You don’t know me, but you likely know of me. I’m the female professor who dared to run a self-esteem study requesting photographic evidence confirming correct method and measure of penis size.
Within a week of launch, a website called The College Fix ran a misleading story written by a college freshman describing my study. Oh, and they gave it an inflammatory click-bait headline.
In less than 24 hours, national and international news outlets picked up the story. Most just ran the original story—headline and all—without confirming its claims. One source even added in some new, provocative inaccuracies, claiming I wanted my students to send me “dick pics.” Minimum age to participate was 22 years old, and I did no local or university recruitment. However, even the accurate coverage chose headlines suggesting I wanted “dick pics” “sent” to me; so men across the country sent me selfies via email. (The study requested pictures showing a specific method of measure submitted only through the survey portal.) Other people jumped to assumptions about my motives and purposes without even reading any of my previous work or learning much about the actual study.
As soon as the first story appeared, my inbox overflowed. I fielded 500 emails daily. Most of the emails were supportive and from wanna-be participants. However, many messages were hate mail. Each hater sent multiple emails. The first message came from a Michigan man (he went to my academia.edu page, which provided his location)—he opened his email by calling me a “feral whore.” He sent 30 emails in total, each with similarly abusive language. He called me a “fat pig,” or some variation, in most of those emails. He even claimed that I was “so fat only N—–s would” have sex with me. The racism of misogyny was common.
I reported this hate mail to campus IT Security, who sent me instructions on blocking the emails. This only sent them to junk mail, though, which I had to check regularly for potential participant emails.
Another guy sent 15, very long emails the first day. He denigrated my training—both where I trained and the fact that my degrees are all in different fields (common among sociologists)—and he told me this was a stupid mistake for someone “starting her career.” I’m three years into my assistant professor position.
All of the men who sent abusive emails swore to contact Missouri State University administrators and state legislators to demand they fire me. I’m a sex researcher, and accustomed to upset with my work. However, the level of vitriol from each hater far exceeded my previous experiences.
The phone rang all day. I took it off the hook. Day one there were 19 messages. Most were hang-ups. The rest were either prank calls or abusive in their tone and accusations. One woman left a several minute message letting me know I am “disgusting.”
Although haters were generally unique in their responses, a common frustration among those sending hate was that I am a woman. Many literally wrote, “How dare you, a female professor, run a study like this.” Keep in mind, these pictures were clinical pictures, think medical textbook not titillating Playgirl images. When I responded with, “Why would you feel differently if I were a man?” I got no response. Another shared trait: they were all upset that I would suggest smaller men might feel badly about themselves, and assumed my purpose was to prove that correlation.
There is ample data demonstrating that for many men who perceive their penises are small, self-esteem is indeed an issue. How our bodies look and how we see them impacts how we feel about ourselves, and this is an important social and psychological issue. My study could have contributed to this existing body of knowledge that takes men’s bodies and feelings seriously, and it could have perhaps helped to shift methodology for penis size studies. Yet I had to cancel the study a week and a half into recruitment because we live in a world where the idea of a woman looking at “dick pics” is just too upsetting for people to permit. Important work about men and masculinity had to be shut down because of massive media misrepresentation and widespread sexist attitudes. That’s a loss for us all. I’ll go on with other studies. The news cycle will shift. But the hundreds of men who begged me not to close this study are still living with self-esteem issues due to perceived penis size. And no one is talking to them about it.