I’ve only ever gotten two dick pics in my life. The first one happened eight years ago. It was pretty good. It was waiting inside my Motorola Razr flip phone for when I landed in Montreal on holiday with my parents. It was my mother’s idea to take a family vacation since we’d never taken one before and because it fell around her birthday (known to everyone else as Christmas), she went about setting the itinerary.
We were going on a church crawl of all things. That’s where a small Korean Catholic family, including one dad with gout, marauds very slowly in the freezing cold to view anywhere from three to six cathedrals a day, only stopping for the occasional crepe.
There we were, at the baggage carousel at Pierre Elliott Trudeau, waiting for my mother’s luggage festooned with neon shoelaces (to deter thieves), when I checked my phone and had to snap it shut so loud that my father looked up. To this day, I am convinced he knew it was a dick pic. It seems like the sort of thing dads would know from a daughter’s expression and besides I was 27. During the ancient times of Razr phones, 27 was old enough to get a dick pic. Now, according to the internet, that age is closer to 9. In any event, I feel like my dad knew and that makes me want to die. Even if my personal life isn’t anything he’d ever — EVER — want to know about.
We are not a demonstrative family. We’re not big on hugs or I love yous. I have shaken my father’s hand while nodding briskly with a medium-size smile more times than I can count. It’s just how we roll. And it may correlate to what has been described to me as “distant” or “chilly” by boyfriends as an outro for breakups, but in any case I’m not stoked on public displays of affection. I find it embarrassing for any onlookers to view my naked sentiments. I’m big on zone defense, economies of scale, and teamwork but most grand romantic gestures (and purple, flash-lit smaller ones) read as needy or corny. This, I realize, is a little nuts. But it will surprise no one that I have never, ever sent a sext.
So as far as I can tell there’s nothing about me to indicate that what I could really go for in any given moment is a dick pic. I’m neither virgin nor prude and I feel genuinely conflicted in rebuffing a penis that I’d enjoyed in the flesh, but seeing as this was before eggplant plus droplets plus eyeballs emojis, I was agonizing over the correct response. So I just let it hang. For close to two hours. I was expecting a follow-up dispatch and was prepared therefore to leave my parents and jog to the hotel lobby to see if another dick or maybe just balls this time would be electronically presented to me but instead there was just a meek, “did you get the last text? :)”
I texted him the next day, between churches five (St. George’s) and six (St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal), thanking him for his transmissions and we broke up shortly thereafter. The dick plus smiley face was just untenable. We were too different. Plus, he lived super far away.
The second dick pic I ever got was better. It happened in my mid-thirties and again I was not ready for it. I was home in New York for two weeks. I’d been living in Los Angeles for work but was celebrating the publication of a small collection of essays I'd written. I wanted to be around friends so I invited pals and colleagues to a bar in Williamsburg to join me for a few cocktails. It was low-key, intimate, and festive.
It was early September, that gorgeous sticky, sultry weather where it cools just enough at night that you need a single flimsy layer. Mercury happened not to be in retrograde and my hair had grown out from the mom-cut I’d foolishly chosen to usher in 33. My best friends were DJ'ing with an iPhone and a playlist filled with so many repeats of Usher’s “Climax” that it became a joke, and I paid for everyone’s drinks. I could afford it. I had a great, tough job, and after a decade of freelancing, chasing checks, and tap-dancing for food, I felt like a proper grown-up. It was bittersweet that I’d had to move out of New York to accomplish it. But, still, I was certain I’d made several solid decisions in a row to deserve such a feel-good evening. Basically, I felt whatever combination of good vibes you have to feel that absolutely guarantees something would go gobsmackingly wrong.
If surprise is the gauge by which dick pic success is measured, this one hit it out of the park. Somewhere between tequilas three and four, it clocked me like a swinging boom on a sailboat, and I landed on my ass. There was no way that I could’ve seen it coming. The dick pic'er was an ex. An ex so ex that it the pic should’ve been a daguerreotype (zing!).
It’s not that old wounds hadn’t healed. This ex and I were friends. We’d spent the first half of our twenties together and for the most part had been happy. We’d stumbled, because people in their early twenties are shit at knowing what they want, but we were keepers of each other’s origin stories and, by our thirties, understood the value of it. We were on the other’s board of advisers when it came to jobs, families, and bitching about the 50-odd friends we shared. To squander that was unthinkable.
So it wasn’t with malice that he arrived at the appropriate time of an hour in and removed from his expensive lightweight jacket a rectangle of paper that he would unfold to show a sonogram. All I heard were screaming lambs. It was surreal. Like looking upon an entire nativity scene where all the faces are of your ex grinning. It struck me as the ultimate dick pic. A dick pic plus. The dick pic so potent it had a 50% chance of making another dick. It was an undeniable, universally understood measure of virility — of genotypic triumph — and it was offered up with so much unalloyed joy that I burst into tears. Juicy audible ones that I had to make up for by saying “Oh my god,” and smiling big in a horrible mask.
I’ve heard from a male friend, and I’ve heard this from several people, so it must be a thing (because three confirmations of foggy provenance makes anything a thing) about the very first time they saw a vagina. Like, an unfurled one in action. There was always the slight shock of the young mind reconciling how something that looks like Cthulhu in the face would be something into which you’d want to insert your most delicate and valued appendage. But of course when you’re lucky to meet one in person it’s wonderful. (Unless of course you only ever want a dick in the sheets to match your own.)
I generally like dicks IRL. Especially when there’s a good man on the other end of one. I just can’t take a man who’d take a dick pic seriously. The tone-deaf “ta-da” of it all — the off-putting eagerness. It’s all so spraaaaaaaang breaaaaaaaak. And there’s something about the digital dissonance that makes any dick feel like a gay-porn banner ad. A pest. A tab to be Command-X’d with the quickness of whack-a-mole. Dick pics are annoying and slightly hostile even when they’re meant to be endearing. Like a bird head left on a stoop by a cat, it’s a gift — sort of — but for who? It’s a trophy with someone else’s name engraved on it.
Mostly, though, I dislike being put on the spot. As someone who is frequently wrong about the right things to feel, dick pics feel like a pop quiz I’ve been set up to fail. Like unannounced trust falls where someone gets hurt because I “lacked empathy” or couldn’t “be cool” or “fun.”
Thing is, part of me wishes I could enjoy a dick pic. To smile secretively in a meeting or at dinner and then duck into a bathroom to take a suggestive snapshot of my own. Things would be easier because I would be easier. I could allow you to feel like the hot protagonist of a torrid affair and be up for whatever. Even if it felt crazy basic. Like what really active Facebook users would be into.
In fact, it’s wild that even as social media and the way we internet evolve, dick pics worm their way in unchanged. Dick pics will always be in the time capsule. Or maybe we just keep making new time capsules so we can store dick pics in them? Maybe all of technology has only ever been about the dick pics. Or advanced alien civilizations who look like dicks who think this whole thing is hysterical.
And while nipples remain verboten, it’s amazing to me how frequently you can see an unsolicited sonogram in public. I could be wrong, but a sonogram and a dick pic have similar intentions, right? They’re positive-assumptive closes. Like, OMG, smell my poop right now. If I were a woman combating fertility issues or mourning the loss of a child, I would consider these deeply triggering.
I’m seriously confused about kids. I just figure you should want a kid a lot to have one. Which is why people who want them so bad and blast sonograms everywhere confuse me. Publicizing your baby’s proto-photo on your timeline makes me feel like something terrible is going to happen. Why would you let fate know the one thing in the world you value most? The gray smudge in front of the black smudge may as well be the VHS movie in The Ring. I feel like I’m complicit in the jinx. The worst is that on certain feeds, it happens so fast you’re staring into someone’s womb before you even know whose it is.
But when you do know whose it is, the intimacy is jarringly invasive. It’s a snapshot of someone you used to love, making love to someone who is not you. And it’s not just that you’re forced to imagine the verb, it’s that you’re forced to imagine it while having to then also summon a kind of gratitude for being plunged into this inner sanctum, this irreproachable trust circle where any decent human being is only ever allowed to feel one thing — unbridled enthusiasm. Any alternative makes you a monster. A dead-hearted miserly monster with acid insides that babies hate.
When I’m thinking rationally, I know my ex and his wife will be awesome parents. In fact I’d been strangely proud that he was getting married. To know that we hadn’t fucked each other up so much that one of us could commit fully to someone else was encouraging. I’d begun to worry that my lack of conviction was contagious or that I’d only dated versions of myself since my exes before and after him are unmarried (one elected to go to war several times instead). I figured it testified to my emotional maturity and fortitude that at some point I’d picked someone stable enough to go off and marry someone decent.
In any case, my ex and I talked with candor and respect about lots of topics, and I believe his sonogram was offered up without guile or spite. But I was startled — gut-shot and exposed. I wanted to gnaw off the dead bits and crawl to a safe distance to wither in my own pool of barf. My feelings were so discordant with time and space that it felt like my fault.
This absolves him even as I cried. I was sprung with questions I didn’t want to face. Not in Brooklyn. Not when drunk. Not in front of all my friends. I excused myself and went to the bathroom to silent-scream and fix my makeup. My closest girlfriends were having a ball but I wasn’t in the mood to relegate them to dispensing platitudes. And besides, it would feel too close to talking shit about a baby.
I smeared on a weird amount of lipstick and had two more tequilas.
I’d always joked that I’d have kids in a second if I got to be the dad. To beam with helpless pride as my determined, milk-swollen spouse becomes a portal into another dimension and then transmogrifies into an entire ecosystem to sustain this indignant, squalling newborn. I was covetous of his station in life. I want to be the dad. I wanted exactly what he had in that sonogram. And a sonogram wasn’t a dick pic until it was his.
See, if I’d been shown a sonogram at 27, it would’ve been easy to identify as something I didn’t want. I could afford to be smug in my conviction then. It would’ve been easy to shut down. Nope. Unsubscribe. Bye. LOL. But almost 10 years later I’m way less confident in my response. Throughout my twenties I was the noisiest when it came to declaring that I didn’t want kids, but now that I almost don’t have a choice I’m not so sure. And it’s horrifying.
It’s just that in the last super-fertile years of my life I wasn’t doing anything awesome instead. Like, that’s the thing, right? You put off pregnancy and wifely duties to focus on your life’s work? I’m not by any means saying that every woman has to invent a medical miracle or sell her first multimillion-dollar company if she’s not boobs deep in babies, but I’m confounded by what the hell else I’ve been doing and deeply confused about what I’m supposed to do next. Apparently, there’s a crazy-sexist, gender-normative, gross side to me when I’m looking at my accomplishments through the lens of other people’s choices.
And I know everyone’s just muddling along and doing their best and that no time is a good time. I’ve had too many smart women smile serenely at me while rubbing their bumps saying, “Yeah, we’re soooooo fucked,” to believe there’s a correct way to procreate (though by anyone’s testimony, money helps). But I had no idea that having kids or not having kids was this scribbly and confusing and that an ex’s sonogram at 35 becomes a snapshot of a different life that you might not know yet to want.
I feel like I’m supposed to be spurred to action. To heed the call and freeze eggs or badger my current boyfriend into marriage or prioritize nesting before everything becomes a desiccated scrubland of uterine tumbleweeds but I don’t. Instead I re-up on birth control, start a business, and plan a tropical vacation. Maybe I’ll take a steamy, cannily angled bikini photo with a serious cocktail, a blunt the size of my arm, and a seaside backdrop. You know, the other kind of dick pic.*
Mary H.K. Choi is a writer living in Los Angeles. She contributes to "GQ," "Allure," "Wired," "Glamour," "Complex" and "the New York Times Magazine." Her Kindle Single, "Oh Never Mind" is out now. (Photo credit: Daniel Arnold)
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