Alicia Walker’s research makes men uncomfortable. The Missouri State University sociologist has published studies about cheating couples and secret lesbian desires. Her book The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife explored why wives cheat on their husbands without condemning them for cheating. Hundreds of people have contacted her to criticize her work.
While she has a knack for touching on the exposed nerves of male insecurity, she never expected the alt-right to come for her. But when she announced she was studying the influence penis size has on male self-esteem, conservative trolls attacked her in full force.
After a conservative news site ran an article about her study in June, Walker was flooded by hate messages from angry conservatives and white nationalists. She’d accidentally touched on a core pathology of the conservative mind. They ruined her research in retaliation.
The anger shocked her. After all, she hadn’t even finished the study—there weren’t any findings to disagree with.
“I expected when I published the findings that I would receive some outcry,” Walker says. “It never crossed my mind that it would happen while I was running the study.”
Despite the accusations of her conservative critics, Walker wasn’t trawling for dick pics. She was exploring how a man’s body shapes his self-esteem. She wasn’t the first to explore that link, either. Previous studies have established a connection between lower self-esteem and men who think they’re small. Penis size anxiety is at the core of male insecurity and can have an enormous effect on a man’s mental and physical health. Better understanding it could have a major impact on how men view themselves and discuss size in general. Walker wanted to see if the correlation ran in the other direction.
“Prior research has shown this perception impacts the way men see themselves,” Walker explains. “What I was curious about was, if a man sees himself as larger, does that have a positive impact on self-esteem?”
Walker spent spent six years crafting a methodology that would allow for screened and surveyed participants to send their pictures through an online portal. This approach would help Walker study a more diverse population, avoid the inaccuracy of self-reporting and work around the common anxieties of men being measured in person.
But the scientific context or significance didn’t matter to those angrily messaging her. They questioned Walker’s credentials as a scientist; why she, a woman, would study men’s penises, or that she would dare suggest a relationship between a man’s size and his self-esteem. The messages served as Walker’s introduction to the online rage of the radical right, a movement eager to debase science and innocent people to cover for their insecurities.
The original article upbraiding Walker’s study was published by The College Fix, a self described “right-minded [emphasis theirs] news and commentary” site run by the Student Free Press Association, a conservative education nonprofit with powerful connections—Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s son Rick sits on its board of directors. Through stories about outrage-hungry college feminists, allegedly frivolous courses of study and allegations of liberal bias in higher education, the site aims to discredit liberal academia.
The College Fix story casts Walker’s study as a frivolous, man-hating waste of resources undeserving of institutional support. The story’s goal of riling up reactionary-minded readers is transparent, particularly in the three paragraphs it devotes to the study’s courting of transgender participants. Tellingly, the top comment for the story on the site reads “great trolling opportunity.”
Outlets like Vice and Men’s Health picked up story, with most using some variation of the phrase “Dick Pic Study” as a clickbait headline.
Then the study reached the alt-right big time.
On June 28, The Daily Stormer, a site with sections devoted to “race war” and the “Jewish problem” weighed in on Walker’s research. Its story was filled with the neo-Nazi news site’s usual hate speech and misogyny, openly embracing the sexist undertones implied by other outlets. The author disparaged Walker’s appearance and said women don’t belong in science, arguing that Walker’s study is the reason “we don’t have funding for flying cars.”
The Stormer’s article was nonsensical but effective. Walker was soon a favorite target for the alt-right’s troll army. On top of the emails and hate messages she was getting, Walker discovered some men had taken her online survey and given joke answers. Dozens of men emailed pictures of their genitalia to her email address (Walker didn’t open any picture files sent to her).
Her data was compromised. After six years of planning, Walker was forced to shut down the study less than two weeks into gathering information.
“I was so excited when I came up with this methodology,” Walker says. “I was so invested. To have to close a study a week and a half after you’ve launched it, there are no words for how devastating that is.”
Walker had gotten blowback about her work before, but never anything as misogynistic or politically-charged as the response to this study. People emailed her repeatedly, with some threatening to call their local legislatures and get her fired. Most of the verbally abusive messages contained conservative buzzwords—everything from liberal indoctrination to virtue signaling—in between calling her a whore or cunt.
The language is jarring, but experts on the alt-right say it’s typical. Luke O’Brien, who covers political extremism for HuffPost, has come to expect it.
“I hear something like this, and it makes perfect sense to me,” O’Brien says. “This is what the alt-right does.”
In 2017, O’Brien wrote a feature about Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin for The Atlantic. He talked to scores of people about Anglin’s upbringing, his rampant insecurities and desire to be accepted. According to O’Brien, general insecurity is something most white nationalists and alt-righters share.
“It’s what attracts them, in large part, to a movement like this,” he says. “Almost all of them have something they feel is kind of defective about them that results in either a lot of anger or the need to find a support network. And this is one of the most extreme forms.”
Walker’s study hits a bunch of major trigger points for the alt-right.
“It [involves] male insecurity and misogyny, a study done by a woman focusing on men,” he says. “A lot of these guys are hateful toward women, and when you join a movement like this, that gets amplified and reinforced.”
The study also involves colleges, which the right derides for supposed liberal indoctrination, fostering of safe spaces and silencing of conservative voices. The hate for colleges creates the need for publications like The College Fix, which masquerade as even-handed journalism while undercutting research around conservative red flag issues like sex and gender fluidity. The College Fix may not be littered with hate speech like openly white supremacist sites such as The Daily Stormer, but its ideological bent leans in the same direction.
“Most people would look at the College Fix as a slightly more aggressive version of a Young Republicans club,” O’Brien says. “And with something like this, I’m not surprised at all that it’s basically on the same page, with far less inflammatory rhetoric, as millennial neo-Nazis.”
The negativity has been taxing, but Walker says she’s received plenty of positive messages as well. She recalls the story of one participant who hadn’t seen a doctor in years because of insecurity about his penis size. After visiting with Walker, he emailed to thank her and let her know he’d been to the doctor.
“The funniest thing is the people calling me a misandrist, claiming I hate men,” she says. “If I hate men, why would I waste my time running a study and talking to them about their feelings?”
Walker has begun regrouping since the study fallout. She’s been thinking of new methods to study the subject, but knows she’ll probably have to wait until the story dies down to get things moving. She remains frustrated and admits her naivete about the potential political rancor around her research. In the end, she’s left wondering how many other men her study might have helped.
“How is the important work going to get done if one group is constantly politicizing anything that has to do with sex or bodies?” Walker wonders. “It’s crazy to me, but that’s exactly what happened.”