I saw a lot of strangers' dicks in college.
Not that I was having tons of sex, or anything. But for some reason, my best friend TOK's superpower our senior year was getting dudes who barely even knew her to send her photos of their crotches.
Well, I say "getting." As far as I recall, their text conversations would always go something like this:
TOK: oh, hey
Dude: miss u
Dude: hey girl
Dude: *dick pic*
There was one guy in particular who would go weeks without saying anything at all and then just send a single dick pic. No preamble, no explanation, just dick, like he was reminding TOK of all the fluorescently lit genitalia she was missing out on by going to school across the country.
It was like in Zelda when Navi keeps saying "Hey! Listen! Hey," only instead of a tiny, insistent, fairy-voice it was some guy's recurring junk. (Yeah, small wonder why I wasn't getting any dick pics.)
Anyway, because TOK and I spent that year basically joined at the hip, I, too, saw many of these young men's penises. She never sent any photographs back, as far as I know; she'd just glance down at her phone, sputter, and then hand it over for inspection.
Frankly, I thought it was a little creepy. I've never been particularly enamored with cocks in the wild, and sending a picture of your balls to a stranger just seemed kind of weirdly presumptuous, like the minute TOK saw 100 square megapixels of wrinkly skin she'd hop the next sex-flight to This Dude's Town, USA.
It never occurred to me to feel bad for looking at this dude's dick; I figured, hey, he sent it. You don't text a near-stranger naked pics unless you're prepared for the friend-looking-over-shoulder consequences, right?
Now that a nonprofit in Canada is trying to scare teens out of sending "intimate photos" with a PSA reminding them of those very consequences, though, I'm reminded of all those dick pics I used to laugh about with TOK.
I mean, the PSA has a good message. It's referencing Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old Canadian who committed suicide after her topless photos were shared all over the Internet by some horrible, scum-brained dickbag. "There's no such thing as 'just one photo,'" the PSA explains. "Be safe online."
And fair enough. The Internet Never Forgets, and a gentle reminder of that doesn't seem like it does any harm. I'm a big fan of teenagers avoiding decisions that they believe will haunt them for the rest of their adult lives.
But as several people have pointed out, these ads -- and other reactionary anti-sexting measures taken by ostensibly well-meaning adults -- are disproportionately geared toward the girls taking the naked photos rather than the dudes who forward them to their friends.
Thus begins the cycle: girls learn that having their naked bodies visible in the public domain is a shameful thing (and somehow their fault), while guys seem to get away with it fairly scot-free. I mean, when was the last time you heard of a non-famous young man being literally bullied to death because a photo of his penis made the rounds?
I was curious about how effective this kind of fear-based rhetoric actually was in preventing sexting, so I called my baby brother, who's 18 and my main resource for what the Kids These Days are doing. He claimed that he doesn't send dick pics and that his friends don't send dick pics, but that he totally would, "only no one's ever asked." Good instinct, Mikes.
"Do your friends ever show you pictures of girls who sext them?" I asked him.
"Yeah," he said. "Totally. When it happens."
"You don't think that's kind of … non-consenting?" Mikes and I talk a lot about consent.
He paused. "Well. Uh. I've never thought about it that way. But, uh, yeah. Kind of. I mean, yeah, that's definitely non-consent." Kate Conway: taking the wind out of every sail.
Then he let me talk to a couple of his lady friends, who were lurking in his room the way college students do with each other on weeknights. They said that they didn't sext, but that they knew girls who did, and that they tended to be "those girls."
"What, you mean, like…girls who sleep around?" I said.
"Yeah," one of them said. "Or, you know. They like attention."
Huh. "So you wouldn't talk about sexting even if you did it?"
"It'd be too much like bragging," they said. "Like, check me out, this guy wants to see my boobs."
"Plus, it's permanent. It's out there," one of them added. "Like, forever."
"Even if you use Snapchat?" I suggested. (For those of you who don't frequently send an unending stream of dog photos to your Internet friends, Snapchat is a photo messaging app that supposedly deletes photos 10 seconds after they're opened by the receiver.)
"They would find a way to keep them," my brother's friend said darkly.
When I asked if they'd show a dick pic to their friends, they said they would, "to a few close friends," and then they'd just delete it. Both of them had received dick pics, but neither had ever replied to them in kind.
"Would you be mad if a dude showed your sext to his friends?" I asked.
"I mean, realistically, no, I guess I couldn't be mad if I'd done it to him," one said. Then she laughed. "But yeah, I'd be mad."
Back to Mikes. "Would you be hurt if a girl showed your dick pics to her friends?"
"Nah," he said. "I mean, they're just pictures."
"What if some girl came up to you at a party and said, 'I've seen your cock and it's really small?'"
"I would say, 'No, it's average,'" he said snootily, and then giggled. "Really, I just don't really care who sees my dick."
There was more to it than that -- my brother claimed that he wouldn't share a topless pic of a girl he really liked, and both girls reminisced about an acquaintance of theirs who'd had topless photos shared around the football team -- but the gist I got of our conversation was this: teenage girls, at least by the time they're 18, are well aware of the possibility that their pics could be saved and shared. This knowledge affects some of them more than others. Teenage boys are aware, too, but they mostly just don't seem to give a shit.
I don't want to draw grand conclusions based on the experiences of three college freshmen, but the impression I got was that for them, sexting, like any intimate act, is usually seen by the involved parties as an expression of at least some trust and vulnerability. And when one of the parties breaks that trust, the consequences are disproportionate among genders.
Sexting, and the media's impression of it, isn't feeding into teenage deviance; it's just another symptom (insofar as teen sexuality can be called deviance in the first place). Girls who sext are portrayed with the same slut-shamey rhetoric as girls who participate in any other sort of feel-good crotch-centric fun: they're attention-seekers, hobags, or just plain asking for trouble. Guys, on the other hand, are apparently just casually expressing their dick-interest. And the existing anti-sexting ads and widely publicized disciplinary actions just reinforce that skewed dynamic.
As far as I can tell, some teens gonna sext whether adults want them to or not. The only thing we can do is remind them that there are people with feelings attached to those boobs and dicks, and that sharing those photos with every bro in your Econ 101 class maybe isn't the kindest, most respectful way of reacting to them.
And hell, I'll even keep that in mind the next time one of my friends gets a dick pic and not giggle to myself. Even if he prefaces it by saying "sup."
Kate is sexting (not really): @katchatters