Myth: People With Body Piercings Are Sexually Deviant (Part 2)

This is part two of our myth on body piercing. I hope you’ll check into part one first, because part two will be much more interesting and make a lot more sense if you watch part one first. But now let’s get going with part two.

Intimate body piercing has been increasing in popularity, just like other kinds of body piercing, over the last two decades. Historically, genital piercing has not been part of Western culture, despite what you might have heard. The first accurate reports come from the Victorian era, which means in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in the United States and England, and perhaps Europe. They come from that era when some women pierced their nipples and wore jewelry. It’s also been said that penile rings were worn by a few Victorian men, who pierced their penises from the urinary meatus through the glans penis. This practice was credited to Prince Albert, who was Queen Victoria’s husband, and it was named after him. He supposedly invented it for grooming purposes, and he wore a penile ring which he would then attach to his clothes so that he could put his penis either on the right or left side, so that it would be attached properly to his very, very tight uniform trousers, so that it wouldn’t move in a way that would be considered salacious in an era which was publicly – not so much privately – very conservative sexually. Now, most historians, by the way, now believe that that was a myth – that it wasn’t true that Prince Albert invented it. It may be true that some people did it in that era, but really it was around World War II that penile rings have been proven or shown to have become part of a custom for a small group of people in the West.

Now recent studies of college students have estimated that the incidence of body piercing, in general, would include the following. When we talk about body piercing, we mean the navel, the tongue, the face (eyebrows, lips, nose), the ear other than the lobe (the cartilage, etc.) and the nipple, as well as genital sites. And it can be as high as 33% of body piercing. Another recent study of undergraduates reported that 12-14% had body and/or genital piercings. And so it’s a reasonably large number – 33% of all piercings would be body piercings, and 12-14% might be – it’s hard to know, because we really don’t have good national data, although we have some – might be genital piercings. In the small studies from the late 1990’s, the motivation for the acquisition of genital piercings included assertion of body ownership, sexual enhancement, acquisition of symbolic power, ritual celebrations, adventure, and beauty or aesthetics. A study in 2004 investigated the characteristics of adults with intimate body piercings. The respondents included 63 women and 83 men from 29 states, recruited through newspaper advertisements. It’s very important to know how your subjects were gotten, because then you can decide how much to believe it, and how much it can be generalized. So these were advertisements in the newspaper that people had to respond to. The average age was 31, and the ages of the participants ranged from 18 to 71. The most popular intimate piercings were found on the nipple, with 43% of the respondents reporting that that’s where their intimate piercing was. 25% had genital piercings, and 32% reported both genital and nipple. Males had more of both piercings than females. With regard to genital piercings, the most popular for males was the Prince Albert, and for females the clitoral hood or body piercing – not the labial ones (that is, the lips). Respondents, when compared to the US population as a whole – although they weren’t in the study, they had to go to other studies to get information on the general population – were younger, because the average of the US population at that time was 45.5, and these people were 31. So even in this study, although somebody in the study was 71, the average was quite a bit younger than the US population as a whole. Those with piercings were less ethnically diverse than the US population, because 83% of them were white. They were more highly educated than the US population, because 75% of them had some college, or a college degree. They were more likely to be single, because 44% of them were single – but remember they were young, so that might be something that’s going together. And they were more often homosexual, because 10% of them were homosexual, or bisexual, because 18% of them were bisexual. And they experienced their first sexual activity or intercourse at an earlier age, because their first sexual activity or intercourse, on average, was 15.7 years, when the US average at that time was 16.5 years. So that tells you who they were, when you look at the US population as a whole.

The average age for considering an intimate piercing occurred considerably before the actual event, suggesting that this was not an impulsive or impetuous decision. And it turns out that people are more likely to be impulsive about getting a tattoo than they are about getting a piercing. On average, the consideration of nipple piercing occurred two years before the purchase, and for a genital piercing it was one year. The average age that people got a nipple piercing was 27, and for a genital piercing it was 28. The males’ most common reason, and the females’ second most common reason, for getting a nipple piercing was “wanting to express myself.” The females’ first choice and the males’ second choice was wanting to express themselves sexually. So the first reason for males was to express themselves generally in some way, and that was the females’ second choice. And for females, their first choice, and males’ second choice, was to express themselves sexually. In terms of genital piercings, both sexes agreed on their motivation. 79% said “it helped me to express myself sexually,” and 77% chose “improved my sexual pleasure.” So having genital piercing was seen very much as a sexual thing, a sexual decision. And the third choice, 71% (but they’re really all close together) was “helped me feel unique.”

Participants also appeared to be very clear about what they believed was not their purpose in obtaining their body art. Close to 80% agreed that status or prestige, or trying to improve their social position, was not part of their decision, and 7 out of 10 rejected the notion that their decision to be intimately pierced was related to a celebration or commemoration of a festive occasion. However, both men and women reported that the occurrence of their decision, or of their doing their piercing, happened around a significant event, like a funeral, a divorce, or a marriage. So although they said it didn’t have anything to do with that, somehow it happened right around some really important event in their life. Only 3% of this group reported any STDs, and there was no HIV or hepatitis reported by any of the participants. Now with regard to the influence of other people on being pierced, over a third of the participants said that family members had any kind of piercings, but sisters were the only family members who had directly influenced any of the respondents in the acquisition of getting a body piercing. So family members had body piercings, but they were not reported to be influential – only sisters. And we will find that sisters seem to be the only family members, in any of the studies, that seem to have any influence at all on people’s getting a piercing or a tattoo. And everybody agreed, 9 out of 10 at least, that famous people and other family members had no influence at all on their decision. And more than half said that friends had no influence at all.

The highest satisfaction – what are people satisfied with? The highest satisfaction rating, almost 100% satisfaction, was nipple piercing. People were very happy with their decision. Genital piercing satisfaction ranged from 7 out of 10 to 9 out of 10. And those with both had a bit lower satisfaction – a little more 6 out of 10, to almost 8 out of 10, were satisfied if they had both. 87% reported positive reactions from their sexual partners. So most – almost 9 out of 10 – sexual partners were satisfied with the sexual piercings of their partners. Unfortunately, they didn’t ask whether they had talked to their sexual partners before they did it, but then of course many may have had new sexual partners, so they couldn’t have asked. But 10% had a partner who refused to have sex with them since they had their piercing. So from that, I would guess that it would be a good idea to ask a sexual partner – at least one that you have – before you have a piercing. Now it’s important to remember that almost all piercings, unless they’re very, very large – the ones where people have big blocks that are put in their ears or in other places in their bodies – will close if you take the jewelry out. So they’re not permanent like tattoos, in almost all cases. So if they’re not a plug of some kind, they’re not permanent. So luckily you can decide to get rid of a piercing if you want to. But if you have a partner, it would be a good idea to ask them before you do it. 8%, which is a small percentage, reported that their piercing had actually interfered in some way with achieving some goal or getting some promotion at work. And so again, that might be something – if it’s going to show! – that you check with your workplace, if it’s going to be one that is visible. All in all, there was a low level of regret with regard to intimate body piercing. And study participants were not greatly different from the general population except in their desire to express themselves and be unique, both sexually and personally.

Now two more studies have suggested positive effects on female sexual response in some women after genital piercing. One, in 2005, reported increased desire, increase in frequency of arousal, and increase in intercourse frequency by some of the women, but no increase in orgasm, following clitoral piercings. And one study in 1999 found that some of the women experienced first orgasm after clitoral hood piercings. Now again, remember these are reports of the people in the study. It’s difficult to separate, I think, the direct effect of the piercing process, and the decision to do it, from the meaning of the act itself, to the woman, and how that would affect her sexual response, after such a dramatic experience in the service of her sexuality. So we can’t know whether it’s the piercing itself – in other words, if you made somebody unconscious and then pierced them without their permission, and then afterwards their sexuality would be improved in some way – how that’s different from somebody who makes this very dramatic decision, goes through the dramatic experience, the intimate experience, and then finds that their sexuality has changed for the better. The whole experience of it, and the decision of it, and then having it done, may be what’s important in the process. It’s been suggested that some women – and this is a suggestion, this has not been proved by any scientific or research method – but it has been suggested that some women who have had a traumatic, painful sexual experience sometime earlier in their life, that taking back their sexuality and their genitalia through a self-controlled – that is, something that they decided to do, that is within their power – painful experience that also adds beauty and self-expression, in their eyes, can permit them to experience pleasure again where it had been lost. This is just a theory, but if it works for some women then that’s great.

The final study I want to share with you is special, because it’s what’s called a cohort study. It was published in 2007, so it’s very new, and it addresses body piercing – earlobes excluded – in a cohort of 966 26 year old individuals, born in New Zealand. And what’s special about this information is that these data are on a group of young people who have all been studied since they were born in 1972, to 1973. They weren’t chosen because they had piercings, for this particular study – they have been studied their whole lives. And 95% of the original group came back to participate in this study from wherever they were in New Zealand or the world. All the other research that we’ve been discussing in this very long myth involves only some of the people who were invited to participate, because many, many, many people, often the majority, refuse to do so, and as researchers, we never know really how the group is biased – who refused, and who came, and why they refused to come to be in the study. And so we don’t know how the answers that we get are changed, completely – we don’t know how the answers that we get are affected by who didn’t participate. These subjects, in the New Zealand study, were asked about piercings during an interview, and they were also asked about their sexual behavior through a computerized questionnaire when they were 26 years old. 90% of this group were pierced. 9% of the men and 29% of the women had piercings on sites other than their earlobes. So more women than men – we’re seeing that that’s an interesting finding. The most common sites for these subjects, or participants were, for women, the ear cartilage, the nose, and the navel. For men, the most common sites were ear cartilage and nipple. So it’s interesting that we’re finding that men are having more nipple piercings – that was surprising to me. And we found it in a number of studies. 10 men and 3 women had pierced nipples, and 4 men and 3 women had genital piercings. So that tells us about the intimate piercings. The most common reasons given for getting pierced by these young adults are the following, in order of frequency. Number one was fashion – and again, that’s like the English, at least that seems to be a reason that’s voiced – 69% of the women and 32% of the men said that they had done it for fashion purposes. 18% of the men and 25% of the women said it was to be different. Again, that’s what we’ve heard also – in different words, but the same concept. Other reasons were boredom, peer pressure (which we haven’t heard from the US samples), to gain control over pain (again, another one that we haven’t heard in our US samples), to gain control over trauma from the past – which is one of the suggestions that I made with regard to the women who had had genital piercings. Unemployment and low occupational status were not related to piercing. Women who were not overweight, who were unmarried or who had lower educational attainments were more likely to have piercings. So the women who were pierced weren’t overweight, they tended to be unmarried, and they tended to have lower educational attainments.

Now what about personality? They had been tested about 8 years earlier for personality factors. A relationship between personality traits and piercing was found only for women, not for men. Women who were pierced were found to be less conventional – that we’ve seen before – and less cautious – that’s like risk-taking! – than those who were pierced, so the same as we found with the not-cohort populations, that is, the ones who were convenience samples that were found in university students. Women with piercings also appeared to have higher negative emotionality, and that was characterized by being more easily stressed, and more easily prone to anxiety and anger. You wonder why people who are more easily stressed and more prone to anxiety would put themselves in a position to get pierced, which seems to me to be a highly stressful thing to do, and something that would cause anxiety – but maybe it’s a way of overcoming that. Those with high positive emotionality in the group – that is, in this cohort – were less likely to have body piercings. So people who were characterized by a sense of well-being, and actively enjoying their social environment – which is how positive emotionality was characterized – were less likely to be pierced.

Now what about sexuality? Women with piercings appeared to be more sexually active than those without piercings. They were more likely to report five or more male sexual partners during the last year, and were more likely to have had a same-sex attraction “these days.” That was how the question was formed. They were more likely to have had a same-sex partner in the previous year. So they were more sexually adventurous, because they were more likely to have more male partners, they were more likely to have had a sexual attraction to a same-sex partner, and they were more likely to have actually experienced a same-sex partner in the last year. And again, these are young people. There was no difference found between pierced and unpierced men with regard to their sexuality or their sexual behaviors. So all of this was in women – women, who again were more likely to be pierced, were also more likely to be more sexually adventurous. The authors interpreted the womens sexual behaviors to be an expression of their exploration of identity and self-expression, and I would say also their interest in high-risk, or risky behavior. And that went along with their acquisition of body art. It would be very interesting, I think, to see (because these people are going to continue to be studied, because they’re part of a cohort) how their lives progress as they enter their 30’s, with regards to their partners and whether or not they choose to marry and/or have children.

So here are my conclusions now – you’ve been very patient – with regard to piercing. As a final comment, and what especially interests me, is that the more recent studies are not finding that individuals who choose to acquire body piercing are necessarily or in fact or in large part of the “S&M” culture. In the “old days,” in the earlier studies, this was a prevalent finding, and it was believed that body piercing, and especially intimate body piercing, of nipples and genitalia, were a sure sign of membership in the S&M subculture, or an indication of an interest and desire for a relationship between pain and sexual pleasure. In a readers’ survey of a body art magazine conducted even as far back as 1994, fewer than 20% of respondents to that magazine survey identified themselves as being a masochist, a sadist, a fetishist, an exhibitionist, or a narcissist. And in keeping with what has been learned from more recent studies, evaluating more general samples, where 50% of the respondents characterized themselves as “adventurous,” the recent research studying people from 18 into their 30’s does not support this earlier conclusion for either body piercing in general or intimate piercing in particular, or for tattooing. This does not mean that members of the S&M subculture do not practice intimate body piercing, but it does mean that a much larger proportion of the general public who are not interested in the combination of sexual pleasure and pain ARE interested in, and are acquiring body piercings for many other motives, unrelated to S&M. So it’s just an interesting thing that that belief, that bias, is just not holding up anymore. It doesn’t mean that people who are into S&M aren’t still doing body piercings of all kinds, and intimate body piercings, and continue to do it – probably no more or less than they always did. But these kinds of body art are now also becoming more and more a part of young people’s general behavior and are not related to S&M subculture, or to the combination of pain and sexual pleasure.

It’s a new world, in which more people in the West want to decorate their bodies in a multitude of permanent or semi-permanent ways. And those who are not interested in body art, for themselves, are not only far less judgmental, they are even accepting and positive. So as usual, here is my advice to end our myth-a-month. If you are considering any kind of piercing, from your earlobes, to facial, or other body piercing, or intimate body piercing, please remember that it must be done by someone who is very careful and experienced about hygiene. Every instrument that touches your body must be sterilized before it touches you, and any jewelry that you insert must be the kind that is the least likely to interact with your body, since many, many people have metal allergies, which can be most unpleasant. And the more piercings you have, and the more metal objects that you put into your body, the more allergic reactions are possible. So check out who is doing your piercing – don’t be afraid to get a recommendation. Ask questions – that’s very important. Look around, and leave if you’re not completely satisfied with the cleanliness and the professionalism of the establishment and the proprietor. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will? And be aware that there will be weeks, and sometimes months, of discomfort and aftercare for any piercing. That’s what the data tell us. Studies report that about half of the genital piercings and two-thirds of nipple piercings have some problems. And 40% of all piercing complications are the result of navel piercings. They can all be treated – and if you take care of them quickly, it will not be a long-term problem. So it’s not a reason not to proceed, but it’s best to know what you will need to do to take care of yourself before you take the leap. Ask others who have been through the experience, both to find a good practitioner, and to know the drill. And that’s the end of this long – but I think very interesting myth.

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