Online dating and the politics of sharing explicit pics

While many believe that online dating apps are busiest leading up to Valentine’s Day, it’s actually the week after when millions of people are most active swiping left and right on their phones.

Monthly averages for online dating app traffic

In fact, the month of March sees the heaviest traffic for people searching online for love, lust, and companionship, as many people go back on the market, some after relationships come to an end after surviving the holidays and others after being “valentighted” a new term coined to describe “the heartbreaking act of dumping someone right before Valentine’s Day, because you’re too tight to get them a gift, write a card, or make any kind of fuss.”

Because digitally mediated dating practices are relatively new and rapidly changing, expectations and communication norms are still being negotiated. In my research, one aspect of digital communication that stands out as contentious and ripe for misunderstandings is the sharing of explicit images prior to meeting in person.

As a digital communication researcher, I have heard stories from over a hundred people about their experiences with online dating. While listening to people’s turn-ons and turn-offs, I have gleaned some insights about explicit photo sharing. For those hoping to improve their odds of moving from the virtual world to the physical one, understanding the complexity of photo sharing — if, when, and how to send nudes photos — is a must.

In terms of gender, a large percentage of women report that they regularly experience inappropriate behavior, with a recent survey finding that “more than 80% of women are deterred from dating apps because of the inappropriate behavior they experienced, such as being propositioned for sex after an initial conversation or otherwise making them feel uneasy or unsafe.” A study by Pew Research found similar statistics about digital spaces as unsafe with 70% of women overall and 83% of younger women — those ages 18 to 29 — saying that they see online harassment as a major problem compared with 54% of men and slightly higher at 55% for young men.

My research confirms a general sense of frustration with problematic behavior found through dating apps, especially in relation to receiving unwanted sexual photos and messages. In interviews, women dating men complained about “dick pics” (penis photos), with most saying they didn’t understand men’s motivations for sending them. Polly, a monogamish woman, said she hated getting uninvited dick pics and assessed the move in terms of manipulation rather than a neutral act, saying “it’s designed to get you to send a naked pic — a quid pro quo. I would even bet money that they have the same dick pic and don’t send a new one for you”. It turns out that Polly’s assessment accurately reflects research on men’s motivations for sending dick pics and also aligns with my interview data that men send these photos in hopes they will get a similar photo in exchange and to signal they are DTF (down to fuck). Simply put, sending explicit photos of oneself is not merely an act of vulnerable sharing or conveying information, but rather a covert request for reciprocity and sexual engagement.

The Pew Research study on digital sexual harassment showed that “dick pics” (penis photos) have become so common that “53% of young women say that someone has sent them explicit images they did not ask for (compared with 37% of young men). This data aligns with what I have found in talking to people about their experiences with online dating but fails to consider the complexity of the situation. Most mainstream media tends to concentrate on the harassment angle and assumes a heteronormative perspective in which men are only sending unsolicited “dick pics” to women whereas the high percentage of men who stated receiving explicit images in the Pew Research study, as well as in my research, suggests otherwise.

Based on my research women are not the only ones receiving explicit images, nor are images limited to dick pics. Men also receive dick pics, as well as the lesser known “hole pic” (a selfie of one’s anus) from other men. Hole pics are so prevalent on sites like Grindr and Scruff that drag queen Willam Belli created the satirical music video #holepic in response. Dandelion, a queer, non-monogamous non-binary individual talked about how common these photos are on Grindr and the potential consequences of not staging one’s penis well for a photo, saying there are “lots of really unpretty dick pics all the time, and people’s butts.”

The only example in my data of a woman sending unsolicited explicit images was a participant who identified as a sex worker and claimed it was part of her business strategy. None of the lesbians in my study reported receiving unexpected explicit photos, suggesting that women tend to seek consent before sharing nudes. As pointed out by Tacoma Lesbian, this “is a problem for women dating men” not those only seeking women.

It’s not the nature of the photo itself that tends to offend the delicate sensitivities of a receiver, it’s more often the method of delivery. For this sort of digital flirting to be successful, the sender and receiver must be on the same page. Unfortunately, in the digital world there is often a disconnect between the intention of the sender and perception of the receiver, especially when people are strangers. In the linguistic field of pragmatics, we call this a disjunction between illocution (the performance of communicating something intentionally) and perlocution (the effect of the communication).

Research participants, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, overwhelming stated that the delivery of explicit images was more problematic than the content. Women dating men overwhelming complained about the surprise factor and the lack of consent. Katz Kinx, a queer woman, described receiving uninvited dick pic as violating, suggesting that “there are so many men on the internet who want to show their dick and I am like if I wanted to see your dick I would ask for it. It is almost like a form of rape! Did I ask to see that? No, I didn’t. Now if I had been asked, maybe I would like it, but sending like this ruins the chance.” Like many others I interviewed, Katz Kinx comment reflected a general consensus among women that unsolicited dick pics had the consequence of eliminating any chance for the suitor as most women unmatched and/or cut off communication because of the breach in consent — even if they had been interested otherwise.

In fact, many participants spoke positively about sexting and sharing nudes when it was consensual, but not when sudden photos of genitals appeared on their phone screen unexpectedly. When asked to elaborate on how they felt about receiving unsolicited explicit images, participants elaborated on how the act disrupted the flow of conversation or pushed against their boundaries. Renee, a heterosexual monogamous woman said, “I like to get my dick picks. I have a little collection…I look at them sometimes and remember people. They are my own little porn hub. I like getting them. I don’t like it unsolicited. There is that line there. Did we have enough conversation?” Since people commonly make a final decision to meet someone at the messaging stage if conversation flows well, an abrupt topic shift without a clear response expectation — or worse, one that startles or turns off the receiver, is not likely to go well. SueDoNym, a polyamorous woman who identifies as “rounding to straight”, described it as “trying to rush the sale before the customer is ready to buy.” Teddy, a gay monogamous man, said “Some are sent randomly throughout the day. Oh, here’s a dick pic. Some people I tell not to message me and then they send again and forgot they sent to me. They are like dick pick, dick pick, dick pick — irritating. Sometimes block, tell them not to send, ignore and delete the message.” Ebullient Mommy, a bisexual poly woman, confirmed this sentiment by saying, “Don’t get me wrong, I like a nice penis, just not before [we meet over] coffee.” From a linguistic standpoint, sending a dick or hole pic without warning violates rules of conversation turn-taking, not to mention unstated rules of courtship, even for people who enjoy sharing sexy photos. In a recent article in Forbes, Phil Beesley, a developer of BARE Dating, an app that allows users to exchange explicit photos and giving them the option to reveal images bit by bit as they chat with matches, pointed out that “there are many who would like to receive [explicit photos] these if they are given a choice. To be in a flirtatious conversation with someone — and slowly revealing yourself to that person little by little is a very sexy thing.”

Despite common perceptions, explicit photos do not always elicit a negative response from the beneficiary. In fact, many people like them and utilize them as a vetting tool. For example, those looking for long term relationships tend to evaluate sex-focused photos as an indicator of incompatibility and delete them. For people searching for sexual encounters, photos are often used to verify physical size and asses aesthetics. Abby, a bi-curious swinger woman, said, “I like large penises and my partner has a nice one so I like to make sure that I am not the only one bringing fun toys to the party.” AlexToo, a gay monogamous man, says he has his Grindr profile set to “accept NSFW (not safe for work) pics” although he does have a rule to block anyone who sends visibly dirty dick or hole pics on account of hygiene. This issue of hygiene was mentioned by many participants, but the assessment was not limited to body parts. Teddy said, “I would ignore or block people who kind of randomly send it, but it depends on what it looks like. I have a type. If it is gross and not good looking, some pics look a little gross.” And it turns out the penis isn’t the only element that is evaluated by suitors, as poorly staged photos provide people with additional information about general cleanliness and become vetting strategies used to discount people. According to Dandelion, “Men will send a pic of their dick and I am like I can see you haven’t cleaned your sheets.,” pointing to the tendency of users to look at elements in photos besides the person to make assessment about the person.

Hole picks do not appear to be as widely shared and appreciated as their phallic counterpart. Unlike dick pics, which prompt recipients to engage in visual foreplay by also sharing photos, hole pics are largely understood as information about the sender’s sexual position as a “bottom” and willingness to hookup. Teddy, a gay monogamous man, was adamant in saying “Hole pics. I don’t like them and don’t send them. It’s gross to look at and a big turn off. Instant block compared to dick pics. I guess that is what they want people to know they are bottoms and looking for a person who is into eating them out and rimming and stuff.” Of the 15 people who reported receiving hole pics, only AlexToo said “I love getting those! I am mostly a top. It excites and it’s what I am going to be playing with so I like seeing it.”

Data from my research suggests that men tend to be open to dick pics when they are interested in the person, or as Teddy stated, “if the dick pick is potentially hot then maybe,” whereas hole pics are more often perceived as generic and a failed flirt. In fact, men tend to talk about hole pics the way that women talk about dick pics — as an aesthetically unattractive body part that is fun to play with, but not a turn on to look at. As Rainbowie, a queer monogamish man, put it “Everyone has one and they all stink. I am not like, oh yea! I would rather see a dick pick.”

There are some apps attempting to provide features to make users feel empowered and safe when it comes to explicit photos. For example, in 2019 Bumble added the Private Detector tool, which uses artificial intelligence to detect nude imagery, alert recipients of an image’s inappropriate status, and give them an option to view it, block it, or report the sender — the latter of which results in banning the sender from the platform. Once looks to encourage positive behavior and address the fears many women have about catfishing and dating scams by integrating a rating system that allows users to review conversations, dates and profile accuracy. Most platforms have community guidelines that provide guidelines on appropriate behavior, but most users do not read the fine print.

Expecting app developers to intervene is not enough as it does not solve the problem of the digital harassment that users experience as they move from the dating app to texting or messaging platforms (like Kik) prior to meeting. There needs to awareness about digital sexual harassment and open conversations about online behavior and a culture shift around consent. With #metoo there is positive movement to speak out against behavior that has been previously tolerated and placed under the modicum of “boys will be boys”.

With dating apps now serving as the most common way that people meet, it is vital that we understand how explicit photo sharing is perceived and the nuances of the communication practice. It is true that many people feel harassed when are sent such images, but it also true that there are many who enjoy the visual foreplay of sharing sexy pics. There are many factors that determine whether an explicit photo will be interpreted negatively or positively, including photo presentation, level of interest, attraction, and consent.

For those of you out there looking to meet people through the virtual bars that apps have come to represent, use your profile and messaging spaces to communicate your desires and boundaries about explicit images preemptively. For those using sex-forward apps, choosing not to accept NSFW photos and/or including a message in your profile about desires related to explicit images serves to clarify boundaries. Speaking out against digital communication acts that disrespect boundaries, rather than just ignoring, is an important step in changing the culture. Reporting behavior on apps that provide the option is another move to be heard. If you want to sext with people, determine their interest about exchanging sexy messages and photos first; it goes a long way in improving your odds of eventually seeing the goods and meeting IRL (in real life).

Digital communication scholar and certified word nerd. Researching how people find love, lust, and connection in the digital age. www.connectingdigitally.com

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