Myth: People With Body Piercings Are Sexually Deviant (Part 1)

This myth is about body piercing has a great relationship, a strong relationship to sexuality. Now, I want to warn you that this is a long one! And the reason that it’s so long is that I got fascinated with this topic, and then I thought you would get very fascinated with this topic, and my director got fascinated with this topic. I asked her to edit it, and she edited a little bit out. We’re fascinated, and we think you might be fascinated, so you can turn it on and off if you don’t have a lot of time, and come back to it, because there’s a lot we want to tell you about. It’s a really growing phenomenon in the Western world, and we’re going to follow it with a myth on tattooing because the two of them – this body modification or body art is really a growing thing that’s been happening in the last decade or two in the West. So here we go.

As I said, it’s becoming more frequent and more mainstream in Western culture. This has been revealed very clearly in research that has happened over the last 15 years. It appears to be growing, in fact, on a yearly basis. So in a couple of places, or at least one, they’ve been doing studies every year, and every year more and more young people are getting pierced or getting tattooed. Sometimes people have both kinds, and in fact it’s not unusual for individuals to have both kinds. Today, when we talk about piercing, we’re not talking about earlobes! That is so common that it is not something that really distinguishes people any more. When we talk about body piercing, we’re talking about any kind of piercing making a hole in the body, a semi-permanent hole, because almost all body piercings will close up if you take the jewelry out. But any piercing other than the earlobe, because the earlobe is considered to be quite ordinary now. I’ll do another myth session that primarily focuses on tattooing, but I will mention them in passing here, because they do happen to be very hard to study one without the other.

Because our Western culture, in the United States and in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, has been changing dramatically over the past decade or so regarding the acceptance of body art, I am going to concentrate only on the research that has been published during just the past few years, although I’ll mention one or two studies that happened in the early and mid 90’s. Most of it is going to be research that happened, or has been published, since the year 2000. The research prior to that appears to be quite judgmental, and really does not represent the current values or attitudes, particularly those of the majority of young adults, college students, and adolescents. In fact, most recently there has been the development of a new body of research literature from the medical and psychological communities, and other health care professionals, conducted by nurses, behavioral scientists, and physicians, that has underscored the low level of pathology and rapidly increasing cultural acceptability of body art by the younger generations. And this research is for clinicians, to help them to deal with people who come to them who are pierced or tattooed.

An example of changing attitudes toward individuals who are pierced, is a series of studies – and I’ll tell you about all of them throughout this lecture – that have been done in the Southwest United States, mostly in Texas, at a university there. They have a whole series of these studies in the past few years.

The first that I want to tell you about was published in 2004. I’m not going to take them in chronological order, I’m going to take them in order of what they talk about. Now, in the past piercing has been interpreted as a deviant behavior with immoral undertones. As such, it followed that those who possessed this type of body art were likely to be seen as immoral or lacking in family values, the values that were considered good values. In this study of 450 undergraduates, 72% were female. And you’re going to find in almost all of these studies that often half, and sometimes a lot more, are females. It is really growing in the female population in the West, these body modifications or body art activities. 80% in this population were categorized as Euro-American, or Caucasian. 63% were sophomores or freshman at this university. And they were surveyed about their religious beliefs and practices. And that’s why I mentioned morality and values. They were surveyed about their religious beliefs – what’s called their religiosity – and their attitudes toward individuals who have body piercings.

Now, the only relationship that was found was a very, very weak one, and it was only for individuals that had seven or more piercings, which included piercings of the nipples or the genitals. So there weren’t any relationships found between religiousness and those who had one or two or three or four or five or six piercings! It was only for those who had seven of more. Now, keeping in mind that this study was conducted in a politically and religious conservative region of the country – and most of the students there come from the South and the Southwest – these findings suggest that body piercing is now viewed as within cultural norms, at least for most young people in the United States.

Characteristics and differences between the piercers and the non-piercers. What’s the difference between people (young people, at least) who get pierced and not pierced?

And this first study that I’m going to tell you about was an English study, and it was done in an environment that would be likely to be at least somewhat biased toward people who are risk-taking, because it was done in a British sexually transmitted disease clinic in 2001. And again, a lot of the earlier studies were all done in environments where the participants, or the respondents, were already in a situation where they were likely to have a problem before they were asked about piercing or tattooing. And this was one of those – that is, the people would come in because they were concerned about having a sexual problem (that is, an STD). And they were assessed for the relationship between piercing and social, economic, demographic, or sexual characteristics. There were 152 female patients that were evaluated in this particular study. 32% of them had body piercings, so they weren’t asked first “do you have a body piercing” in order to be in the study, they were just in this STD clinic. The most common site for body piercings, of the 152 patients, of which 32% had a piercing, was the navel – one out of four of those who were pierced had a navel piercing.

Body piercing was more common in women who had their ears pierced more than once; that is, they had multiple piercings of the ears, and they were more likely also to have a navel piercing. It was less common in women who did not smoke, and less common in women who were over 35 years old. And again, we’re going to find that piercing is more common in younger people nowadays than it is in older people. It is a new trend in younger people, and more accepted by younger people, whether they pierce or not. Interestingly, there was no relationship found between body piercing and socioeconomic class, method of contraception, number of sexual partners, or the presence of an STD. So if you had a piercing you weren’t any more likely to have more partners or to have a sexually transmitted disease, be rich or poor, or use one or another of the contraceptives that were available. The authors concluded, from what they found, that their finding supported the suggestion that the motivation for body piercing was primarily a fashion statement. I don’t know that that was a good conclusion, because I don’t know that they really asked specifically about that. And we’re going to find that fashion, per se, is not necessarily the strongest reason why people decide to acquire a piercing.

Now another study of college students in the U.S., published in the same year (2001), investigated the motives, the family experiences, and the personality characteristics of 341 Midwestern college students, as opposed to the Southwestern college students. But again, the Midwest is also a rather conservative area of the United States. 25% of the men and 33% of the women had at least one piercing or one tattoo. Quite surprising. So exactly one quarter of the men and exactly one third of the women had a piercing or a tattoo. There were no significant differences found in the measures of five personality traits, and these included extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. And there were very few differences in any of the other personality characteristics or in childhood experiences between the college students with or without body modifications. However, the students without body modifications perceived individuals with piercings or tattoos as being very different from themselves on these personality measures. So that was kind of interesting. That is, those that didn’t have them thought that the people with them were going to be quite different in personality from them, but they actually in fact were not.

There were differences found between those with and without piercings or body art of any kind, on a number of dimensions, and those were – and we’re going to hear this over and over again – on risk-taking behavior, and also those with body art were basically less socially conforming. That is, they had lower social conformity. And I think that that’s a theme that we’re going to hear over and over again here. So there are differences with people who get piercings – and we’re going to see that later also with people who get tattooed – they are more risk-takers, and of course getting a piercing is a risky activity, it’s a scary activity. It’s an unusual activity – you’re not in the majority when you do that, and it is risky. And it also is not a socially conforming thing to do – everybody doesn’t do it. Fewer people do it than don’t do it, and so it is an act of non-conformity. And it shows up in doing that, and it shows up in tests or evaluations that look to find that out about people. So they are really reflections of body art, and it shows up. They make people distinctive. Those who had piercings were also more likely to engage in a greater use of alcohol, and in greater use of marijuana. It wasn’t a gigantic difference, but it was a significant difference. And that’s also kind of risky behavior.

The researchers concluded that the popular believe that social or personal pathology goes along with body modification was not appropriate with regard to contemporary college students who choose to acquire body art. So it may have been true in the past, it may be true of older people who got their piercings in the old days, decades ago, but it doesn’t appear to be true for contemporary young adults, and certainly not for college students.

Now what’s the motivation? Why do individuals say they obtain piercings, and what do these body modifications mean to those who get them? Another of the evaluations of undergraduates from that Southwestern United States college – this was done in 2004 – asked them what was their motivation for getting a body piercing. 32% of them in this study reported that they had been pierced. When asked for the major reason they had obtained their body piercing, their categories of response included primarily self-expression and identity. Again, a way of making yourself unique, and expressing your uniqueness. They didn’t include rebellion or deviancy. Again, like what we’ve heard in the other studies so far. That is, they want to express themselves, they want to show how they are special and unique, they want to express who they are, but they’re not doing it to be rebellious – at least they’re saying that – and they’re not doing it to be deviant from mainstream society.

When all four of the study groups that were done in different years were put together, and there were a large number of subjects at this time, and they were queried about their motivations and reaction to body art, there were altogether 908 participants (undergraduates). And this large group included 247 that had no body piercings, 145 with body piercings, 419 without tattoos, and 97 with tattoos. So surprising to me, first of all, was that there were more undergraduates with body piercings (remember, not including earlobes) than there were with tattoos. I would have thought that there were more people with tattoos than with body piercings, but I would have been wrong.

Now, with regard to the attitudes, all of the students, whether they had body modifications or not, reported a positive image for both kinds of body are – whether they possessed any form of body are or not. Now that tells you – remember, we’re in quite a conservative part of the US, and most of the young people going to school there come from that region of the United States – so that’s a surprising finding right there. Now with regard to motivation, again, wanting to be unique appeared to be a major motivation for having body art, with reasons expressed in the following ways:: “I just wanted one” – “To express myself” – “To feel unique” – “To be myself” – “I don’t need to impress anyone anymore” now that I have this special mark on myself – “It helps me feel independent” – remember that one, because that’s an important one – “It’s a new and exciting experience.” That’s also an important response to remember.

Many of these responses support other researchers’ contention that piercings and tattoos are part of the need for young people these days, and particularly in Western cultures, to find a “rite of passage,” a way of expressing and experiencing their independence and their transition to adulthood, because our cultures, the Western cultures, really do not have a ceremony to mark this transition. Marriage is really not that ceremony. Marriage, first of all, is taking place later and later in life, and that’s really a different kind of transition. It’s not accurately a transition to adulthood – it’s a transition to experiencing yourself as part of a relational team, and on the way, perhaps to parenthood. But adulthood is a different question. People are going back to live with their parents after they finish school – they’re living with their parents when they go back out to work, at least in the United States (I can’t talk about what’s going on in Europe, I’m not an expert on that). But in the United States it’s really happening with a lot of people, and that’s not adulthood. So we really do need – people need a way to identify, to mark when they become an adult. And it looks like tattooing and piercing may be one of those ways that people identify for themselves that they have come of age.

Now what about the meanings of body piercings to a person’s sexuality, which is one of our interests here, and why we talk about the topics that we do here on Myth-a-Month.

In another of the surveys of undergraduates from this politically and religiously conservative rural Southwestern area of the United States, in which 247 of them had never been pierced, and 145 of students who were currently pierced were surveyed, significantly more of the females were pierced than males – 126 females versus 20 of the males. And by the way, females also expressed more interest in body piercing than the males. Now both the pierced and the non-pierced students had two-parent households until the age of 16, and they all reported positive home relationships. Approximately two thirds of their parents had undergraduate degrees. I just want you to know how ordinary they were, and how healthy they were. The pierced students reported moderate to strong religious faith, they said that they felt close to God, and they prayed daily. So they were very similar, the two groups.

However, twice as many of the pierced group reported that they were very likely to seek new and exciting experiences. Remember that from the other data? 32% in the pierced group and 15% in the never-pierced group said this. So there were more than twice as many in the pierced group that said they were likely to seek new and exciting experiences.

And those who were pierced agreed that they might seek a new and exciting experience even if it were a little unconventional, or a little illegal. So they were adventuresome. But although twice as many agreed to this, the percentage was very low. It was only 10% of the piercers and 5% of the non-piercers. So percentages were low, and the difference was small, even though it was twice as much. You always have to look at the data closely, because if somebody says to you something is twice as much, sometimes it’s 1 percent and 2 percent! It’s twice as much, but does it really matter in the real world? This was 5 and 10 percent.

Now with regard to sexuality, because that’s the issue – I just wanted you to know who they were before I told you about the sexuality – there was no difference between those who had piercings and those who did not, when it came to sex without a condom. They were equally careful. Only 14% of both groups – the piercers and the non-piercers – admitted to this risky sexual behavior. And that’s pretty good for college students. I wish none of them would do this risky behavior, but I’m proud that it was only 14% of each. When it came to the number of partners, 26% of the pierce undergraduates reported six or more lifetime sexual partners, as compared to 14% of the non-pierced students. So again, they were more adventuresome, and took greater risks, because of course the more partners you have – unless you’re very careful with safer sex – you take more risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. So there appeared to be somewhat more risk-taking in the sexual arena, or more sexual interest among those who were pierced.

They also reported ingesting more alcohol, more often. More of them smoked, and a few more of them took drugs “very often.” However, tobacco use for those who were pierced was lower than the national average for U.S. college students in general. So this is a conservative area of the United States, and both groups as a whole reported lower numbers of students who had six or more sexual partners, than the national average. So again, these are conservative students. In terms of general risk-taking, 20% of the pierced versus 9% without piercings described themselves as “being risky.” So a little more than twice as many of the pierced ones said “I’m a risky person, I like to take risks.” 9% of the ones who were body pierced reported nipple or genital piercing, which brings us to the consideration of intimate body piercing.

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