On sexualising nudity

I haven’t really written about it here, but one of the more surreal things I’ve done this year – maybe any year – was an interview with Rachel Kramer Bussel for a piece she was writing on dick pics. Rachel was awesome, and we covered all sorts of interesting issues, but I still came away from the whole thing with more questions than answers, the most pressing of which was this: what is a dick pic?

Is it just any photo that features a penis? Does the dick have to be hard? Does it have to be the focus of the image? After all, if it’s not the main focus, in what sense is it a dick pic? More broadly, when does something like a dick pic – any naked photo, in fact – become sexual, or explicit, or erotic, and to what extent can it be different things to different people?

The same day Rachel’s column was published, I did the Streak for Tigers event at London Zoo. Later that night – still slightly giddy from the whole thing, and in a rare state of total body confidence – I shared a photo on my personal Facebook page, taken just after I’d finished running.


Of course before I uploaded the image, I shoved it into my phone’s photo editor, and slapped a cute animal sticker over my crotch area.


I added the sticker mainly because I was nervous about violating Facebook T&Cs. Had that consideration not been in play I’d have been faced with quite a difficult decision…

One of the great things about the tiger run is that it allows people to enjoy nudity in a way that is very clearly not sexual; by censoring my own photo of the event, I felt like I was turning it into something it wasn’t, and never had been. More importantly, I wasn’t being true to myself: I was representing what was, for me, a happy, open, liberating experience, in a way that I didn’t really recognise, just to avoid causing offence.

On the other hand, to assume that my understanding of a photo will match everyone (or even anyone) else’s is naïve at best. For some people who see it pop up on their screen, having my dick in the photo would have made it shockingly, offensively sexual; for others, it will be the fact that I’m clearly naked which sexualises the image, and adding a sticker over one bit of me will make no difference to that.

The extent to which viewer perspective makes a difference was illustrated when I discussed it with a couple of friends. I asked both of them whether the presence of the sticker and the mask make the image more or less sexual. One, a woman I’ve known for years, and who isn’t aware of my blog/writing, had this to say:

“Yes, for me both those things sexualise the photo. The sticker because it makes me actually think about your dick, and I find myself wondering what it looks like, whereas if it was just there on screen I’d probably be like ‘ok, that’s his penis’. I find masks really sexy generally, and in this case it means I’m no longer looking at you, my friend, but instead can imagine whoever or whatever I like behind it. It’s threatening, but in a hot way.”

When I asked Ella Dawson for her view, I got a very different response:

“I don’t think sex when I see it, largely because of the cat sticker – it would be more sexual without it. And masks just kind of weird me out, so I can’t take them seriously!”

Most of us would agree that whether or not an image is sexy depends largely on who’s looking at it; what I realised after talking to people about the tiger photo is that in a lot of cases, there’s also going to be little consensus on whether something’s even sexual in the first place.

I got further evidence of that on Friday, when thinking about this blog post. Curious to see where the lines were drawn, I took a series of photos at home in my apartment, and sent paired images to a small handful of people I trust. With each pair I tried to create one image that, to me, wasn’t sexual, and then add or change a specfic detail to give the second image more of a clear erotic theme.

‘Is this sexual, or is it not?’ was the only question I asked people. The results were, predictably, all over the place…

[Detail changed: half-turn and more of a deliberate pose]

“NO / YES. The head on photo is sexy, but scientific almost. No, like a documentary – it’s National Geographic! The side-on has a bolder attitude: here I am, strong, chest out, cock prominent. It’s subtle, but the stance gives it more of an active feeling.”

“NO / NO. The mirror frames you beautifully and the colours are amazing – but no, neither of these is sexual.”

“YES / NO. The first is challenging, because you’re so head-on and your cock is just there. The second is a bit more relaxed, so not as sexual.”

[Detail changed: both hands reaching up to grasp shelving unit; arse pushed backwards]

“YES / YES. A book lover into ass play is still going to find that first photo blindingly hot. While someone who doesn’t read and is into women wouldn’t.”

“NO / YES. You know I like your arse! I also like how your arms are up, holding onto the first bookcase, but in the first photo it’s pretty casual – the second one is definitely more sexual! It’s everything the first one has…magnified.”

“NO / YES. The second is sexual in an obvious way. The first entirely depends on what you find sexual.”

[Detail changed: cock stroked to semi-hardness]

“NO / NO. I’m not sure I’d say either of these are blatantly sexual. Not like a photo of your hand gripping your slick bulging cock would be, for instance. These are almost like lifestyle shots. They could be in a magazine – like a home decorating magazine.”

“NO / YES. There’s a relaxed, comfortable, peaceful quality to the first of these that makes it very intimate, even though it’s not overtly sexual. It’s quietly intimate.”

“YES / YES. I guess it doesn’t make a difference that I know your apartment, and know no-one can see you! I guess I still see both as sinful because they’re full-length naked photos in a window.”

“NO / YES. Soft dick = not sexual. Rocking the semi? Oh yes!”

[Detail changed: cock hidden, hand reaching down to touch it out of shot]

“NO / YES. The second of these is sexual, but the first is not. In the second one, it’s so easy to imagine you stroking your cock just out of view, whereas the other is a more straightforward nude.”

“YES / NO. I like that I can see your whole cock in the first one, and the sunlight on your body creates a really sexy sort of warmth. The second is almost too subtle – for me, it’s not really a sexual image.”

“YES / YES. Both are shot straight on and therefore, to my mind, ask the viewer a question that is sexually charged. I think the real difference would have come if you’d changed the angle . . . then it would have felt more like an insight into a private moment than the direct proposition these angles offer.”

“YES / YES. I think they’re both sexual. Yes, you’re holding yourself in the second but is it more sexual because of this? Could you be trying to hide from view in this one? There’s something about the confidence of the first one that makes it sexual to me.”

Overall, wider narrative and personal preference played a massive role in how people responded to each of the photo sets. That trend was reinforced when I posted the final pair for Sinful Sunday. When I thought about that some more, I realised that not only is it true of the majority of the images I post here, but that most weeks I actively influence that narrative to a great extent when I add words to the pictures.

While Sinful Sunday may be ‘all about the image’, it’s clear that how people choose to present that image makes a big difference to how it’s perceived and understood. To whether it’s even considered ‘sinful’ at all, in fact. Change the words – change the context – and you alter those perceptions, even as the photo remains the same.

The important role of external perception and image context in determining what is/isn’t sexual obviously extends way beyond photography. I live in a 2nd/3rd-floor maisonette flat, just off a main road. My bedroom is on the 2nd floor, and faces out onto the street. The second floor of the building opposite is used as the back office of a high-end shoe boutique, and during the daytime is usually occupied by a couple of young women. I can see very clearly into their working space, which means that when my curtains are open, they have an equally good view of my room…and I don’t always know how to handle that.

If I walk from the shower, or sprawl naked on my bed, or just wander downstairs to fetch something, I don’t want to have to pull the curtains across or clutch a towel to me at all times. Furthermore, I don’t really care whether or not someone sees me. It’s different if I want to masturbate, or if I’m with someone, but when I’m just hanging out on my own in my room, my nudity doesn’t feel to me like it’s sexual, or should be hidden.

And yet, and yet, it’s not really that simple. This isn’t the zoo run, where everyone’s naked and that’s the agreed context. Nor is it Sinful Sunday, where my nudity comes framed by words I choose and can clearly communicate. Those women have no way of knowing that I’m not intentionally flashing them. The fact that I don’t see my nudity as sexual has no bearing whatsoever on how they view it, and I can’t say with any certainty that they would agree with my decision to wander around naked. Maybe one of them had a traumatic experience with a flasher on the Tube. Maybe the other grew up with a pervy neighbour who did masturbate in front of his window. Maybe they’ve been lucky, and nothing of that nature has ever happened to them – it’s still not just possible but understandable that each of them might see a naked man in public view as just inherently sexual.

As a man, confronting those considerations is difficult but important. Female nudity is rarely sinister or aggressive, and any threat it carries is directed squarely at structures and institutions – it has political power, but its impact on individuals is seldom malign. Male nudity has a very different track record. Largely hidden from view in mainsteam media (because ‘that’s not what women want to look at’), its sexualisation has instead been tinged with a darker, more violent set of associations.

Men use their nudity as a way of imposing and asserting their power over women. They use it to scare and intimidate. They deliberately sexualize their own bodies, and then wield them as weapons against those who aren’t in a position to fight back. Not all men – absolutely not all men – but enough that all of us have a responsibility to bear that in mind when thinking about our own nudity.

In a perfect world, I would get to enjoy my general lack of inhibition, and wander around naked whenever and wherever I pleased. At the very least, I would feel comfortable prioritizing my comfort and freedom in my own apartment over the sensibilities of anyone who happened to see into it. As it is, I feel increasingly aware of implications and consequences that part of me really wishes I could ignore.

In the end, how you define a dick pic is less important than making sure you err on the side of caution when using it – that it never serves as a weapon of any kind. Likewise, putting the uncensored version of that photo on Facebook is not something I’d have done in a vacuum – while my inner libertine, my inner exhibitionist, may chafe at having to cover up, it was ultimately the right thing to do. After all, how we think people should react to our nudity is not a reliable guide to how they actually will.

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7 Responses to On sexualising nudity

  1. It’s so complicated – perhaps the simplest thing would be to go live in Sweden!

  2. Shalom says:

    Clearly regarding nudity, perception is everything and so much factors in. Our own personal histories, societal expectations and mores, religious strictures and the conflict between sexuality and comfort in your own skin.

    Speaking only for myself, one of the gifts I’ve received from LM is feeling comfortable with my own body, especially in the nude… to the point that i am nude as often as i can be in my room. For me too. it does pull at libertine elements– no judgment, please. A chacun, son gout!

  3. Superb post and some excellent market research there.

    “enough that all of us have a responsibility to bear that in mind when thinking about our own nudity” – eloquently put and I very much agree.

  4. Twiglet at Hundred Acres says:

    I also think where the picture is located shapes how people interpret it. Just as the mirror frames you, so to does the blog and your words, unintentionally perhaps shaping perception and the viewer’s anticipation. So it’s not all in the viewers mind, but also the creators….

  5. Pingback: Reflections on the Male Nude | exposing40

  6. Pingback: Sinful Sunday: Cat | Exhibit A

  7. Interesting post which covers a lot of good points *grins at the unintended pun* . I do think it’s a sad thing that in a world where we are striving for equality, we do in general seem to accept female nudity in a playful way yet as you discuss,, many still label male nudity as something on another level.

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