Dying to be big

Dying to be big

After a shocking death made headlines, the question remains: Why do men risk their lives getting silicone injections?

Until recently, the danger of silicone injections has perhaps been most closely associated with the death of young, impoverished transgender women who could not afford the mainstream plastic surgeries they sought to ease their body dysmorphia. Instead, they resorted to unsafe measures involving unlicensed practitioners, sometimes at what have been luridly dubbed as “pumping parties.” These parties typically involved groups of women paying someone to come to their home or hotel to inject them with large amounts of silicone, usually into their breasts or hips. Such already-dangerous procedures were made riskier because they were often performed in environments that were not sterilized and with fluid that was not always medical-grade. When transgender women have died of silicone-related deaths, sure, they made headlines. But, for the most part, their stories have been sensationalized, relegated to tone-deaf local reports and click-generating news bits on niche, queer-centric websites.

Then, in October, an Australian man living in Seattle named Jack Chapman died as a result of silicone injections to make his genitals larger.

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Publications raced to tell the story of Chapman, the muscular redhead known online as “Pup Tank” or “Tank” who was killed by silicone injections to his testicles, possibly by the leader of what has been positioned as a BDSM cult disguised as a polyamorous relationship. The reporting on Chapman’s death and the circumstances around it were catalyzed by the anger of his gay friends and fans who accused Chapman’s BDSM master, Dylan Hafertepen — popularly known by his online handle, “Noodles and Beef” — of murder.

That it took the mysterious death of a white, cisgendered man with hundreds of thousands of fans on social media to generate serious backlash against back-alley silicone-injection procedures likely comes as no surprise. What is surprising to some is that there are men out there, gay and straight alike, who have insecurities and dysmorphia so severe that it forces them to risk their lives to add an inch of girth of their dick.

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Rob Waltman loved such a man. He was the longtime partner of a man named Peter Dovak, who died in November 2017 after injecting more than 1,250 cubic centimeters of silicone into his testicles. They’d been together for 12 years, having met on the art sharing site DeviantArt after Waltman discovered Dovak’s drawings of bus-sized men having sex with one another. That was in high school, and they soon became long-distance boyfriends, Waltman in Colorado and Dovak in Kentucky. The two attended college together at the University of Kentucky before relocating to Arlington, VA, where Waltman worked in IT and Dovak as a graphic designer.

To hear Waltman tell it, their partnership was the joy of his life. He and Dovak were fans of all things nerdy, from science fiction to trading-card games, but what they bonded over most was a deep desire to be big. Not necessarily strong, or muscular. Just big. In a post on his now-defunct personal blog titled “I Want to Be Big,” Dovak wrote, “I want to be so big that I regain that amazing feeling of just taking up more space. I want to always the biggest man in the room. I want to command attention just by existing.”

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The first step to getting big was the gym, and the next was steroids. But Dovak, who was naturally slight, still felt small next to Waltman. Muscle, even when accelerated by steroid use, can only build so quickly, so he started eating. A lot. In theory, he had always had a goal of gaining weight, but now that he was stuffing his face with pudding and cupcakes and whatever else, he was a “gainer,” someone who derived satisfaction from getting as big as possible as quickly as possible. Videos of Dovak stuffing his face accumulated hundreds of thousands of views. His new size was commanding the attention he seemed to want.

Waltman was unhappy with his partner’s “dirty” form of bulking — bodybuilders will often “clean bulk” with enormous amounts of lean protein and shakes rather than sweets and soda — because of its effects on Dovak. The rapid gaining wasn’t sustainable. Once Dovak hit 300 lbs, it would become clear to the couple that his health was being strained by the sudden spike in his weight— his sex drive was plummeting, he was often short of breath, and his mind grew cloudy. So, he stopped, and he lost some weight.

To hear Waltman tell it, his partnership with Dovak was the joy of his life.

But he would eventually feel shitty about himself again, and he would start gaining again until he reached his threshold and had to quit. This went on for several years, beginning in 2011. Even though he had found success in his work as a designer, and even though he’d gathered a following from his blog and illustrations, neither of these things could match the validation he got from being bigger. So he started researching other methods of gaining size.

He became interested in synthol, a site-enhancement oil that people travel to South America to have injected into their muscles in order to make them appear larger. It’s dangerous, oftentimes resulting in infections, nerve damage, and fibrosis. It makes its users look, Waltman said, like “balloon animals.” But Dovak liked the look. “He wanted to be a fucking huge freak, in his own words,” Waltman said. “He always wanted to explore alternative methods to get bigger.”

Waltman voiced his staunch opposition to the injections, dissuading Dovak from getting them. There were other ways to get big, though, and Dovak saw pictures of them making rounds on Tumblr, private message boards, and group chats limited to trusted friends. The photos were of men who had injected their genitals with silicone. The procedures were often done by doctors in countries like Mexico and Germany or by underground practitioners within the U.S. The injections gave them massive bulges — dicks blown up to look like a Graboid from Tremors and scrotums inflated to the size of NBA-regulation basketballs. For Dovak, this was how he could be what he always wanted; this was how he could be a huge freak.

My own fascination with silicone-injected bulges began years ago and, like many unorthodox fascinations, it started with a chance encounter on Tumblr with Hafertepen’s now-infamous blog, Noodles and Beef. Hafertepen, a Seattle resident who works as a web designer, was a big, attractive guy, and he was big everywhere. It was clear that he went to the gym and probably used steroids. It would later be discovered that he was injecting much more than testosterone into his body.

Hafertepen became known to me at a time when I was becoming known to myself, growing intrigued by guys with bigger bodies: maybe football players, definitely lumberjacks. In common gay parlance, these men are known as bears, and they are popularly believed to be the most accepting bunch of the gays — they prefer so-called authentic masculinity to abs and spray tans.

The idea of an unconditionally accepting community of bears was a fun fantasy for an overweight, burgeoning queer like me, who would pray nightly to wake up thin and whose mind sometimes still fantasizes about a gloved hand slicing away the fat from problem areas. But it’s a fantasy that tends to be quickly shattered by real-world experience, in which gay men face, on average, more severe body-image issues than our straight friends.

For many men in the bear scene, nobody is ever big enough, hairy enough, or endowed enough. This choosiness is encouraged by grid-based sex apps such as Grindr and Scruff that make it easy to shop for the ideal dick. The sexual self-awareness required of those who realize and live our queerness often leads to an unshakable familiarity with our physical shortcomings. This is especially true for men who are attracted to men: we are aware of how petty our own sexual minds can be.

For those of us who are largely motivated by the need to lay and get laid, creating a body in the image of a specific sort of sexy avatar can become a disorderly preoccupation. For some people, that avatar was Dylan Hafertepen. For Peter Dovak and the fans of his illustrations, it was the men in his drawings who had grown so large that they could not even stand up. Both fit squarely in line with guys suffering from “bigorexia,” the neologism for an obsession with gaining size, often through steroid use and weightlifting (Hafertepen was even featured in a 2016 story about bigorexia). Ironically, the aesthetic goal of authentic masculinity can require inauthentic methods, like steroids and silicone injections.

The first known use of silicone for body enhancement was at the end of WWII, when drums of the impure liquid, which had been used for insulation in aircrafts, were apparently pilfered by those in the Japanese sex trade and injected in the breasts of sex workers to appeal to the sensibilities of Western men. While effective for enlargement purposes, these injections led to disastrous results in the long term. Liquid silicone is not stable; it moves and breaks apart in the body (this is why the liquid in silicone breast implants is now encased in a silicone solid). When injected, a some of the silicone and the inevitable collagen that builds up around it can gradually migrate from the initial injection site, resulting in uncomfortable lumps.

But the more serious concern is that in some cases a tiny, tiny bit of silicone can work its way into the bloodstream, perhaps causing a blood clot that moves to an artery; if that artery is in the lungs, this would cause a pulmonary silicone embolism (sometimes referred to as silicone injection syndrome). This is how Peter Dovak died. Coughing, then gasping for air, then hooked up to medical equipment, and then, finally, quietly, as Waltman and his father looked on.

Over the years, men have concocted a host of dubious, seemingly painful ways of obtaining a bigger dick: stretching their penises by hanging weights from them; pumping them up to with penis pumps; jelqing, or the practice of prolonged masturbation to (allegedly) increase length, and mimicking the effects of silicone with temporary saline injections, which are absorbed by the body. One doctor even devised a $13,000 silicone implant that can make a dick stand rigid, as if it is always erect. Unfortunately, consensus among those in the silicone community seems to be that these implants are too rigid, and don’t look or feel as good as free-floating silicone.

Online, guys are always eager to brag about how they’ve managed to alter the size and appearance of their dicks. There’s a whole slew of websites where like-minded, dick-growing guys go to discuss pumping, jelqing, and foreskin-renewal techniques. (It’s complicated.) There’s even a forum run by Dr. Luis Casavantes, a well-known surgeon who offers $3,000 enlargement procedures at a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. The men who visit the sites are young and old and gay and straight; there is no single type of man who wants a bigger dick. They all do.

Ironically, the aesthetic goal of authentic masculinity can require inauthentic methods.

Due to the underground nature of silicone injection procedures, it’s difficult to determine exact statistics about who receives them and how they’re administered. The injections are essentially irreversible, unlike other dick-enlarging measures. The body does not absorb silicone, and the silicone from an injection removed require many invasive surgeries in which the amorphous blobs are excavated as thoroughly as possible. Total retrieval, however, is not guaranteed — silicone is basically forever.

More importantly, guys get silicone injections for reasons that don’t necessarily start and stop at getting a bigger bulge. It’s true, some straight men do get a tasteful injection of a few hundred ccs and then claim that their girlfriend loves the increase in size. Others just want to fill out their scrotum, perhaps so that it does not look like a rotting peach turned inside-out. But then there are the guys like Dovak, who want to look like something else altogether, something inhuman.

They are, in other words, searching for a way to appear mutated. Holzum provided a simplified take on this type of body dysmorphia: its sufferers hope to achieve an appearance that influences the way others see them, either positively or negatively. These men don’t necessarily want to look like men with giant dicks; they want to look like men with something else entirely different, and they want to be noticed for it.

“They like the attention that it garners, they like the focus it brings on them. They embrace the kink and the freak of nature aspect of it.” — Damon Holzum, clinical therapist

Men who want to take their bodies outside the realm of what is socially acceptable are drawn to one another, and they largely gather online, where it’s safe. Sometimes the attraction between them is borne from a sexual interest in similar guys, but it’s also likely out of necessity. “The more kink-centric you get,” Holzum said, “the more you gravitate towards those individuals that fit your fetishes. Especially when it comes to the silicone aspect, that veers into the not-fully-legal realm, so it adds a layer as individuals don’t want to get into trouble or be judged.” And so goes the silicone community, which, outside of Tumblr posts of giant junk, exists solely in those aforementioned private chats and invite-only groups and message boards. (Tumblr is most likely gone as a place of gathering with its new community guidelines, which ban all adult content.)

The Juiced Man, a private Yahoo! Group started in 2005, is a robust source for information on silicone injections. To find this group and others like it, you might browse a forum for fans of penis pumps, looking out for someone who offers information via private messages about how to make the effects of a pump permanent. Or you might just send a direct message to a guy whose Instagram seems to show off silicone injections.

Guys come to it for many reasons. Many of the posts list a user’s stats (age, penis length, and girth) and ask if others recommend for or against getting a procedure — and, to their credit, many of the users suggest that men in their 20s and 30s should wait before making an irreversible decision. Other posts ask things like how many ccs of silicone it took other members to become “locked in,” which refers to the point at which it is physically impossible for the head of the penis to emerge from the shaft due to all of the hardened silicone around it. (Some men insist that this acts similarly to foreskin, protecting the head of the penis from routine abrasion, resulting in more sensitivity and better orgasms.) Other guys on the board might just like the way it feels to have something injected into them; others might just want to find “siliconed” guys in New York City with whom to have sex).

(And yes, guys who have undergone silicone injections can still have sex and ejaculate. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter if a guy maintains a full erection; silicone hardens, and a siliconed shaft is always hard enough for penetration. Oftentimes, the interests of silicone guys dovetail with those in the fisting scene because, as Holzum pointed out, only men who are capable of and interested in being fisted are also capable of being penetrated by something as extreme as a super-injected silicone dick.)

Although they have created cohesive communities, it’s really the operation’s illegality that makes sites like The Juiced Man so necessary for those who want to receive silicone injections. Holzum argued that these communities, or at least the communication within them, are essential. Because, while injections might never be totally free of risk, it’s better that people have access to others with the experience to steer them clear of risky doctors and particularly unsafe procedures.

Not everyone agrees. Waltman blames the silicone community generally and Hafertepen specifically for Dovak’s death. “If Peter’s death wasn’t enough to crystalize for them that, hey, this is dangerous, maybe we shouldn’t do it, then they” —meaning those who have died from injections — “got what they deserved,” he said. (In fact, before Dovak’s relatively public death, it might have been easy for men to assume that this procedure was not so dangerous, as silicone-related pulmonary embolisms are not always properly reported as a cause of death. Waltman said that had he not fought for an autopsy, Dovak’s doctors would have gone along with their assumption that his death was steroid-related.)

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Waltman didn’t want Dovak to get the silicone injections, and he made that clear to him whenever the subject was broached. But after Dovak’s dad died in 2015, he became determined to live his life how he wanted to, and Waltman did not want to be the one to stop him.

Despite Waltman’s reservations, Dovak went in January of 2016 to a man named Joe Quader, a municipal worker Los Angeles who had found a connection to medical-grade silicone. Waltman told me that Quader came recommended by Hafertepen; Dovak and Hafertepen had been friends for years, and because of this the latter man did not hesitate to give out the name of a person giving illegal injections in his apartment.

That first injection seemed like a step toward Dovak’s goal of his ideal body. According to Waltman, the injection, which consisted of approximately 600 ccs being inserted into Dovak’s penis and scrotum, cost around $900. Dovak was thrilled by the results. He wrote a lengthy blog post about his journey to getting silicone injections, saying that he had never been truly happy until he saw himself in the mirror with his newly enlarged bulge. “I have already scheduled my second appointment,” he wrote. “There is no more hesitation. I am whole-hog into this now. I need more.” The post reads like it was written by someone who had finally found true love, or achieved some deep inner peace.

To think that malformed genitals could bring such rich happiness is hard for anyone to fathom. It was especially hard for Waltman. He regretted that he hadn’t been able to stop Dovak from going to L.A. Not only because of the dangers associated with the injections, but because it just didn’t appeal to him aesthetically. “It felt like vulcanized rubber when you touched it,” he said of his partner’s newly enlarged genitals. Despite Waltman’s continued objections, Dovak flew to L.A. for two more injections. His bulge became so large that he looked as if he had stuffed a sack of potatoes between his legs. It was impossible to ignore. “I was kind of embarrassed to go out with him in public. People would stare,” Waltman said. But Dovak liked “being big and bloated and useless.” Waltman specified: Dovak liked the idea that he could never top anyone again.

But, even after three injections adding up to 1250 ccs — more than a quart of silicone — Dovak still felt he was not big or useless enough. He needed more. On Friday, November 10, 2017, he flew to L.A. to receive his fourth injection in one-and-a-half years. On the following Saturday, Waltman received a text. “You’re going to be mad at me, because you said this might happen,” Dovak wrote. “But, I have to go to the hospital.” Sunday, Waltman flew out to meet him.

He arrived to news that Dovak had been transferred to Cedars-Sinai. The doctors informed Waltman that Dovak still had a fighting chance, and when he finally saw his partner that Monday, he had been taken out of sedation. He had been hooked up to an ECMO machine, which oxygenated his blood outside of his body — a process similar to dialysis, but for the lungs. “He had been able to communicate by nodding, and he had been hooked up to all of this equipment,” Waltman said. “I got to tell him that I was there and that I loved him, which was good, because those would be my last words.”

Regardless of the doctors’ efforts, it was soon determined that Dovak was never going to recover. A clot had migrated to an artery in his lungs and he was, essentially, drowning. Honoring the Catholicism of Dovak’s family, Waltman arranged for a chaplain to read Dovak his last rites over the phone. Dovak was removed from support, and his heart stopped 90 seconds later. It had been five days since the injection.

“I got to tell him that I was there and that I loved him, which was good, because those would be my last words.”

Waltman freaked out. The love of his life was dead, and for what? An injection?

The day after Dovak’s death, Waltman went to the Venice Beach Gold’s Gym. “That was the only way I felt like I could venerate him. Because,” he said, crying, “we weren’t religious. But that was sort of our ritual.”

By the time Dovak died, he had transformed his body completely. He was unrecognizable compared to when he was in high school, when he began drawing sexualized pictures of men big enough to break beds. It’s clear from his art and writing that contentment with his body would always elude him, but it’s also clear that happiness became unimaginable without silicone injections.

When Dovak died, there was scant uproar over the cause of his death, even though he was a minor figure among the online gainer and silicone communities. And his story only turne more tragic —when it became apparent to Joe Quader that he would be arrested for manslaughter, he killed himself.

But it wasn’t until Jack Chapman’s death that the danger of silicone injections broke the fetish barrier and spilled into the mainstream press. Members of the silicone community have reacted to the tragedy and subsequent media attention in two similar ways. First, by publicly expressing grief for Chapman and his sudden passing, and second, by going dark or completely removing their blogs from the internet. In the past few weeks, all pictures of Hafertepen and Chapman have been scrubbed from Noodles and Beef’s blog and Instagram. They’ve been replaced with photos of actual noodles and beef.

This retreat is understandable, maybe even rational. It’s a reaction that people like Waltman are surely happy about, because fewer men might lose their partners if injections aren’t a reasonable option, even an option at all. To conflate the entire fringe community of men interested in silicone injections with Dovak or Chapman is risky, but the base desire is the same: These men want to make their bodies look bigger than is possible via natural means. They feel aggrieved and marginalized by the way they look, and they’re willing to risk their lives for it.

Demonizing the whole community will likely do harm to men who already feel cast out from society — men who, like Dovak, use injections as a means of attempting to find happiness that may forever elude them. And it will do harm to men who are curious about injections but can’t find the resources needed to make informed decisions.

All that will be left are the guys who love injections egging on the guys who want to love injections, and when tragedy inevitably strikes again, the community will mourn, and the internet will be outraged, and the community will retreat. Men will keep finding ways to be big, and stay that way, because silicone is forever

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Shane Barnes is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him @shanekealoha