Last week, I was talking in class about differences in how men and women use Tinder and other online dating apps. In the midst of this class discussion, a student asked why so many straight men who use these apps send unsolicited or unwanted photos of their penises to women. This led to a long, but fascinating discussion that I thought readers of the blog might be interested in, too.
Before I begin, though, let me say two things. First, this is indeed a very common phenomenon. As some evidence of this, the 2016 Singles in America Survey by Match.com found that 49% of all women surveyed had been on the receiving end of a penis photo that they didn’t request. Second, despite how common this behavior is, I haven’t really found any research that specifically addresses it. So, all I can really share are my hypotheses about what I think is going on—hypotheses that I hope to test in a study of my own in the near future.
With that said, I suspect that the most likely explanation is that men are simply misperceiving women’s interest in receiving photos of their junk. There’s a large body of research indicating that men aren’t very good at determining how interested women are in sex. In fact, as I described in this previous article, men tend to overperceive how interested female strangers are in sex, while they actually underperceive their own romantic partners’ interest. Fascinating, right? For purposes of this blog post, however, let’s just focus on that overperception bias.
What happens when straight guys talk to female strangers is that they tend to mistake signs of friendliness for flirting. This is thought to stem from something called error management theory, an evolutionary theory that suggests men and women have evolved specific cognitive biases that are likely to assist in successful reproduction. Overperceiving a female stranger’s interest in sex—whether on Tinder or in the real world—could be viewed as adaptive from the perspective of this theory in that it reduces the likelihood that men will pass up any potential reproductive opportunities.
Although this strategy means men are necessarily going to fail a high percentage of the time, it requires a relatively low investment on their part while ensuring that they don’t miss out on anyone who might be interested. In other words, the cost-to-benefit ratio favors this kind of behavior. However, let me be perfectly clear about one thing: even if we think of this behavior as being adaptive in an evolutionary sense, this isn’t to say that it’s OK or excusable for men to send women photos that they don’t want to see. Keep in mind that evolution doesn’t necessarily always favor the selection of socially acceptable or socially desirable behaviors.
While most of the guys who send these unsolicited photos are probably hoping to receive a positive response--one that ultimately leads to sex--it’s likely that at least a few are doing it because they instead hope to shock and offend the recipient. Why? Well, a few people find this kind of reaction to be sexually arousing. In other words, for some, sending these unsolicited sexts is the modern-day equivalent of making obscene telephone calls (also known as telephone scatologia).
Such behavior is a variant of exhibitionism. Although most people think of exhibitionism in terms of guys who flash strangers on the subway or in a park, a similar kind of behavior can also occur online or over the phone. Regardless of the context in which it occurs, exhibitionists find shocked reactions to be a turn-on. This behavior is linked to having poor social and interpersonal skills—as such, some psychologists believe that exhibitionistic tendencies develop following the inability to establish relationships in a more conventional way.
With all of that said, there are undoubtedly other reasons straight men might send unsolicited photos of their penises to women (e.g., for some, it just might stem from the greater feelings of anonymity that online environments afford). As with almost all sexual behaviors, it’s likely the case that multiple explanations are correct and that there isn’t a singular motive.
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Image Source: 123RF.com/Lisa Young
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