As he awaits sentencing for sexting a 15-year-old girl, disgraced politician Anthony Weiner leaves behind a dubious and complicated legacy, having inadvertently undermined Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Weiner’s legacy includes the dick pic — cementing its place in popular culture, and embodying the extreme ways men spotlight their phalli to the objects of their desire. What can a woman do when a man texts her an unsolicited penis photo?
For Whitney Bell, a 28-year-old artist from Los Angeles, the answer is to organize an exhibit that incorporates the very photos that men have sent her and countless other women. “I Didn’t Ask For This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics,” runs this Friday and Saturday, June 9-10, at San Francisco’s SOMArts, with all manner of photos Bell says were meant to intimidate women. The men had no idea that their emailed and texted images would become so public.
“This isn’t about dicks and dick pics — it’s about a much larger issue,” Bell tells SF Weekly by phone from Los Angeles. ”I want to show how invasive sexual harassment is, all the time.”
Bell’s exhibit is not “revenge porn,” although she says some men have labeled it that way. For legal reasons, the exhibit’s publicity photos — including the ones used by SF Weekly — feature pixelated versions of the images she’s displaying in full at SOMArts.
“My legal team suggested that I do so because we’ve been having a lot of controversy around the show — people calling it ‘revenge porn,’ which it isn’t in any way,” Bell says. “We had to deal with the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco City Attorney to confirm that, and it is not. A group of ‘social-justice warriors’ decided that this show was revenge porn and decided to post on all our social media platforms about it, and are trying to convince people not to go. They even went so far as calling the gallery and trying to get them to shut the show down, because California has a revenge-porn law — which I fully support.”
“I don’t think anyone should be showing someone’s nude photos that were sent privately and with consent and then showing them without consent,” Bell adds. “The difference is that these aren’t identifiable. We’re not trying to shame any specific human but rather the act of sexual harassment as a whole. Also these photos weren’t shared in a private manner. The reason I censored those photos for the press is that my lawyers were like, ‘You know what? Just on the off-chance that some dude is reading this and sees his dick and decides to come after you. There’s really not any legal recourse, but you could be tied up with legal fees.’ It’s a self-protective thing.”
To accentuate the invasiveness of unsolicited cock shots, Bell has showcased them — and a series of art done by feminist artists — on walls and rooms at SOMArts that recreate her home in Los Angeles. The exhibit’s first iteration last year in L.A. featured images she got after querying friends, feminist organizations, and others. From the publicity of that exhibit, lots of men sent more unsolicited dick pics to Bell’s social-media accounts.
“The ones from the first show were all your pretty standard, run-of-the-mill shots — some funny things for scale — but for this one, we’re spanning the spectrum of all the ridiculous things when men take these pictures,” Bell says. “There’s one where a guy poured what is either honey or cum and it’s rubbed in all over his pubes and he’s covered it in sprinkles. Dudes put a lot of things for scale. The weirdest ones are these toilet paper rolls that are seemingly the least sexual thing in their house. Lots of remote controls. Lots of guys putting their dicks in buns or baguettes. One toasted a piece of bread and put jam on it. They get really creative.”
The photos that men send unsolicited could potentially lead to prosecution, as with Weiner’s case. But, Bell says, “In response to a dick pic, unfortunately there isn’t a lot of legal recourse that one can take.”
“If you went to the cops with that, they’re just going to laugh at you,” she adds. “They’re not going to pursue that at all. What shocks me about this act is that I feel many men go behind the guise of the internet, they feel anonymity — but in reality, it’s far more linked to your life and who you are. I’ve had so many dudes send me [direct messages] on Instagram where I can click and see their whole lives.”
“In some circumstances,” Bell continues, “I’ve sent a screenshot of what they’ve sent me and sent it to their wives or to other women in their lives. It’s not in a malicious way, but a ‘Hey, I’m pretty sure that you don’t know that your middle-aged husband is sending a picture of his cock to a 20-year-old on Instagram. I’m not trying to upset you, but I’d want to know if my husband were doing that.’ ”
She’s done it “three or four times,” but only when the guy has said something “horrific” as well. No woman has ever responded angrily, although some have been shocked. But there’s a lot of apologizing for their partners’ harassing other women — “which is indicative of the problem as a whole.”
“Women end up being the ones who are carrying the burden,” Bell says. “When all the things happened with Trump, who did we look to? Melania. What does Melania have to say about it? Well, it shouldn’t matter. She’s not the one committing the assault. And then, women are judged for whether they leave the man or supporting their husband. It’s a really backwards way of looking at harassment, and continuing to blame the victim by blaming the women in the men’s lives.”
The SOMArts exhibit happens to coincide with Bell’s image in the latest edition of Playboy, where she’s shown wearing a revealing T-shirt. Is it a contradiction to appear in a magazine that’s trying to titillate readers?
“I wasn’t nude — it was an artist’s feature where I was scantily clad, and my nipples were hard through a very thin T-shirt,” Bell says. “Also, I post a lot of sexual stuff on Instagram, anyways. Many people have claimed hypocrisy, saying that if I was displaying tit pics from women, there’d be feminist outrage — and they’re right. But I don’t think the two are comparable. And I don’t think my exhibit is a portrayal of male nudity. It’s a portrayal of harassment. And the two are very different things. Also, if you’re buying a Playboy, then you’re already consenting to viewing images of women in the buff. You’re seeking it out. You’ve made that decision.
“Other people have said, ‘Oh, you’re using people’s unsolicited pics and now you’re making us look at them unsolicited,’ ” Bell continues. “Well, I’m not. If you’re buying a ticket to the show and coming, you’re signing up to look at these pics. If you’re buying a Playboy, you’re signing up to look at pics. You’ve made that choice. I do think there is a really big difference between a woman sending a nude photo and a man sending a nude photo. Obviously, unsolicited photos are never acceptable, but when a woman is sending a photo of her tits, she’s not doing it to try and harass or exert her control over a man. That’s the difference to me.”
Further clarifying the difference between solicited and unsolicited images, Bell says: “I like sex. I like men. I like dick. I just don’t like harassment. And I’m happy to text with someone or exchange scandalous photos if we have both consented to do so. If we’re in a relationship. Or we’ve already had sex or whatever. It’s when they use their penis as a ‘Hello, what’s up’ on Tinder, it becomes problematic.”
“I Didn’t Ask For This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics,” Friday, June 9, 7 p.m. – midnight, and Saturday, June 10, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m at SOMArts, 934 Brannan St. $15-$20; somarts.org.