The XX Factor

The Existential Sadness of the Crotch Shot

Not the saddest picture of Anthony Weiner that exists

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Is there anything more depressing than the crotch shot? Any other form of so-called erotic communication that telegraphs the same mix of loneliness and tawdriness? Amanda Hess finds Anthony Weiner’s newly-unearthed sexts boring. To me, they are more like the photos of oil-soaked birds that surface after a petroleum spill: greasy, helpless, and broadcasting a frantic need.

You could digest the scraps of correspondence between Weiner and his latest cyber paramour in any order—the way he eagerly asked if she had read his New York Times Magazine profile or looked at his previous dick pics, the way he dangled a Politico blogging gig in front of her nose, as if to emphasize how Big and Important he is—and come to the same conclusion. Here is a man desperate, as he told the Times, “to be liked and admired,” but going about it all wrong. Men: In the vast majority of cases, sending out images of your penis, contra a noble defense of crotch shotting by Annie Lowrey in the pages of Slate two years ago, is juvenile, inexpert, and above all, sad.*

And yet you think you’re advancing the game! The stark contrast between what the crotch shot hopes to accomplish (a fluttering in the receiver’s chest, a sigh of desire) and what it actually achieves (blech, meh, or huh?) makes it especially embarrassing. (Let us reserve the case of the ironic dick pic for another post.)

Though some women are turned on by graphic sexual imagery, they’re a statistical rarity. Study after study shows that, while men respond to pictures of female genitalia, women don’t tend to love the sight of naked man parts unless said parts are placed in an emotionally evocative context. “We spent six years of research on why women have sex,” Cindy Meston, the director of the Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Washington Post in 2011. “Of the 237 reasons…not one was looking at a man’s genitals.” (In her dick pic apologia, Lowrey counters that “just because a photograph does not compel a woman to have sex…does not mean she does not find it sexy.” I’m not sure I follow her line of reasoning here, as one working definition of “sexy” is surely “things that make you want to have sex.”) 

The male member is not an objectively lovely thing. I don’t mean to knock masculine beauty in general—smiles and abs and calves are great! Almost everything that’s not a penis is great!—and I don’t mean to imply that it can’t be sexy, only that the allure of the member has to do with its member-ship in an erotic whole. To offer up a lone dick as an object of aesthetic contemplation seems silly. More importantly, to isolate something so obviously instrumental is to project a porn-y, mechanical attitude toward sex that misunderstands (or ignores) what a lot of women actually want. Lowrey finds it “absurd to deny the possible potency of a meaningful, contextualized shot sent to a game recipient.” But a crotch shot is inherently not contextualized, not meaningful in the way she wants it to be. It says, “Behold my arousal.” It says, “Here is a peen.” What it does not say: “I care about you,” “you are attractive,” or even, “I think you might like this”—except in a very blinkered, egotistical sense. (It is also a subgenre of selfie, which are by definition solitary, narcissistic, and depressing.)

Most people can tell the difference between a seduction strategy and a deluded plea for attention. One is a lingering gaze and a half smile; the other is, well, dropping your pants for your own camera phone. What seems especially tragic about Weinergate is that his indiscretions land him in the second category—not cheating, exactly, but casting about for female esteem. He’s in a no-man’s-land between eros and ego. If his quest for approval hadn’t taken sexual form, it would have certainly shown up elsewhere. (Or already has—he’s running for mayor after all.)

While the crotch shot in general is depressing, unsolicited (aka surprise!) crotch shots are the saddest of all. As my colleague Amanda Marcotte pointed out in an email, they are also borderline predatory, like a flasher on the subway. But it’s the naked combination of lonely and smug, presumptuous and inadequate, that an unwanted dick pic broadcasts that is beyond devastating. European suitors in the 14th through 16th centuries had a poetic form for enumerating a lady’s enthralling physical properties—they called it a blason. Guys, there is a reason Petrarch never wrote blasons about his own penis. We don’t want to know.

Correction, July 25, 2013:  This post originally misidentified the writer Annie Lowrey as Anne Lowrey.