Send Your Dick Pics By Post
Under the regime of digital transparency, modesty is a political act
It’s nearly two months since I wrote a Substack post. Where has the time gone? Anyway I’m not going to compensate for having missed a newsletter by making this one twice as long.
First, in case you’re interested in where I’ve been capering about recently, I chatted to Marlo Safi and Johnny Burtka of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, appeared at a Plough Quarterly event, argued that Satanism is America’s national religion and that ‘assisted dying’ is mostly a healthcare cost-cutting measure masquerading as a liberal cause.
I’m also off to Florida this weekend (subject to Covid test tomorrow - fingers crossed) to address the second National Conservatism conference on the subject of ‘Trads, Cads and Radfems’, after which I expect to get cancelled by literally everyone who hasn’t already cancelled me.
While I still have you, I want to talk about the other side of cancellation, that treats being un-seen not as a punishment but a core precursor for dignity: reticence. Or, perhaps, modesty.
Why the title? Well, the idea of some guy posting a would-be lover a photograph of his genitals is funny. But the reason it’s funny also offers insight into some under-discussed effects of digital culture on our social interactions.
Consider: if you know someone well enough to know their home address, chances are you also know them well enough to care what they think of you. Chances are you also have a sense of how they’d react, as an individual, to receiving a picture of your wedding veg.
And chances are that if you desire an intimate relationship with someone whose home address you know, you’ll try some (any) other overture first, before photographing your dangly bits and popping the printed-out result in an envelope.
Now, compare that with the situation we experience as citizens of the online world. Younger and more beautiful women than I, especially on dating sites, report that it’s common to receive unsolicited photographs of men’s intimate parts, in the apparently sincere belief that this will elicit a reaction not of disgust or alarm but enthusiastic reciprocal desire.
Leave aside, for a moment, the faulty understanding these men seem to have of female sexuality. I want to focus here on the way the sheer accessibility of others online sets the stage for a false sense of intimacy. In turn that false intimacy collapses the infinitely complex and contextual business of relationship-building that, in the Before Times, served to scaffold all sexual overtures that didn’t just take place while extremely drunk.
Instead, it offers the illusion of immediate access to a kind of closeness that - for men as much as women - in reality takes a long time to build. The result is foolish, over-hasty or aggressive men acting as though trust and relationship-building are optional, and a purely transactional approach to sex is not just reasonable but appealing to women as well.
This collapse of intimacy is also a collapse into intimacy. The internet has flattened social and relational nuance, replacing erotic courtship with a world where men can think it acceptable to send dick pics to strangers. But equally, the false sense of intimacy it offers encourages others - often, but not exclusively, women - to make a spectacle of themselves before strangers in search of attention, sympathy or who knows what else.
Recently, I argued at Unherd that the shift from print to digital publication has radically transformed the world of letters. Under mass print, we had a world in which individual authors created original writing for a reading public. Under the mass internet, we have one in which individuals self-author digital selves for consumption by a clicking public. In this economy, getting a print book published is more often a byproduct of creating a well-known online self than getting well-known is a byproduct of being published in print.
Once you start seeing people turning themselves into pornography in this way, it’s visible everywhere. People narrate the most profoundly intimate sob stories to strangers, share photos of their toddlers with 15,000 Twitter followers, provide gory details of their surgeries or personal pain. There’s a whole subgenre of girls filming themselves crying, then uploading the footage to TikTok.
More depressingly, there’s the subgenre of social media users (again, mostly though not exclusively women) who share sometimes astonishingly raw and intimate details of their personal lives, then feel deeply wounded when the response they receive from their sometimes considerable social media followings isn’t universally charitable. Buried in there is an apparent assumption that the sometimes intense experience of intimacy we get via social media will also deliver understanding and empathy.
But that’s not how it works. There’s a world of difference between building trust with another person, and simply collapsing the distance between them and ourselves. They may feel superficially the same, but where the former takes time and relies on knowledge of another person, built over time, the latter skips this stage and relies instead mostly on projection and fantasy to fill in the gaps in what you know about the other person. And that only works until you hit a serious misunderstanding. At that point, Internet Drama happens and it all gets ugly.
At the core of this false intimacy lies the most toxic dream of all: the one of radical transparency, This is the siren song of social media: a boomer-tier fantasy that if only we could make ourselves utterly and authentically visible, not only would universal empathy be achievable but we’d all somehow magically sort into the affinity groups that truly represented us and thus some kind of world harmony would be achieved.
Instead, what you get is pornography of the self, mixed with intermittent internet drama and a world in which there is increasingly no sense of inner life that isn’t conditioned by the pressure (or longing) to ‘share’. And meanwhile, everything you’ve made thus radically transparent is now in someone else’s database, as raw material to be mined for profit or politics.
Phenomena such as digital self-creation, radical transparency and the illusory intimacy of parasocial intimacy don’t just flatten the texture of our social relationships, they also affect our inner lives. In particular they make it far more difficult to parse the sheer volume of noise from our various screens, and sift that through some sense of inner life to discern what counts as signal.
I run, a lot, as a way of ordering my thoughts. When out among the fields I’m often hit by the urge to photograph a beautiful sky and share it online. I make a point of never giving in to that urge. I’m very online as a rule, both by choice and now professional necessity, and the hours I spend running are taken very intentionally out of that time as a kind of deliberately-chosen space for inner life, and for offline, embodied existence.
It’s often a very creative time, when themes I’ve noticed online coalesce into larger patterns and ideas or arguments emerge. When I miss out on that time, in favour of trying to consume (or produce) ever more content, the result is usually a kind of sterile emptiness and creative exhaustion.
In other words, the more information we share, and consume, the harder it is to sift it for meaning and conversely the more denuded of meaning our inner lives become. When (as I heard in a Clubhouse conversation recently) undergraduates are now seemingly unable to distinguish between an intimate interpersonal relationship as conducted privately between two people, and the ‘relationship’ as performed for their social circle online, it may be time for resistance.
In this context, I’ve started thinking about modesty as a digital-era political strategy. By modesty I don’t just mean in clothing, although there are obvious parallels between exposing one’s body and exposing one’s intimate inner world as blunt-force strategies for driving parasocial engagement.
I’ve noticed, in my own writing, that personal stories often get the strongest response. I make a deliberate choice to include them sometimes, often if I want to situate myself in relation to a sensitive subject. But I’ve become increasingly wary about the internet’s bottomless hunger for yet another sacrifice of self-disclosure to the click machine. I’m beginning to think more and more cautiously about what, when and why I share my own inner life online.
I’m coming to think is a key aspet of defending the human in the digital age. We may all need to think more concretely about what’s off-limits, if we don’t want the dream machine to devour everything we have, and flatten what’s left into a tundra of base emotion performed for clicks.
For me, that list includes (but isn’t limited to) my family; my traumas; my body; my home; my social life; the sky, when I’m out running; and, of course, where I live. I really don’t want anyone to send me dick pics, either online or by post.