We've all been there: We throw ourselves into the online dating pool, exchange a few flirty messages, and then comes the shocker — we see a jaw-dropping, eye-popping, unsolicited “crotch shot,” colloquially known as the “dick pic.” This close-up penis photo takes over our phone screen and leaves us slightly mortified. We have two options: delete it immediately, or show it to our girlfriends and laugh, but one question remains: "What was he thinking?"

So, what goes on in the mind of a man when he flashes his crotch and hits “send?”

The perceived anonymity of the Internet creates a center stage for men to display this type of exhibitionist behavior. Flashing male genitalia may be traced to a biological instinct inherited from our ancestors — monkeys and apes — as a foundation for mate selection, or to display sexual interest. Crotch shots are portrayed as funny and goofy, and even part of the online dating experience in pop culture, but they’re really an obscene gesture that is hurting, rather than helping, men’s chances in the dating game.

Modern Love Notes?

Crotch shots first acquired fame in 2004 when the term "sexting" appeared in an article for Canada's The Globe and Mail. The newspaper article discussed explicit texts sent between David Beckham and an assistant, and appeared to be the first place the word was used in a media outlet. “Text messaging has become the new phone sex,” the article proclaimed.

Sexts have been at the core of several scandals, including the 2011 incident when former congressman and crotch shot connoisseur Anthony Weiner accidentally sent out a penis photo on Twitter instead of using the site's direct message feature. Shortly after, Weiner lost his job in Congress. Recently, Weiner was outed by his wife, Huma Abedin, for a third sexting scandal — this time a half-dressed Weiner showed off his abs or his crotch in different photos with a woman in various bikinis as they talked about sex. The biggest bombshell: His son, Jordan, 5,  was next to him in one of the inappropriate photos.

Celebrities and politicians are not the only ones sexting; a 2013 survey by McAfee found about half of Americans have sexted. Cell phone users tend to store their provocative correspondence on unsecured digital devices, potentially leading to a social scandal. The majority of sexters, 77 percent, send their racy content to their significant others, while 16 percent sent it to complete strangers.

Beckham and Weiner's sexting was consensual, but what entices them and other men who choose to send the unsolicited crotch shot?

The Allure Of Anonymity

The (false) idea of an anonymous environment provides a sense of empowerment for some men as it allows a form of communication without the same accountability as face-to-face interactions. April Masini, relationship expert and author, suggests this is why we see a lot of bad behavior in anonymous environments.

“There’s no consequence to the bad behavior that is not attributed to a particular person or group,” she told Medical Daily — unless you’re a celebrity or politician.

People tend to be more aware of both criticism and anonymity online than in their offline lives, as the Internet, ironically, is more enabling of anonymity. Modern technology creates a wall of perceived anonymity, and becomes a “healing place,” says Masini, where sexters can reveal things they wouldn’t normally out of shame. This permits people, both men and women, to engage in fairly casual sexual behaviors, including exhibitionism, without the same fear of consequences.

The Modern Day Flasher: Exhibitionism

Whether the man is showing ripped abs, shotgun biceps, or a well-endowed crotch shot, it’s all a form of exhibitionism. Some men have rationalized that women want to see these images, while others have a skewed perception that this is how to court a woman in the 21st century. Sexting with people you don’t know, or haven’t met offline, can feed an immediate narcissistic need. It’s a cheap and easy way to get validation in an anonymous environment, without face-to-face rejection.

“The deeper psychological reason [for crotch shots] is that they want validation that their penis is the biggest or the best. Unconsciously, the man still has castration anxiety from the Oedipal phase of their childhood (ages 3-7), when he feared that his father would cut off his penis in retaliation for trying to get his mother to love him more,” Dr. Carole Lieberman, media psychiatrist and author of Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them and How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets told Medical Daily.

Man on phone. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, Public Domain

In other words, exhibitionism becomes a form of validation for sexters. The “modern day” flasher isn’t just a guy in a trenchcoat who charges people in a park and flashes his genitals — he can reach out to anyone, at any age, and in any place in the world.

Exhibitionism is categorized as a form of sexual paraphilia, defined as atypical sexual interests. An exhibitionist must either experience harm from his or her behavior, or inflict harm in some ways on others before it fits the criteria for the disorder, according to the DSM-5.

For example, French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau used to flash his naked buttocks in haunted dark alleyways and hidden retreats, hoping that some woman walking by would spank him for being such a naughty boy. Other behaviors included his habit of masturbating, his visits to prostitutes, his act of self-exposure, and his masochistic streaks, among many others. Similar to Rousseau’s exhibitionism, sending unsolicited crotch shots to women can be a man’s way to look for a quick cheap thrill.

A Primal Instinct

Some clinical psychologists have argued male exhibitionism can be a non-dangerous compulsion: Men who flash their organ to strangers rarely seek contact afterwards, and describe a powerful sense of relief just from displaying it. Former wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, Lance Rentzel, was arrested for exposing himself to a 10-year-old girl.

“[M]ore magical than sexual, a ritual to restore that all-important sense of power that the defeats of life had temporarily destroyed,” he said. “On this day, for some reason, I needed someone to play with me in a childish game I was making up. Look at me, look at me. Look at what I've got. I sat in the car and they came over and I exposed myself. It took maybe 10 seconds, then I drove off, strangely relieved.”

Although Rentzel’s behavior is not normal or condoned, the underlying urge could be biologically inherited from primate ancestors, monkeys and apes. In the book Peacemaking Among Primates, primatologist Frans de Waal writes:

“When the organ does appear, however, it is not only impressive in size, but its bright pink color makes it stand out against the dark fur. Males invite others by presenting with legs wide apart and back arched, often flicking the penis up and down — a powerful signal.”

Unlike women’s desire to be cherished and wanted, men display their penises to indicate sexual interest. The penis is the man’s mating tool. This suggests there is a marked gender difference influenced by evolutionary pressures that have shaped male and female exhibitionism.

Dr. Nicole Prause, sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist, believes sending crotch shots is more about demonstrating masculinity for some guys. This is attributed to “the stereotype that men are always sexually motivated, ready to go, etc.” she told Medical Daily.

So, do men believe women are just as sexually motivated “to go” as they are? Possibly.

Crossed Sexts Of Communication

Some men are under the false pretense women view attraction the same way as they do. They over-perceive a woman’s sexual interest and send the unsolicited crotch shot because they would love to receive unsolicited naked photos from an attractive woman. David Bennett, a speaker and relationship expert, suggests men assume that women would prefer the same thing, so they send penis photos, thinking it would turn the woman on.

“The reality is that women would prefer a guy who is funny, confident, articulate, and flirtatious, who instead would send a hot face pic,” he told Medical Daily.

Woman on phone. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, Public Domain

A Match.com "Singles in America" survey found the majority of single American women don’t really enjoy receiving crotch shots; yet men keep sending them. About half of the women received a sext photo from men online, but men don't necessarily think they’re doing anything wrong. In fact, some men think women are into it.

“[M]en are attracted to the sexuality they visually see in a woman: her lips, eyes, breasts, hips, butt, etc. Most men aren't taught otherwise, so they assume female attraction works the same way and they'll be visually attracted to a man's physical sexuality, i.e. his penis,” said Lance to YourTango.

For decades, psychologists have found evidence that men do appear to overestimate women’s sexual interest in them, and it could be a cultural thing. A 2015 study in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science found there were few or no differences in sexual intent between men and women in Chile, Spain, and France, compared to American men and women. They found the large and significant difference among the sexes in the U.S. could possibly be attributed to the men’s misinterpretation of a woman’s friendliness as a sign of sexual interest.

I Send Mine, You Send Yours

Sexters may not only overestimate sexual intent, they may also send a nude photo hoping to force reciprocation from a hesitant female partner. According to Prause, younger men are more likely to be insecure with their size; they describe crotch shots as a way of establishing trust because they fear being exposed to the partner’s friends. However, there is general recognition most women do not find these photos sexually arousing or request them. So, although it’s happening at an increasing rate, it’s not becoming more acceptable.

Intimacy, Interrupted

Personal technology has given us a sense of privacy to send images in a quick and easy way — sometimes leaving little or nothing to the imagination when it comes to sex. There isn’t a film developer to see these photos. Ideally sexts are supposed to be between the sexter and the sextee. However, the first rule in sending crotch shots is men must understand their photo may be seen by more people than the woman receiving it.

In relationships, or dating, consensual sexting can enhance intimacy between two people, but when it’s an unsolicited crotch shot — it becomes sexual harassment. An unwanted penis photo is just as bad as someone standing in a trenchcoat and flashing us on the street. The term “dick pic” may sound funny, but that doesn’t make the photo less offensive or harmless; it’s a form of digital abuse.

So, should crotch shots be banned? No, not if they’re done consensually.

Whether a man’s excuse to send them is due to environmental anonymity, exhibitionism, or a biological impulse, or because he just wanted to, technology has oversimplified aspects of gender and sexuality. There are core differences in gender and mating. Men and women may want the same things, but we go about getting them in different ways.  

“Roses, a poem, and a good Cabernet” are a good alternative to show sexual interest rather than a crotch shot, insists Masini.

No eggplant emoji needed.