On Christmas Eve six or seven years ago, I was driving on the freeway from Atlanta to my parents' home in northeast Florida when I felt a vehicle pacing me in the lane to my left. I looked over and sure enough, a black Toyota SUV was riding alongside me at 75 miles per hour as the driver — seat leaned back, pelvis held aloft — proceeded to jerk off and, defying logic, not crash. I looked away, eased up on the gas until continuing to keep pace with me would have become conspicuous and weird, and eventually he sped off to spread his brand of Christmas cheer to other unsuspecting female drivers.
Virtually every adult women has been made to look at a strange man's dick against her will at least once in her life. And where men with a proclivity for indecent exposure used to have to risk arrest by flashing women in public parks — or risk their lives masturbating at high speeds — the popularity of online dating has made this sort of harassment as easy as snapping a quick dick pic in the comfort of one's own home and hitting send. The dude can even include an insulting or abusive caption for fun.
Over the course of the past year, since she hosted the first edition of the art show "I Didn't Ask for This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics" in L.A. in the spring of 2016, Whitney Bell has learned a lot about the psychology behind a male compulsion to send women photos of their penises. "I’ve gotten a lot more information than I ever wanted," she jokes. The idea to exhibit a curated collection of unsolicited photos of men's penises originated with a friend's offhand comment that a dick pic she'd received was so beautifully lit, so well composed that it looked like art. The exhibit, which returns to L.A. on Friday and Saturday, transforms a gallery space into a woman's apartment, in which real dick pics sent by real men have been framed and hung with care like precious objects, alongside framed screen caps of actual exchanges women have had with men via social media and dating apps. One goes like this:
Man: "I'm gonna be honest, I'm here to fuck and have no other intentions talking to you, is there a chance?"
Man: "Your loss, i mean lets be serious, the chances of you matching with another 6 foot 1 white alpha male with a foot long cock are slim to none"
Putting the images on display in a playful way serves a few purposes. It shames the men who engage in this type of behavior. It helps men who don't become better allies by sort of forcing them to confront the bullshit women put up with; no one can walk away from this show saying, "Nah, that doesn't happen." It also empowers women to shed the shame and embarrassment they may have experienced when they were digitally flashed by a stranger. Shame is the whole point, after all.
Discussing the psychology behind sending unsolicited dick pics, Bell says, "I think most people, when they first guess [why men do this], it’s off base. ... It was never about enticing a woman or picking her up. It’s about exerting your control and exerting your power because no one has told you that you can’t. No one thinks that using a picture of their balls is going to get them a date on Tinder — that’s not the way that works. It’s about the violation."
She continues, "Harassment and assault stem from the same place. Taking away someone else’s choice makes you feel stronger. Rape is so often discussed as sex ... it’s not about the abuser being sexually attracted to a woman, it’s about him wanting to control her."
Not everyone has been receptive to the show's message or to the writing Bell has done for outlets including Teen Vogue and HuffPost since the show debuted. Calling attention to this form of harassment has made Bell a "beacon," including for men who want their dick pics to be included in the show (requests Bell refuses, of course). She's even been targeted by women — including one who said she hopes someone "cuts her vagina out" — and people who should be part of the show's target audience. When she took "I Didn't Ask for This" to San Francisco last summer, it was nearly shut down by a group of progressive protesters who claimed the content was tantamount to "revenge porn." (The men's faces aren't featured, and Bell removes identifying marks such as tattoos and birthmarks so the men aren't recognizable; as such, the photos don't constitute revenge porn.)
She's used to threats and harassment from people like MRAs and conservative Christian activists, but she was shaken by the pushback from people she'd consider allies. "The fact that this was coming from this well-meaning group [of trans and queer kids], I almost canceled the show," she says. "I was so taken aback that people who should be on my team would aggressively hate this so much." The show went on and was successful all the same.
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The third incarnation of "I Didn't Ask for This" is a full-fledged weekend of sex-positive and anti-harassment art and programming. There's a blowjob workshop, a cunnilingus workshop, a 200-dildo photo booth sponsored by Doc Johnson, live tattooing, artwork by more than 20 artists, and educational panels featuring speakers including GabiFresh, Ericka Hart and Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson. VIP ticket holders get a swag bag filled with sex toys and gift cards and feminist magazines. It's serious stuff but presented with "a spoonful of sugar," Bell jokes.
Since putting on the first show, Bell quit her job as an art director with a jewelry company. Now, spreading empowerment is her full-time job.
"I feel that empowerment is much like race or socioeconomic status, it is a privilege and must be treated as such," Bell says. "Not everyone has the ability or strength or upbringing to be able to harness that on their own. To shed their shame, to have the agency to call out to their harassers, and to inspire others to do the same. I am privileged in many ways, and being empowered is one of them — so it is my duty to stand up for those who perhaps don’t share that privilege."
"I Didn't Ask for This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics," Think Tank Gallery, 939 Maple Ave., downtown; Fri.-Sat., Oct. 6-7; $17-$72. thatdickpicshow.com.