“Did you see Andrew*’s snap?” my friend Noah texted me. Apparently, he had sent it to me and Noah. I swiped it open, expecting it to be similar to Andrew’s previous snaps: a photo of one of his dogs, perhaps, or the comically overwrought title of a poetry volume sold at the bookstore where he works. Instead, I saw Andrew jerking off his erect penis, framed by a promotional filter for one of the Paranormal Activity movies.
“Well?” Noah asked. “What do you think?”
I didn’t quite know how to answer that question. It didn’t make me want to see Andrew’s dick IRL, and it certainly didn’t make me want to see Paranormal Activity 6. Aesthetically, it resembled any other dick pic I had ever received: slightly grainy and poorly lit, as if Calvin Klein had art-directed it back in the 1990s. Yet while most dick pics I had received were either a prelude to or an invitation for sex, that was not the case in this instance: I am straight and married, as was Andrew (though his relationship was open), while Noah is gay and has a boyfriend. In this context, the dick pic was apparently intended less as a come-on than an innocuous greeting, the same way your grandma might send you an eBaum’s World card on Earth Day.
“Wow,” I said. “I mean, I can’t believe he sent it.”
“No,” Noah said. “What do you think about the dick? I’d give it a 6 or 7, myself.”
As Andrew later clarified to me, this was precisely the type of honest reaction he had hoped to elicit from Noah. He had sent it to him as an invitation for an appraisal of sorts, as if his dick were a vase on Antiques Roadshow. Additionally — and this was the part that really blew my mind — he had sent another dick pic to Noah afterward, who had subsequently critiqued the size, shape, color, and texture. The second time, he sent it without a filter, and Noah’s initial rating went up. Apparently, said Andrew, Noah told him he had “a good dick hue,” which the filter had obscured. “He said it’s a better overall dick than he first thought.”
“So here’s my question,” I asked. “Why the need to get an objective rating of your dick from a third party who you’re not interested in sexually, with no hope of reciprocation?”
“If I sent it to a lady it’s often part of more reciprocal sexting,” he explained. “Noah is an impartial observer. It’s like if he was going to the Westminster Dick Show.”
As it happens, Andrew is not the only heterosexual man to send dick pics to his male friends, gay or straight, as I learned when I began asking around. One could call it a form of bro texting, or “brexting,” were one inclined toward such wordplay.
Some of these men told me that they send their male friends dick pics as a way of workshopping sexts and receiving feedback before sending them to their wives or girlfriends. Jacques*, 34, has a group text thread with his straight and gay male friends specifically for this purpose, “as a ‘should I send this to her?’ kind of thing,” he said. They seek input from one another on questions like style of grooming/hair, background, lighting, and whether to show their dicks erect or semi-erect.
Locker rooms aren’t as prominent a showcase for the male anatomy as I had previously believed, according to the men I interviewed — so, given how infrequently straight men get a good look at each other’s penises, there’s also an element of compare/contrast at play. Tim*, 19, didn’t even know it was possible to have a curved dick until he started exchanging dick pics with his best friend. The interaction began as a literal dick-measuring contest: “We were having a debate on who we thought had a bigger one, and obviously we chose ourselves,” he said. “Then we realized this was the only way we had to prove it to each other.”
He now regularly exchanges dick pics with a few close friends on a group chat. Often, the conversation will take on a more ironic bent, and they’ll drop in photos of their penises in stockings or tiny Dr. Seuss hats, as well as when they’re just “looking mad small.” Sharing cements their bond: “It’s a trust thing, too,” he explained. “We can’t fuck each other over if the others have your small-dick pics.”
This behavior is not without precedent. In 2015, on the website Matter, Alana Levinson documented the practice of “frexting,” or friends sending each other their sexts. In her piece, Levinson framed frexting as an act of female empowerment, a way for women to affirm their sexuality in a safe space. She quoted one frexter calling the practice “an awesome way to feel attractive and celebrate whatever it is you like about your body in a way that feels playful and fun.”
When self-identified straight men sext each other, they confront a different set of social norms and constraints. Some I spoke to clearly viewed the activity as a “fuck you” to the fetters of hypermasculinity and homophobia that have prevented previous generations of straight men from bonding over pictures of their penises.
“Men have a weird code of silence around their genitalia,” Andrew said. “I guess it’s kind of fun to send guys dick pics — in the way where people would play naked Frisbee at college or something — to just throw that out the window and be like, ‘I have no problem with you seeing me naked, or seeing you naked.’”
In a post-Kinsey world, where gender roles are rapidly evolving and rates of same-sex experimentation are climbing, perhaps it makes sense that men, regardless of their sexual orientation, would be more willing to feint at digital flirtation, or at the very least more willing to show off.
“It doesn’t in any way surprise me that it happens,” said Jane Ward, the author of Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men. In 2015, Ward coined the phrase “bro jobs” to describe sexual interactions between otherwise self-identified heterosexual men. “Straight men and gay men’s friendships are on the rise and straight men might feel more comfortable flirting with gay men” — or, for that matter, with each other.
Ward thinks that same-sex sexting isn’t necessarily “gay” so much as it’s a desire for validation, the same way a teenage girl would post bikini shots solely for the likes. “All people have the desire to be desired, regardless of sexual orientation,” Ward said. “It may not mean you actually want to have sex with that person — the same way young women posting selfies on the internet shows a desire to be gazed upon, but it doesn’t mean they want to have sex with everyone looking at their photo.” The fact that it’s usually via ephemeral messaging apps like Snapchat, says Andrew, gives it all a “fun, harmless, faving-a-tweet quality” — in short, for many millennials, sexting isn’t really about sex at all.
But even if a sext’s original meaning — i.e., “here is a photo of my junk and I would like to fuck you with it at some point in the near future” — has been obfuscated by technological advances and the gauze of millennial irony, that doesn’t change the fact that the recipient could interpret it much differently than the sender. That’s particularly the case if it’s a straight man sending a dick pic to a gay man, versus another heterosexual male: While in the latter case it can easily be dismissed as a type of frat-boy humor, it’s a lot harder to do that if the recipient is actually interested in men.
While Noah didn’t mind providing his objective, John Berger–esque art-historical analysis of Andrew’s dick, it’s easy to see how another gay man could react differently — with annoyance, discomfort, or outright anger. Through this lens, same-sex sexting could be viewed as a form of gay-baiting; of sending out an implicit invitation for sexual contact, then abruptly retracting it with a “no homo, bro.”
Trent*, 27, who is gay, regularly receives dick pics from his friend Will, who is straight and has a girlfriend. “At the time, I thought he was trying to hint to me that he was interested in doing things,” he said. “I later found out that he just likes showing off.”
“I don’t think it’s the work of the revolution, but I do think it’s part of or one expression of the way that lines being these rigid categories of gay, straight, or bi are being pushed back upon,” Ward said. “I think that’s good because the narratives we’ve been given that you’ve been born gay or straight don’t hold up.” Or men just want to show everyone their dicks.
* Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the dick-pic senders.