LOUISE O'NEILL: Are unsolicited photos the price women are expected to pay on social media?

It was a Wednesday when I saw it. Wednesday afternoon, to be precise, broad daylight, so I really wasn’t expecting it. 

Not that it was my first, of course, but there was something about this particular specimen that turned my stomach, left me feeling degraded for hours afterwards. 

Yes, you guessed it. Another day, another unsolicited dick pic on Snapchat.

For the uninitiated, the unsolicited dick pic is the apparent price that a woman has to pay to have a social media presence in 2017 — along with trolling, rape/death threats, and being told you’re an ‘ugly, stupid bitch who doesn’t deserve to live’ on a regular basis. 

I receive a photo of a stranger’s penis on average about once a month which is ‘not that bad’, I’ve been told. (A friend of mine, a well-known model, receives at least five a week.)

The type of men who send these photos seem bizarrely proud of their ability to grow a penis — they’ll be expecting medals for it next, I suppose — as well as possessing overinflated ideas about both the size and attractiveness of said organs.

I would love to know what they think is going to happen next? That we’re going to ignore our instinctive urge to find the nearest toilet and vomit and message back immediately? ‘I’ve never seen anything so beautiful; let us have sexual intercourse as soon as possible. Don’t worry; I’ll come to your house. Wouldn’t want to inconvenience you or anything.’

And it would make for such a beautiful origin story for our inevitable relationship.

Grandkids: How did you and Granddad meet?

Me: Sit back, children, wait until you hear about when your grandfather committed a sex crime. Truly, a romance for the ages.

Is this simply an attempt to intimidate women? To make women feel threatened? Every time I open one of those photos, my first reaction is nausea, bile rising in my throat.

I feel violated, akin to being flashed by a pervert on the street. The feeling that I experience, my skin crawling, of being sullied in some way by seeing the photo, is interesting because I believe it stems from internalised shame.

I have done nothing wrong, I didn’t ask for these photos or give any indication that I would be interested in receiving them; and yet I was the one who felt embarrassed.

I doubt the person who sent the photo gave it a second thought. It’s a damning indictment of our cultural mores that, all too often, it is the victims of sexual harassment or violence that are expected to carry that shame. 

I took a screenshot but deleted it as it’s against my moral code to share nude photos, unwanted or otherwise. There is nothing inherently wrong with sexting, as long as both parties are willing participants and there is an assurance that neither person will abuse the other’s trust by sharing the photos without consent. 

It is striking to me that while most women I know have been unwilling recipients of explicit photos, the phenomenon does not appear to exist in reverse. The majority of women are simply not taking photos of their genitalia and sending it to random men. 

To me, the reason for this is obvious. The repercussions for women would be much greater than for men.

 Revenge porn, which has been defined as the ‘sexually explicit portrayal of one or more people that is distributed without their consent’, disproportionately affects women because male nudity is seen as something that is either entirely natural or a joke, whereas female nudity is a weapon to utilise against us. 

‘Is Anyone Up?’, the infamous revenge porn site created by Hunter Moore in 2010, was primarily used to humiliate women, and led to victims losing their jobs, fracturing familial relationships, and a number of women taking their own lives before its closure in 2012. 

There is a reason why male nudes are so rarely leaked, and why when a collection of almost 500 naked photos of celebrities were posted online in ‘The Fappening’ in 2014, the photos were mostly of women. 

When male celebrities such as Justin Bieber or Orlando Bloom are photographed nude on the beach, their nudity is met with a collective shrug, but Jennifer Lawrence had to sit down for a cover interview with Vanity Fair declaring that she was the victim of a sex crime when similar photos were stolen from her iPhone.

It is also telling that in the interview, Lawrence emphasised the fact that she was in a loving, committed relationship at the time, suggesting an awareness that female sexuality is still only seen as acceptable in the confines of a relationship. 

Female bodies are sexualised to a much greater degree than male bodies are, often without our consent, but conversely, women are shamed for their bodies much more frequently as well. 

Too sexy, not sexy enough, too fat, too thin — it seems as if women’s bodies are not allowed to merely exist; they must be aesthetically pleasing at all times.

If your reaction to this column is to say a) delete your social media accounts or b) women should refuse to send nude photos, then you are part of the problem. 

The constant shifting of blame and responsibility onto women and forcing women to uphold a higher moral standard is both exhausting for women and insulting to men, reducing them to animals with no control over their base instincts. 

Most men I know would be horrified at the idea of sending an unsolicited photo to a stranger and I appreciate your decency. 

But I also wonder what your reaction would be if your friends confessed to doing so? Would you tell your friends that it’s completely unacceptable? Or would you laugh it off in the name of ‘banter’?

 It is essential that we remove the social currency around such behaviour and we need men to step up and play their part in dismantling so-called ‘lad culture’.


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