Battle of the (Underwear) Bulge: Anthony Weiner, Twitter and Evolutionary Theory

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I really, really want to take up Amy Wax’s call (here) to pay attention to mostly-neglected (by feminist legal scholars, that is) methodologies of economists, empirical social scientists and evolutionary theorists:

Evolutionary theory seeks to offer a scientifically grounded account of human psychology and behavior as an outgrowth of competition over time among individuals and groups for scarce resources. The rubric covers methods ranging from conventional Darwinian explanations to efforts to understand complex group interactions using game-theoretic models developed by economists and social scientists.

Amy L. Wax, Converted or Unconverted: To Whom Shall we Preach?, 12 Colum. J. Gender & L. 546, 546-47 (2003).

My problem in heeding Wax’s call is that I can’t get past the unsatisfying pop psychology version of evolutionary theory.  Consider the Salon article Why do Men Take Crotch Shots? by Tracy Clark-Flory as an illustrative example.  Reflecting on the recent Twitter scandal involving New York Representative Anthony Weiner, Clark-Flory writes:

What’s with the penis pics?

It might be that straight men are simply assuming that women’s desires mirror their own. Charlie Glickman, a Good Vibrations staff sexologist, points out that many straight men like looking at the female equivalent. * * * Cindy Meston, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees: “I think men think this would work because it works for them,” said Meston, co-author of the book “Why Women Have Sex.” (Hint: It isn’t because of crotch shots.) “Images of women’s genitals trigger availability — an explicit, immediate sexual cue, which turns them on.”

Speaking of evolutionary sexual cues, cognitive neuroscientist Ogi Ogas points out, “Men who send off penis pictures probably aren’t thinking at all, they’re responding to an unconscious, evolutionary urge likely inherited from our primate ancestors: male monkeys and apes routinely display their penis (usually erect) to females to indicate sexual interest,” he wrote in an email. ***

Ironically, while some of the women I heard from expressed an interest in receiving a photo of a man’s chest (or, as one woman specified, “Send me shirtless Bradley Cooper”), it seems the penis is one of the last male body parts women want to see. The response to a call I put out on Twitter for women’s feelings on guys pointing a camera between their legs was one of total repulsion. ***

Those that are fond of a penis shot typically prefer that it come within a sexual narrative of some sort. ***

Straight women aren’t the only ones who prefer that a penis pic come with some context. Josh, a 27-year-old gay man, told me, “A cock shot on its own, without context around it, would only make me laugh, and do nothing for me sexually.” ***

Whether one of these photos is hot or not, welcome or unwanted, threatening or alluring, all depends on the circumstances, which is true of all sexual overtures, right? A dick flash from a lover is a far cry from a wanking stranger on the subway or an unsolicited “sext” from a professional athlete. The cock shot phenomenon is not just an example of that yawning divide between intention and effect when it comes to sex, but also the importance of context and consent.

I read Clark-Flory to suggest that one reason men send pictures of their erections is to indicate sexual interest, because that’s what some primates do.  It seems to me that the simpler answer is that some men send these pictures is because they think the recipient will like it.  They (presumably) extrapolate from their own experience and sexuality — feeling stimulated by visual imagery — that women must be similarly stimulated.

So to me, the answer to, “What’s with the penis pics?” is not, “Evolution,” as much as, “We haven’t been listening to your description of your subjective hedonic experience.”  And, “People do stupid things.”

Take that, Anthony Weiner.  And by the way, do you really not know whether this is a picture of you or not?  Don’t tell me lying is biologically based, too.  Just tell the truth and get back to work.

image source: here

-Bridget Crawford


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