Any woman who has been on a dating site or app is familiar with the parade of penis pictures. During my time on OKCupid, my inbox was routinely inundated with unsolicited photos of cisgender men’s genitalia.
Women are fed up with this, and many are fighting back. One woman messaged her would-be suitor’s mother, telling her what her son was up to.
And then there’s Kerry Quinn, the woman who sent 40 preemptive vagina photos to men on the dating app Bumble to see how they’d respond; she called it her “own twist on revenge porn.” Of the 37 guys who communicated with her about her v-pic, “every one of them wanted to meet me, regardless of age or location,” she wrote on Thrillist about the experiment. “I did feel empowered, although in a much different way than I expected. Men were clamoring to meet me, which is a great feeling even if it’s not for the right reasons.”
None of this is the empowering, feminist way to respond to men sending unsolicited penis pictures. When photos of penises are sent without being requested, they are not consensual and sending them is an electronic form of sexual violence. Unexpected vulva photos are no different.
There’s a reason that flashing someone in public is a sex crime. And I’d like to see our understanding of exposure evolve with our technology. There is nothing different about a man pulling his penis out and showing it to the woman next to him on the train than there is with him sending a picture of his penis to the woman he just matched with on a dating site. If women want to drive home the point that sending non-consensual photos of genitalia to someone is not okay, we need to hold ourselves to the same standards we’d like to see men abide by.
But what about the fact that, unlike women, men actually seem to like unsolicited vulva photos appearing in their inboxes? Jamie Utt, a sexual violence prevention educator, explained to me via e-mail that men generally react differently to seeing images of a naked body, as they “are not the subjects of a constant, often violent assault of aggressive sexualization” in the way that women are. “If, day in and day out,” he wrote, “I was receiving crude sexual advances from a vast array of women all in the context of a wider sexualization of my body in media, I very well may react differently.”
This distinction is important. If a woman wants to turn the tables on men by sending them vulva photos, only to find that the men are excited by the pictures, it would be easy to assume that the problem is not with the unsolicited nude images, but that women are too sensitive about receiving them. However, women receive sexually explicit messages from men on a near-constant basis — whether in the form of street or online harassment. So looking for a mate on a dating site becomes yet one more arena where they feel unsafe, and matches become potential perpetrators rather than would-be suitors.
This difference may be why Kerry Quinn’s attempt at “revenge porn” had a more positive response than she expected. For many heterosexual men, who are socialized via pornography to enjoy disembodied images of women’s naked bodies, the idea of receiving vulva photos in their inbox might be more exciting than threatening. “In pornography, a woman’s body is divorced from her personhood, as women are proverbially dismantled by cameras into a series of close-up shots of genitalia and breasts,” Utt wrote. “Any men who have regularly consumed mainstream pornography (which is, frankly, the vast majority of men in the U.S. and comparable countries) are accustomed to disembodied genitalia and have been taught to find it arousing.” And while men are not the only people who watch porn for pleasure, most mainstream porn is filmed with the male gaze in mind.
Even if a man were uncomfortable receiving an unsolicited picture of a vulva, would he admit it? Our society teaches heterosexual men that they should want and be primed for sex constantly, ready to have it with almost any woman that shows interest. So they’re more likely to respond positively to such images.
But another issue to consider is that some men are survivors of sexual violence, too. A 2005 study found that 16 percent of men had experienced some kind of sexual abuse before the age of 18. So no matter how harmless it might seem to send an unexpected photo of a vagina to a man, it could trigger painful memories for him.
Ultimately, if women want to end the culture of sexual violence that we live in, we have to hold ourselves to the same standard of behavior we want men to abide by. And that means taking consent seriously in all contexts.