Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus (1697). | Rijksmuseum
Patrick Nathan,  August 12

Dick Pics, Dark Rooms

An art form, from masc to fascist

Adriaen Coorte, Still Life with Asparagus (1697). | Rijksmuseum
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Radiation, film, trauma, the elements: to expose is a one-way verb. The nuclear reactor knows nothing of the bodies it degrades. Light is invulnerable to the celluloid it stains. The man who exposes himself does so without empathy. There’s no unseeing a man’s penis, and even the most enthusiastic of dick lovers (hello) isn’t always interested in looking. Many men don’t seem to understand this, or care. This needs queering.

Of course, most exposed dicks arrive mitigated by a lens, which aestheticizes them like never before—enough to create a genre of photography, or even a genre of advertising. These pictures are, after all, supposed to make you want something. Unfortunately, most dick pics are aesthetic failures. Poorly lit and unimaginatively composed, they’re terrible advertisements for what could be, on your knees, beautiful dicks.

This in part because the camera’s aperture cannot be mistaken for the human eye, whose experience of an image is not frozen but contemporaneous, lived out in time. Sex and sexuality illustrate this contrast more immediately than anything else we commonly see in pictures and in person. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger distinguished between nakedness, which applies to each of our bodies, and nudity: “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.” If you were in a room with a naked individual, you would see that individual naked. In a photograph, a naked body precludes personal subjectivity; nakedness supersedes the self as the primary focus of the picture. With nudity as the primary subject of the photograph, what the aperture sees is no longer a person, but an object—a nude.

Unfortunately, most dick pics are aesthetic failures. Poorly lit and unimaginatively composed, they’re terrible advertisements for what could be, on your knees, beautiful dicks.

Dick pics, however, are not nudes. Where the nude eroticizes the majority or entirety of a body, the dick pic is concentrated. There may be the curvature of one’s thighs, an abdominal grid of muscle, any sampling of body hair, but these are only the dick’s décor, its mood. Beyond this, most of its conventions are just that—the way dick pics are usually taken: meaning erect; meaning centered in the frame; meaning angled outward or, if the size merits, reaching past the navel; meaning rich in contrast and ivied with veins; meaning “here is my hard cock, y or n?” and meaning the answer is usually no.

As an image with intent, the dick pic is a linguistic gesture; the man who sends it says that you, the recipient, are the object of his desire. This gesture fails when it doesn’t conjugate, when the sender wants it to mean seduction but the receiver reads it as confusion (a bad photograph) or violence (unsolicited). Frozen in time, the poorly photographed or unwelcome dick ongoingly reveals its idiosyncrasies, discolorations, asymmetries, and other inadequacies one wouldn’t necessarily obsess over in mutually experienced space-time. What is created here is not distance but a barrier, on which is made visible language itself rather than what one wishes to say. It’s the men who don’t speak seduction—who objectify without consent, who haven’t learned how to say I want you to want my dick—who scar this genre with unjust profanity; and most men, I’m sad to say, are profane.


What is called femme: the inflection in my speech, the way my hips move when I walk, how my hands scoop words out of the air, my lips as they sync with songs I love, how I hold my martinis, how fat my ass is, my moans while you eat me, the length of my eyelashes, my love for scarves. What is called masc: my love for lifting weights, the way I compete, the mass and shape of my muscles, loudly speaking my mind, how I strike out in anger, a reluctance to tell others how I feel, pride in my penis, arrogance in my work, a dominant way of topping, the assumption that everyone wants to hear what I have to say, the intensity of my libido. In photographs, you’d call me masculine; but share time with me, watch me move and speak, and you’ll start to see what people associate with femininity.

When I was seventeen, some friends and I crossed town to visit a high school for young artists. The mood here was different from my own school. One boy my age was particularly friendly, I thought, and we spent most of our time playfighting and roughhousing, being what was for me unusually and happily physical. We insisted on giving one another piggyback rides through the school, and I remember, after I left, how badly I wanted to transfer schools, even though I wasn’t an artist. I liked who I was that night. With my other friends, at my normal school, I wasn’t like this. If we touched it was only to inflict pain. If we spoke it was to belittle or outperform each other. Mostly, we destroyed things.

Something felt taken from me. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how badly I’d wanted—and for so long—kindness and affection from another boy.

If the performance of masculinity is a prison, it is a spatial one, vast and immobilized, never growing or changing, never moving toward what one loves. These metaphors—like those of photography—are of freezing, of being anchored like rocks. I wanted to write this essay for those who trap themselves and drag others into their ice.

But what is masculinity? In dick pics—synecdoches of “being male”—masculinity is: active desire (display of arousal); competition (penis size, actual or illusory); hardness (in the erection itself, as well as muscles in the background); vitality (veins, skin hued with hot blood); animal maturity (body hair) or “Apollonian” tidiness (trimmed and neat); virility (a dewdrop or drooling of pre-cum). In themselves, these traits can be cherished: the texture of the male body, its scents and flavors; the strength displayed in carrying a lover from the couch to the bed; the pleasure received, physical or psychological, from the eight-inch dick.

But what is “toxic” masculinity? Palatably: the belief that these qualities are immutable, that “men are men.” But dangerously: toxic masculinity is a fascist, reactionary ideology that clings to misogynistic and homophobic myths to reinforce a threatened power structure. It not only benefits from but is predicated on the subjugation of women, queers, and “weaker” men.

There is a reason that fascist frameworks reject, quarantine, and exterminate what is queer.

Some myths, Roland Barthes said, are ancient: “but there are no eternal ones; for it is human history which converts reality into speech, and it alone rules the life and the death of mythical language.” As a historical imagination, assembled by human beings, myth is a theatrical vocabulary meant to help us understand the natural world. But taken as truth, it is a politics that erases its footsteps so as not to be followed or challenged. The myth of masculinity supposes men as aggressive, dominating, virile, and strong. Again, there’s nothing wrong with loving these qualities in men or in oneself. But so too can one love and cherish the way men cry out in helpless frustration when denied their orgasms, or how they curl up and sleep like cats when their fingers and toes get too cold. Men too can be soft, carried a round a room, penetrated, consoled when they cry, and objectified as beautiful bodies; and this too is masculine—this too finds joy in the emotional and physical experience of testosterone. One doesn’t even have to be labeled “male” on one’s birth certificate to assume and perform these traits.

In truth, masculinity is as welcome as a performance as any other, but only in the safety of its theaters—never imposed upon others, and never as a mask the self feels it can’t remove.

“What we need is an angel,” de Beauvoir said, “neither man nor woman—but where shall we find one?” There is a reason that fascist frameworks reject, quarantine, and exterminate what is queer. Queerness is the ultimate protest against fascist binaries, including those established and enriched by capitalism. Like fascism, capitalism seeks to divide, classify, rank, and define. This is, after all, how one assembles a product catalogue. When it comes to queerness, the capitalistic framework is particularly careful to police its images, showing consumers the cleanest, whitest, and least-threatening characters in advertisements and entertainment. Conversely, the celebration of gender fluidity, non-monogamous relationships, bodies of every type, polyamory, communal households, pansexuality—even cosplay—are all acts of queer resistance; and not only against capitalistic predation but against any totalizing aesthetic mythography. Queerness rejects absolutely the impulse to pin every butterfly to its board, place every specimen in its jar, and record every individual in the columns of its financial statements: profit or loss.


At some point I became the kind of man who collects nude photographs of men. We become better versed in our identities, more comfortable, as we expand our image vocabularies. It’s important to me to see the male body in its various sensualities and sexualities. Seeing male intimacy, men comfortable in their own skin, men comfortable with other men, men vulnerable before women: these are the images that tell me how men can be beautiful and emotional, how men can love. These images inspire my own photographs—the way I want others to see my body and understand it as masculine. In a nude, I am confessing my desire. In my most vulnerable nudes and dick pics, my body is an imaginative space where what is masculine has a shade of loneliness; it seeks another’s care and attention. To be objectified like this, consensually, is liberating, even transgressive.

Above all, pornography is an art of transgression. The most privately consumed of all arts, its promise of self-transcendence is relatively unimpeded by cultural frameworks that reinforce images of “how a person like you should be”—at least until it’s no longer private.

The shame built up around pornography is not exclusive to its sexual acts or imagined partners. A video clip watched alone may bring undiluted ecstasy (literally: “out of place”), but bring a friend into it, even someone to jerk off with, and that same clip becomes ridiculous: the dialogue laughable, each moan an embarrassment. Watching porn with a friend, one surveils oneself as a consumer—a triangulation we perform automatically, especially the more visible we become as consumers (think of all the things you want but wouldn’t let a cashier scan). Should you become dislodged from the mythographical coordinates in which capitalism has mapped you and your behaviors, it no longer knows how to sell to you. To understand you as a market, capitalism must reduce you, eliminating not only what’s extraneous or superfluous, but primarily what is transgressive, from your life and personality. This kind of porn, capitalism trains your friends and lovers to say, just isn’t you.

To understand you as a market, capitalism must reduce you, eliminating not only what’s extraneous or superfluous, but primarily what is transgressive.

Enjoyed privately, porn is the most transgressive art in capitalist and fascist societies, which is precisely why, alongside queerness, it is targeted by conservatives. If nothing else, porn’s sheer plenitude, especially its amateur contributions, illustrate just how many people there are in the world who love sex and aren’t ashamed to show themselves loving it. I think of this when I scroll through an inexhaustible supply of images, all these men across the world who display themselves with men, for men, and how they’ve taught me nearly everything I know about sex—its kinks, its dynamics, even its anatomical mechanics. Like any art, porn has the capacity to enlarge life. It embraces pluralistic and contradictory experiences of the world.

Yes, porn has its own myths, many of which are reductive, even harmful, but here is where its quality and its ethics are important. Just as classical theater, realist novels, and the Hollywood blockbuster excel when they “cross into new territory”—i.e. when they escape genre—pornography is at its best when it leaves the masquerade of masc and femme behind, when characters become authentic, when the actors convince us that what is felt is genuinely felt (even if it’s not). The begging in a man’s voice when he’s close; the flash of a smile on a bottom’s face as his top drives into him; a couple’s laughter as they lose balance and fall face-first onto a couch: these are not the myths of male and female, top and bottom, straight porn or gay. These are human beings appearing to experience unregulated, unchecked, and most importantly unobserved pleasure. Donika Kelly, in “What Gay Porn Has Done for Me,” frames this strange and beautiful fourth wall:

Call it comfort, or truth, how they look,

not at the camera, as women do,

but at one another.

 

Or to god.

Like cherished art, great porn dramatizes the human experience of the self looking at the self. It shows us what is possible when all that is social, cultural, and historical is seared away. Without risking this kind of vulnerability, it’s almost impossible to see the violence in the most unsolicited image there is: a civilization predicated on imprisoning these radiant selves behind masks, on blocking out each individual’s light.


To new experiences, to knowledge, to the dreams of others, to sensorial pleasures, to one’s own inviolable self or soul: to expose is a one-way verb.

Along with “toxic,” another of masculinity’s epithets is “fragile.” An ideal way to describe the reactionary violence of men whose idea of masculinity is threatened, “fragile” echoes the guarded notion of masculinity as immutable, eternal—as a relic. But only things are fragile. Human beings, as creatures who heal and learn, are vulnerable.

The queered dick pic is one with a face, a yearning, a wry smile.

Fragile men need to be exposed to other imaginative possibilities. A masculinity that can be called fragile is a masculinity that should be shattered. In its place, we need a vulnerable masculinity. Men are not monsters, but they do monstrous things wearing the masks of their culture’s imposed masculinity. As with all repressive ideologies, it is the responsibility of the privileged to dismantle it. Victims of masculine violence—women, trans and nonbinary people, and other men—are not interested in hearing how “not all men” are like this. It is the responsibility of men to expose other men to representations of vulnerable masculinity. Similarly, a man who watches another man perform toxic masculinity and does not act—by restricting his actions or alcohol intake, for example—is not neutral but complicit in imposing suffering on all individuals, men included, simply to protect a power structure. Believing or tolerating that “men are men” makes you nothing but a pawn. Fascist and capitalist systems rely on these “neutral” pawns to destroy the minorities whose lives are inconsistent with the reductive myths they overlay onto reality.

Again, this needs queering. Masculinity and its innumerable deployments, down to the dick pic, need queering. For that, we need an image vocabulary of vulnerable masculine desire—nudes and porn and sex scenes, even dick pics, that transcend the trappings of their genres, that express masculinity not as harm but as a needful, tender desire like any other. The queered dick pic is one with a face, a yearning, a wry smile. It is what a whimper would look like, if you could see it. It is to seduce not only with strengths, but also with weaknesses that expose you, forever, to a few unforgettable moments lived out in time with another human being. Because to be vulnerable is to risk more than harm. It is to risk, whatever the cost, seeing what you look like without the mask.

Patrick Nathan is the author of Some Hell. His second book, an essay on photography, language, and antifascism is forthcoming in 2021.

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