The Politics of Penis Shots

The Politics of Penis Shots June 10, 2011

So help me, this country needs more sex scandals. Every time a famous man does something untoward, every cultural critic fires back with an article on What Women Really Want. I’ll bet that also happens when a famous woman does something untoward — and, for that matter, whenever the Phoenix Cardinals lose. The mystery of What Women Really Want is so deep, it’s never the wrong time to show up with dynamite and a backhoe.

Yesterday in Salon, Tracy-Clark Flory gave Anthony Weiner’s hairless chest an emphatic thumbs-down. Duly noted, and fair enough. Today in Slate, Annie Lowrey confronts a gordian, um, bulge of opinion on Weiner’s boldest piece of performance art: the unveiled crotch shot. Do women find them sexy?

Among the nay-sayers is Cindy Meston, former president of the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health:

“We spent six years of research on why women have sex,” Meston says. They compiled 237 reasons. Duty sex. Revenge sex. Pity sex. Bored sex, engaged in because women simply had nothing better to do. “Of the 237 reasons why women have sex,” Meston says, “not one was looking at a man’s genitals.”

Women, research increasingly shows, are nuanced sexual beings whose arousal depends on context, mood and a whole bunch of things they aren’t even aware of. Men are different. Men do tend to find the equivalent naked pictures of women titillating. When they send women photos of their genitalia, they are engaging in a sort of sexting golden rule: I think it’s hot, so you should, too. (If women also employed this rule, they would text pictures of themselves taking out the recycling.)

From there, Lowrey launches what she calls her “earnest, if lonely, defense of the erotic potential of the crotch shot”:

Many women might admit—when not giving silly quotes to publications trawling for tangential Weiner stories—that content matters, too. Penises might not be the most empirically beautiful things to look at. But they are erotic implements. Some women surely welcome the sight, and a few of them have admitted as much. As for what science has to say about it: Studies have found that women self-report and actually experience arousal in reaction to a great variety of sexual images. Plus, just because a photograph does not compel a woman to have sex, using the bar set by the Austin researcher, does not mean she does not find it sexy.

Then there is the more important, more complex matter of context. A decontextualized, unsolicited phallic photograph seems unlikely to send shivers up any given woman’s spine. But it would be absurd to deny the possible potency of a meaningful, contextualized shot sent to a game recipient. And Weiner’s photographs, for better or worse, do seem to have been those sort of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours pics. They were sent with permission and reciprocated, save for one picture mistakenly sent to the wrong person.

While these titans are busy clashing, let’s pause to remember that women aren’t quite the only people on the planet; Guy-erdämmerung is still sometime in the future. There’s another, equally important question that Lowrey, along with her team of experts, appears to find beneath consideration, and that is: What do men expect to get out of sending crotch shots?

To arouse women? Maybe some do, although I would hope that, for these men, the crotch shot doesn’t represent the only prong, so to speak, in their attack. To create a sense of quid pro quo? (To use the common English translation here would be too tasteless, even for me.) In many cases, certainly. I don’t think that’s the only motive, though, or even the most important. To illustrate, let me relate an anecdote.

Once, on a break at work, I saw a female friend pick up her cell phone and let out a long sigh. “He’s at it again,” she muttered, to nobody in particular.

I asked who was at what again. “My friend Jeff,” she said. “He just sent me another picture of his penis. They show up in batches. I won’t hear from him for months, then one day — whoosh! — five penis shots before dinnertime.”

It emerged that she and Jeff had never been lovers. “I’m sure he’d like to sleep with me, but he’s out in L.A., so I don’t think anything’s going to happen, even if I wanted it to, which I don’t.”

Let’s examine the data here: a man is separated from a woman by a six-hour car drive; he’s probably figured out by now she considers him no more than a friend; she’s never sent him any risqué photographs of herself. And yet, at lengthy but regular intervals, he persists in presenting his member for inspection. Why?

To me, it’s obvious: he craves appreciation. More than anything, he wants to hear some variation on “My, that’s quite a penis you’ve got!” Some men would settle for “That’s a perfectly adequate penis you’ve got.” None of the other perks — the reciprocal photograph, the hookup — would be half so easy to enjoy without that initial nihil obstat.

In Jonathan Ames’ Wake Up, Sir!, the hero, Alan, manages to get the lovely Vivian into bed, only to lose heart when she tells him her last several boyfriends were Yoruba. When she assures him he doesn’t fall short of her expectations, he’s ready to perform. Magic words, you might say.

You’re probably curious, so I might as well tell you: no. I’ve never sent out my resume, Weiner-style. Why not? Well, among other reasons, I’ve got a blog. If anyone wants to feast her eyes on my potential for creation — voila. For that kind of advertising, paragraphs are safer than penises. They probably won’t land you in the headlines, and what’s more, you can make them as long as you want.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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