay porn—“a tab to be Command-X’d with the quickness of whack-a-mole”—confirming that it’s not only men who are prone to juvenile, quasi homophobic, locker-room responses to an exposed male body. We should be past this; sensing that we’re not is part of what gives rise to fear and shame when a SCM tries to eroticize his body. But there’s something else in the pic my friend shows me. He’s not touching himself; it’s more like a photo from a medical text—nudity stripped of sex.
Some men send dick pics out of hubris, others as a non-consensual act of violence. The former are pathetic bids for approval masquerading as powerful ego stroking, and they don’t really have anything to do with sex. The latter are vile.
I like sexting with words. I like the slow pace, the built-in tension of waiting for a reply. Language creates anticipation. It’s also a good way to indulge in fantasy, typing about things you haven’t yet done to each other (but would maybe like to try). And unlike having sex, sexting is very difficult to do without collaborating. You build a scene together, line by line. In the physical act, it’s possible to close your eyes and bear down, paying no attention to your partner. You can bang away, treating the sexual act like a linear monologue that climaxes when you come. But like any language-based conversation, a sexual dialogue falls apart if you talk past your partner. If you aren’t paying attention and replying in kind, you’re performing. So you’re likely fucking poorly and without the connection necessary for a memorable, exciting, satisfying sexual encounter. I’m not talking about the kind of connection that reads as love or even a deep like, necessarily. This doesn’t need to be hearts, stars, and rainbows—you just need to tell each other what you like to do and then work to fulfill those wants. Otherwise, you’re the part of the dick pic infomercial where the live studio audience watches the demo.
Bodies are just as impossible to tame as our feelings about them.
Language is near-endless possibility. The failed photoshoots saved on my phone, not so much. The scary question looms: What do I have to offer beyond dick? There’s always the dick imprint (as popularized by the Game’s Instagram), which can function like a flirtatious invitation to imagine and play together. If I take a photo with my thumb hooked into the waistband of my underwear, then the photo’s recipient will (hopefully) imagine pulling that elastic down farther, or imagine their thumb in place of my thumb. It’s fantasizing in tandem. I’ve found that it works for me. The discovery doesn’t constitute a eureka moment—more like a small step toward a dick pic politics/practice that makes me feel good and comfortable, as opposed to uncertain and anxious.
For a while, the “You’re Makin’ Me High” video felt utopian to me in its turned-on-its-head presentation of submission and evaluation, of confident body baring and no hurt feelings. The men cycle through the apartment, looking alive, pleased to be consumed by the eyes of the four women. Sometimes only one member of the party expresses enthusiasm, but they each find a man, letting you know that taste is subjective and special.
And yet the video is a poor model for achieving the kind of sensual, physical connection Braxton’s lyrics describe. “With just the thought of you/I can’t help but touch myself,” she sings. What happened between her and her unnamed “you” to create this energy? What is this guy doing so correctly to her—with her? Braxton acknowledges the privacy of the connection (“I always think of you in my private thoughts”), leaving the viewer on the outside with nothing but questions. Questions to which the other guy pursued answers. I know, it’s a Toni Braxton music video—no one needs to say shit while she’s singing. Still, what she’s singing about is at odds with what we see. Everyone looks good and nobody talks. It’s a world where someone always has to be on display, mutely.
It doesn’t resemble the world we live in. Bodies are just as impossible to tame as our feelings about them, as SCM are coming to understand. “The time of the female monopoly over victimization is drawing to a close,” Preciado writes in Testo Junkie. “We are entering a new era in which the technomolecular control of sex, gender, and sexuality will extend to everything and everyone”—which is to say that advertisers, physicians, and drug companies are hounding us all simultaneously. For Preciado, it's a kind of warning. But in the meantime, while we wait for the multinational corporations to absorb our lives whole, maybe the possibilities arising from these shared experiences of vulnerability can make for better sexting. Maybe when we’re equally uncomfortable in our bodies we can talk to each other.