Curator Whitney Bell says the exhibit of unsolicited dick pics exposes a culture of sexism, but some have classified her work as revenge porn.
When curator Whitney Bell quit her cushy art director job a year ago, she was unsure of her prospects, having emptied her bank account to host "I Didn't Ask for This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics" in Los Angeles. She begged friends for unsolicited dick pics they received from men to display in a gallery converted to look like a woman's house. "I wanted the viewer to feel innately at home, to be completely comfortable," Bell tells Broadly. But unlike most women's living rooms, the walls were covered with screenshots of text messages and dick pics.
"[Alongside the dick pics], we selected text convos spanning everything from dudes calling someone a 'fat whore' for simply turning down a date, to men texting 'rape is frat.' Or my personal favorite: 'Choke on my cock you dumb bitch #makeamericagreatagain,'" Bell explains. "It's important to give context, so it's not just a bunch of penises on a wall. I want to show that we are not trying to shame men, or shame the penis, but rather the act of sexual harassment as a whole."
More than 1,000 people showed up, and Bell appeared in media outlets from Playboy to Ms. Magazine to BBC. "I embarrassingly had to define 'taint' on air," she jokes.
She hosted the same event in San Francisco, raising $5,000 to supply homeless people with menstrual products, and continues the tour of dick pics with a second LA show. Next month's Los Angeles tour stop will raise funds for HollaBack!, a grassroots campaign to end harassment. Visitors can take a "pussy-eating" class from Anne Hodder, step into a photo booth with 200 dildos presented by sex toy-manufacturer Doc Johnson, and listen to speakers like Playboy editor Anna Del Gaizo, sex educator Ericka Hart, and Garbage frontwoman and MAC AIDS ambassador Shirley Manson.
Manson decided to participate in the show to fight for the future of her seven-year-old niece. "Ever since she was born, I decided that my duty as her aunt was to look out for her and to fight for her if I saw a threat to her well-being," Manson told Broadly in a statement provided by Bell. "I have slowly watched the global culture change and shift towards a more 'populist' agenda which I personally believe to be a threat to women across our globe."
Manson also just enjoys discussing sexuality and gender with other people interested in the subjects. "I believe the reasons that some men are sexual bullies are incredibly complex and it would be wonderful if we could somehow to get to the bottom of it all," she says. "Perhaps they send [dick pics] to bolster old-fashioned notions about their masculinity—that an erect penis is somehow a totem of their power and potency."
Bell's art shows haven't stopped men from believing in the power of the dick pic. She has received "a dizzying amount of dick pics" since the first exhibition, adding them to the walls of the gallery despite early hesitation. "At first I considered not [exhibiting them], because I didn't want to give these pervs the satisfaction—they are exhibitionists," she explains. "Many of them even specifically ask/beg to be included in the show, but then I realized that I don't give a fuck if these guys are happy, or turned on, or furious."
At last year's San Francisco show, men accused Bell of creating revenge porn. She met with lawyers and argued in Elle that her art show did not meet California's three-point criteria for the label. No image, she claimed, was identifiable, presented to hurt someone, and meant to be private, and Bell doubted the protesters actually cared about revenge porn. "Much like the All Lives Matter 'activists' who crash Black Lives Matter protests, these people don't really care about what they claim to," she tells Broadly. "Do you really think your time is best spent defending men who use their genitalia to harass and intimidate women online? Do you really think that harassing the harassed for calling out harassment is beneficial to anyone? I implore you to pick a better battle."
Men have responded to her show in different ways. Bell has found some "five-star allyship," but others have doubted her, asking, "Are people really sending you pictures like this?"
"Even when standing in a room of hundreds of dick pic, oftentimes they still question the scope of the problem," Bell complains. "What many don't seem to get is that dick pics are not the actual problem. The problem is that society allows for this behavior, that society normalizes this behavior, and that society silences those who speak up against it."