Recognizing the sender's name, Misty Hannigan clicked open the newly arrived email. It took a few seconds to load, then boom: a glossy color picture of the sender's erect penis—held against a Coke can, "for scale," Hannigan says.
"I've also seen cock shots that included water bottles and dollar bills," adds Hannigan, an event planner in Oakland, California. "One guy sent me one where his cock was painted to look like a giant Tootsie Roll."
Kanye West has done it. The jury's still out on whether Brett Favre has done it, but those pictures—whoever's junk they show—have now been viewed by millions. They say romance is dead, but penis photos are apparently the new flowers and candy, and men of all stripes, from car salesmen to delivery drivers, are sending such photos to women they'd like to get to know better.
"The point is to initiate sex. If you're just looking to hook up, it's a very quick process, a matter of 'What do you have to offer? Here's what I have to offer,'" says Cristian YoungMiller, a Los Angeles filmmaker who has sent many pictures of his penis to women he's met online.
"If you're already in a somewhat sexual situation with someone but haven't yet had sex with her, the pictures are the switching point between mere sexy talk and 'Let's have sex,'" explains YoungMiller. In his pictures, which also showed his gym-toned abs, "I looked good. Hell, you want to show it off."
One man who’s sent such pictures says “it’s always been after a connection was established. I’ve never been the type to strike without warning.”
San Francisco journalist Keith Bowers has sent such pictures, too, "but it's always been after a connection was established," he says. "I've never been the type to strike without warning."
But some men are exactly that type. After posting a Craigslist personals ad, a friend of mine received penis pictures from 30 strangers within 24 hours. Was it because she described herself accurately as a 26-year-old, six-foot, blond Scandinavian? Or is Internet-era courtship simply conforming to today's point-click-and-send culture?
The sending of penis pictures "is getting more common, because everyone knows that it can be done, so you don't have to be the one to think up the idea and be the first to try it," says sexuality educator Charlie Glickman.
For some men, sending penis pictures "is an exhibitionism thing. Some do it for shock value. But another reason is that the male body is not sexualized in our society in the way the female body is, especially among heterosexuals. In nightclubs, you'll see women wearing slinky, low-cut dresses that display their bodies—and men wearing baggy pants and shirts that don't show their bodies at all. If a man wants to send a sexy picture of himself, what can he send?"
Men and women "tend to express their sexual desires in different terms," Glickman says. "A lot of guys would be really aroused if women sent them pictures of their vulvas. These guys think: That's what I'd want to see, so I'll send the same signal to her."
Penis pictures are far more prevalent at men-seeking-men websites than at men-seeking-women sites. At AdultFriendFinders.com, the vast majority of men use penis pictures as their avatars. (Then again, some women at AFF use beaver shots as theirs.) Does it work?
"At this point, I feel like if you've seen one cock you've seen them all," says Hannigan, who has also received penis pictures posed against computer screens displaying her photograph. "Unless your cock does tricks, it's not going to impress me solely based on a photo."
While most people unfamiliar with online dating "are horrified by the idea of seeing, sending, or requesting photos, I feel like once you've been around the Internet block a time or two, it becomes totally normal," says Hannigan. Online, "I've found that I don't have to chat with someone very long before the subject of swapping pictures enters the conversation."
"If a guy sends a picture of his penis to a stranger, he's looking for approval, for positive feedback," says YoungMiller, whose book, Happiness Thru the Art of Penis Enlargement, advocates being happy regardless of penis size. "Look who's sending these pictures. It's not the guys with the four-inch penises."
The same impulses driving men to send penis pictures to potential partners drives millions more to post them at sites such as ErectionPhotos.com, XTube.com, and RateMyDick.org. Of the 70,000 men profiled at RateMyDick, most yearn "to show what they have between their legs" in hopes of getting "honest feedback," says Tim Wendell, who launched the site in 2005. "Many of the comments are reassuring to them." A small subset "are into penile humiliation—they tend to be of a small size and invite others to insult them."
Such sites, along with Kanye West-style snapshots, comprise a rising new autoporn trend. Cyberspace abounds with countless closeups of ordinary genitals belonging to the cop, the CPA, the boy next door, shot amateurishly from above or in mirrors.
But how sexy is it?
Although the idea of sending pictures of his own penis to strangers "seems creepy, like a flasher in a trenchcoat," ErectionPhotos' founder Rob Holt says he sends them to his wife "as a sort of 'Heads up! I'm horny! Guess what I want to do when you get back?' She deletes them in case she loses her phone, but she's apparently sometimes shown them to her friends just after she's received them. I'm not entirely happy about that, since it's supposed to be between me and her."
"After phone sex or Skype sex, photos have been sent to include the results, if you will, of a successful virtual coupling," Hannigan remembers. "I've also gotten photos somewhat unsolicited from a boyfriend because he wanted me to know he was thinking about me in a particular way. I'll admit I've saved several of the photos sent by my current boyfriend," who lives in Texas. "Occasionally when I'm missing him I'll go have a look."
It's futuristic—but it's also backward, charges Mack Tight, the self-described "pickup artist" who runs ESeduce.com.
Sending penis pictures appeals only to guys who "don't have the balls to go about picking her up the right way," Tight avows. "They want attention, and no one's going to probably see their penis otherwise, so they're thinking: WTF, why not? ... It just shows how socially inept our society has become that they would think that's a good idea. The first thing John Strognofe probably did after inventing the camera"—that is, in 1685—"was take a picture of his junk. That being said, I think this just shows how society has become more coarse and apathetic."
But this society runs at hyperspeed, and so does our transit from "hello" to the proverbial home run.
"I'm Generation X," Tight says. "Generation Y, and moreso Z, have been born with instant gratification. ... Today you can take a picture with a phone that you keep in your pocket at all times. You can distribute that photo instantly at practically no cost. ... If I had this technology back when I was a naive teenager, I would have probably been sending pictures of my penis too because I wouldn't have known better."
He advises today's man "to put his penis away until it's actually time to use it." Sending pictures of it is not just "socially deranged," he warns, but risky, because once something appears online, it's there forever.
Do you really want your erection to last that long?
Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and the Nautilus Award-winning Stuck: Why We Don't (or Won't) Move On, and the coauthor of still more, including Weird Europe and The Scavengers' Manifesto. In 2006, she won a Society of Professional Journalists award for criticism.