Meet the one-woman army fighting to keep your DM dick-free.
By Remy Ramirez
Photos by Jason Landis
Only dicks send unsolicited dick pics, we all know this. And yet, somehow they keep finding their way into our Tindr convos, Snapchats, and Insta DMs, eroding our faith in the penis-bearing members of the human clan, one grimace-inducing erection at a time. Enter Whitney Bell, the 28 year-old artist and L.A.-native whose show “I Didn’t Ask for This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics” features somewhere around 200 actual unsolicited dick pics, framed and hung in all their cocksure glory (couldn’t resist). The exhibit takes place in a space Bell designed to mimic a woman’s house (her own, actually), complete with comfy couches, chill wall art, and the requisite bedside vibrator (#accurate). The show, which has been met with massive success already, will take on new domains in its 10/6 and 10/7 Los Angeles weekend party, featuring an all femme DJ line-up, vibrator vending machine, artwork from 30 artists, panel discussions on sexuality (Shirley Manson will be speaking!), vulva love workshop, and more. We sat down with the sex positivity activist and self-proclaimed “slut” to talk about the difference between hating sex and hating harassment, why even good guys are often the problem, and the age old toilet-paper-roll-beside-the-shaft trick–a classic and a crowd pleaser if ever there was one (*throws phone across room*).
Where did all these dicks come from?
I was getting a ton [of unsolicited dic picks] just from being a public female figure speaking out, which was really frustrating. I started reaching out to pretty much every woman I knew to see if it was as much of a problem for other women as it was for me, and turns out it’s very relatable. So I started collecting them from these women–which by the way took way less time than I thought it would. It’s funny, a lot of ladies would tell me they’d gotten unsolicited dick pics but didn’t save them, and I always asked, “Yeah, but didn’t you take a screenshot and text it to a friend?,” which is what I do every time. They were always like, “Oh yeah, totally.” [Laughs] So yeah, that’s how I was able to get so many.
There are several pics in the exhibition that show shafts in relationship to really sexy items like toilet paper rolls. WTF is up with that artistic direction?
Omigod, I know. I think the idea is to use those things for scale, but they try to trick you a lot, which I find so comical. Like, they’ll use a mini coke can, as if they think our eyes cannot perceive the difference between a full size and a miniature size. Lots of remotes, which I also find funny because there’s not a universal remote size, so it’s not actually a helpful gauge; your Apple TV remote is not the same size as your other remotes. Also–how lazy are you? You’re sitting in front of a TV and that’s all you can conjure up? But I think my favorite one—with “favorite” being loosely defined—was this one taken next to a bottle of Jager[meister]. You see it and you’re like: Wow, that’s the largest penis I’ve ever seen in my life; I’m horrified, it’s as big as an arm. But when you look closer and see that a tiny bit of his thumb is in the corner, giving a sense of scale, you realize it’s an airplane bottle. So again, it shows that they’re not doing it because they think it’s going to wind up with them having some sort of sexual encounter. Because what’s the best case scenario here? The woman’s like, “That’s the prettiest dick I’ve ever seen; put it in me,” and then you get there and hold an airplane bottle next to your dick the whole time?
There’s obviously something funny and cheeky about this exhibit—I mean, we’re already laughing—but it’s also painful, to be honest, because it’s ultimately about the normalization of sexual assault in our culture. How did you integrate those two polarities into the show?
You’re completely right; those dick pics are being used to discuss a much larger issue, which I try to incorporate in a few ways. There are a lot of stats on harassment and assault interspersed throughout the dic picks on the walls, along with some prose about assault in general. The idea is to encourage people to discuss their stories amongst themselves, and I was shocked by how often total strangers would open up to one another and talk about their experiences. It always starts by someone laughing over the dick pics, but pretty soon they’re getting to the root of the issue because the truth is that women don’t have that many opportunities or safe spaces to open up about it. That’s what I wanted to create with this show: a space for women, femmes, and allies to openly discuss these issues without judgment, and I feel like we’ve been lucky enough to have success with that.
With this show in particular, we’re taking it to another level. The second day of the event is our symposium day featuring panels on harassment in the digital era, the intersection of feminism and pornography, and intersectional feminism for femmes. We have some really incredible guest speakers as well: Shirley Manson from Garbage, Ericka Hart, who’s a sex educator and activist, authors, professors, porn stars, feminist pornographers–so we’re really trying to encourage discussion and education in a way we haven’t done in the past. The goal is to be extremely sex positive while also educating both men and women about the harassment that exists in our culture and our culture’s constant desire to suppress discussion around it.
You use a mock house to show the exhibit, and to me, it reads sort of like a metaphor for the female psyche: it’s comfortable, happy, safe—but also constantly bombarded with hella reminders from dudes that they think they’re in charge of your experience. Does that resonate?
Yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted to portray with the home element. I wanted to make the viewer feel comfortable and safe, just like a woman does in her own mind or in her own home, and then inject the harassment in a way that we actually experience it: all the time, through every medium—whether it’s someone yelling at you from a car, or sending you a dick pic, or a rude comment on the Internet. Most of these things happen while you’re in your own private space or your own private world. I didn’t just want to put a bunch of dicks on a blank wall because that doesn’t have the same narrative. Also, when there are couches and chairs, and you feel like you’re at a house party; it’s really conducive to opening up discussion. It gets people to stay longer and engage with people they don’t know.
Sending an unsolicited dick pic is basically a hate crime, although it’s technically not a crime (can’t think of any presidents who substantiate that kind of B.S.). You’ve dealt with this a while now–what do you think is the relationship these dudes create in their minds between their dicks and, like, causing distress or pain?
The thing is, our culture has militarized men’s dicks. It’s told them that their penis is a weapon, and that it’s okay to use it as such. When a guy sends a dick pic unprovoked, it’s 100% about them. It has nothing to do with the girl. It’s an exertion of power with the intention of “putting someone in their place” while stripping away their choice, which makes them feel bigger or better somehow. Or they get off in some perverse way, like a flasher would, but now you don’t even have to have the guts to do it in public. More than anything, I’ve found that a lot of these men think it’s funny. Like when a guy yells something obscene to a woman from a car, he doesn’t sit back going, “Wow, I just caused a lot of emotional pain for that woman; I bet I made her feel really unsafe.” In fact, these guys have no interest in or empathy for her experience at all. They’re just sort of patting themselves on the back and thinking that now they feel good. They’ve never been held accountable for their sexual actions the way that women have, so they’ve never had to think twice about it.
What’s interesting is that the reaction I get from a lot of dudes at the shows is that they don’t think this is a big deal, or they don’t get why this matters. You want them to step back and realize that it’s not about the dick pics; it’s about all the little injustices, all the small forms of harassment that collectively chip away at us every day, and how that’s shaped our society. It’s also interesting how many men’s first reaction is not, “Oh wow, this is a problem, thank you for telling me about it,” or “I want to learn more.” They often say, “I’ve never done that, so I’m a good guy; I’m not part of the problem.” Rather than try to understand how it’s affected women, they make it all about them–which is definitely at the heart of the problem.
Yeah, there are so many guys who will immediately respond to this kind of thing by trying to compare unsolicited dick pics to unsolicited boobs pics—like, they’re not even in the same universe. You can’t rape a dude with your breasts.
Exactly, there aren’t thousands of years of oppression and dominance based around that act. I get asked that question a lot, and it blows my mind that it’s even a question. It’s almost upsetting that someone could relate the two because they’re so diametrically opposed, and because the intent behind it is so clearly different. When I’m sending a picture of my tits, I’m not doing it to be like, “I own you; I control you by forcing you to see this, and that makes me feel good.” Also—breasts are not genitalia, let’s start there. And honestly, women are not sending labia shots—that’s just not a thing. I’m not saying no woman has ever done that, but your first message on Tinder is not gonna be a tight clit shot.
In part, ’60s and ’70s era feminism worked to desexualize women so they would be seen as humans rather than objects. Neo-feminism, on the other hand, admonishes slut shaming and often bears the “sex positivity” label. As someone who proudly touts the “slut” designation, talk about those two feminist ideologies and how they coexist for you in the show.
Absolutely. I think it’s important to get across that we’re not mad about these dick pics or street harassment or rape because we hate sex—harassment and sex are not the same things. It’s not about sex; it’s about power—and that’s what I think early era feminism was getting at. That said, we definitely bring sex positivity to the show. We incorporate a lot of things; aside from me putting a vibrator next to the bed in the home installation, I also write a lot of dick jokes to bring a little levity because otherwise it’s quite overwhelming and depressing. In this new edition, our panels will focus on sexual empowerment, pornography, sexual fulfillment, and the places where those areas deviate and overlap. Feminism has evolved so much and everyone has their own traumas, so it’s hard to speak for an entire group, but we do try to be as sex positive as possible. I love sex, I love dick, I love men—this show isn’t about hating men or shaming individuals. It’s about showing an imbalance of power.
You’re obviously an activist, but you’re also an artist. How does the artistic aspect of this show allow you to interact with these issues in ways that, say, rallying or marching don’t?
This feels a lot more active than anything else I’ve ever done. I’m so lucky that people have been receptive to this because I feel like we’ve created a space where people can talk about what’s going on. Feminism isn’t something that’s just going to take place in the political structure; it will only transpire through the voices of individual people coming together and through society’s slow evolution. And that only happens through discussion and by empowering women to speak up, to understand that they don’t have to blindly accept harassment–which is what we’re accomplishing with this show. I’ve talked to so many women who’ve told me that [the show] made them respond differently when they got a dick pic, or got cat-called, or when they felt uncomfortable; now they feel like they don’t just have to take it. The show also allows us to open up a conversation with men that they wouldn’t necessarily be having otherwise–that’s key, too.
I’m sure you’ve gotten plenty of shitty responses from guys, but have you gotten any that might give us ladies reason to stay hopeful?
Yes! So much. Obviously there have been a lot of negative responses, and I do highlight the negative responses because the harassment you get for calling out harassment only further confirms the narrative. But so many men come with curiosity and empathy, saying, “I had no idea it was this bad.” I encourage them to go talk to their mothers and sisters, not just about dick pics, but about the harassment those women face out in the world, because maybe these men don’t realize that they’re the perpetrators of it, too. Maybe they don’t know that harassment can happen in such nuanced ways. Getting people talking to each other and encouraging a dialogue is a huge step toward resolving the issue.
What changes have you seen in yourself as a result of this project?
I listen a lot more. I’ve realized how much people want to talk about the abuses they’ve endured and how isolating it is for them. If they’re willing to open up to a complete stranger on the internet, either they don’t have anyone to talk to in real life, or they’re too ashamed to open up to the people they do have. That’s of course upsetting, but it also makes me feel like the work I’m doing is really important because it allows women a platform to feel their feelings and to feel validated.