It has been a bad week for Rep. Anthony Weiner and a bad week for penises, too. In case you've missed the hubbub, lucky you: With all the sexual zeal and heady imprudence of a 13-year-old, the married Weiner sent a number of Internet acquaintances photographs of himself flexing his waxed chest, tumescent in gray underpants, and, well, you know, just tumescent. Those photographs were released widely, much to his shame and to the shame of the crotch shot, too. Indeed, the media quickly concurred, contra Weiner, Favre, and Kanye: Nobody wants your penis pictures, men, so put it away and up your seduction game!
Our sister publication, the Washington Post, argued the point in a style story titled "Listen Up, Fellas: Naked Man-Parts? Not So Sexy." The crotch shot leaves women cold, and science says so, the article says. "We spent six years of research on why women have sex," a University of Texas-Austin researcher sternly tells the Post. "[N]ot one was looking at a man's genitals."
Anecdata confirms the story's finding. "I would like a photo of a made bed," one woman says. "Or laundry," another chimes in. "Folded laundry," the first elaborates. "Maybe in a wicker basket." The story's reporter gloms onto the trend. "How about a picture of you, sweaty, cleaning out the storm drain?"
The article's self-sexist answers were made jokingly, sure. Those of us who become erotically charged by the sight of a tidy laundry hamper surely exist but are few and far between. Nevertheless, the answers are revealing. The laundry hamper qua laundry hamper? Not sexy. The caring, thoughtfulness, earnestness—promise, even—implied by a laundry hamper filled with neatly folded bras and knickers, just washed on the delicates cycle? Maybe, just maybe, sexy.
That is where I mount my earnest, if lonely, defense of the erotic potential of the crotch shot: When it comes to what is sexy, context matters.
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.
There is another common, absolutist line against the crotch shot: that men sending women photographs of their penises are just projecting. They want to see their lovers' bodies, so their lovers must want to see their bodies, too. Time's Joel Stein advances the thesis, polling a variety of sexually active adults and asking them whether he should be sending himself out. Playboy's Miss June provided a typical response: "Women really don't want to see a penis. Men like to look at their penises. Freud might have gotten it wrong. Men may have the penis envy." But, again, Miss June might not. Other women do, for any number of reasons.
Such subtlety is sorely missing from all the stories pooh-poohing the bulge shot, and the press is taking Weiner's photographs as emblematic of a whole very personal genre. Viewed in the light of scandal, the congressman's shots telegraph a cavalier narcissism and an unappealing, juvenile randiness. They are not sexy. They are depressing. But that's my criticism, and it is germane to Weiner, not to all wieners everywhere—they've had a bad enough week, as is.