Myth: People With Tattoos Are More Sexual

Today, we’re going to do the third part of our three-part series on piercing and tattooing. And this myth is people with tattoos are more sexual, or more unusually sexual. And this is number three – we’ve done two on piercing, and now this is our special one on tattooing. Now, just as we saw with piercing, tattooing is becoming more frequent and mainstream. It’s part of the whole body modification revolution in the Western world. In general, it appears that from the more recent research that both tattooing and piercing are gaining in popularity each year, particularly with young people. Studies of random adult samples from the United States, Australia, and Canada still show that people – that is, adults – who are tattooed report that they are more likely to drink heavily, to take drugs, and to be involved in actions that lead to incarceration, and they also exhibit lower economic circumstances than the average, and have lower educational accomplishment, as a group, when they are compared to people without tattoos.

But when we look at college students, which are a good example of the younger generation, and the more educated part of our population, who are acquiring more and more tattoos and body piercings, we see a very different set of circumstances. And we’ve have a number of surveys and a number of studies on young people in this group over the last few years. In that, we find a significant number of females and males who have acquired tattoos, and many more who are considering obtaining one.

In 2002, college students from a large Southwestern university were questioned regarding their attitudes about tattooing. And the results revealed both a progressive increase in the number of individuals with tattoos, and also reflected significant support for tattoos, not just from those who had had a tattoo, but from those who were not tattooed. That is, tattooed people were viewed positively by other students who didn’t have tattoos. Similar and positive demographic characteristics were found in both the students with and without body art. Now, demographic things have to do with how much money you make, how educated you are, where you come from, things like that. The factors that were found for influencing the procurement, or acquisition, and the possession of tattoos – it was shown that friends were important influences, and sisters were important influences, but not other members of the family. And that was the same that we found for piercing. So it’s interesting that sisters are important. I think they’re important particularly for young women. Motivating factors, or reasons why people got tattoos, were in general identity and image. And again, that was also true for piercing.

Interestingly, a study that was published in 2005 that came out of Utah State University – and this is a very religiously conservative area of the United States, with a majority of Mormons in the population, which is a very fundamentalist group of religious Christians – reflected an interesting ambiguity of attitudes. This study asked about whether there was a different in undergraduates’ perceptions of a person’s attractiveness – that was one attribute – and their credibility, if they had a tattoo or if they didn’t have a tattoo. There were 74 undergraduates who viewed photographs of a tattooed and a non-tattooed male or female model, then rated the person, or the model, on their credibility and their attractiveness. Attractiveness was not affected by whether the model had a tattoo on them or didn’t have a tattoo on them. So they were equally attractive with and without a tattoo. But their credibility score or rating was generally lower when the model wore a tattoo – whether they were male or female – as compared to when they were not wearing a tattoo. Now this suggests, at least in this sample from this community, that having a tattoo lowers the esteem in which a person is held by a viewer, at least on first meeting, in terms of their credibility, their believability – whether you would believe them or trust them.

And this relates to another study, which was done in 1995. This was 12 years ago, but it does relate to this study, and it’s just something interesting to keep in mind. This was a survey of employers, done in Australia, about visible tattoos. Remember that we’re talking about visible tattoos. 242 employers in the country of Australia were asked whether they would hire somebody with a visible tattoo. And this is what they found. They found that in the industries of hospitality, beauty, and all the office sectors, more than 70% of the employers would not hire somebody with a visible tattoo. That’s pretty strong.

Now this study, again, as I said, was done over a decade ago – but it’s still a factor that a person should still probably take into consideration when making the decision to get a visible tattoo – that is, one that would show when you’re fully dressed. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get one that you could wear on the beach! And perhaps it also relates to the Utah students’ feelings about credibility – maybe it’s the credibility factor. A job interview, remember, is always based on a first impression. So those two things may have something to do with it. It’s interesting that in the show Miami Ink, which you can see on the Learning Channel, the owner of the store, Ami, has a tattoo on his neck, which is always visible, and he has mentioned on the show that he’s sorry that he got that tattoo. Even though he has tattoos all over, every place else, which he loves, and he loves tattoos, he says that he wishes he hadn’t done that, because, I would guess, it affects first impressions with people, and there’s something about having a tattoo that you can’t cover that can interfere sometimes in your life.

Now what about the role of religion? In the past, tattooing has been categorized by many as a deviant behavior. Tattoos are prohibited in Leviticus and Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, and in Surah in the Koran. So it should be no surprise that there has been a belief that those who possess body art, particularly tattoos, are less likely to be religious. Recent research has tested this supposition and this idea. There was a study in 2006, which was a national telephone survey, trying to get a sample that looks like what the national population looks like, in terms of age, and so forth, that confirmed this belief that those with tattoos were significantly less likely to have a religious affiliation – that is, only 19% said that they were affiliated with a particular religion – than the population as a whole, where 64% said they had a particular religious affiliation. The findings, however, were a little different when college students were questioned.

The questions asked were exactly the same, but listen to this. In a study published in 2004, when 520 undergraduates in the politically and religiously conservative southwestern region of the United States were surveyed regarding their religious feelings and activities as these related to having a tattoo, or interest in a tattoo, or getting a tattoo, there was no strong relationship between strength of religious faith, or church attendance, or frequency of prayer, and tattoos. The researchers concluded that “religious belief and behavior do not appear to be associated substantively with attitudes and behavior regarding tattoos” in their college group. And again, it is important to remember that this research was conducted in a highly religious, even fundamentalist Christian religion of the United States. So at least in young people, religiosity doesn’t seem to be related to having a tattoo, or one’s attitudes about tattoos. Again, I think the increasing contemporary acceptance of tattooing in young people is changing that relationship between religious feeling and tattoos.

Another study of college students in 2001 investigated motives, family experiences, and personality characteristics of 341 Midwestern students. 25% of the men and 33% of the women had at least one tattoo or body piercing. The students with body are were not found to be significantly different on measures extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, being neurotic or not neurotic, openness, and childhood experiences when they were compared to their classmates. However, students without body modifications perceived those with body to be very different from themselves, especially with regard to their personality characteristics. There were differences in risk-taking behaviors with regard to greater use of alcohol and marijuana, and less social conformity. This is the same as what they found with the students who were pierced. So college-aged individuals did not evidence a pathology, but they were non-conformist and did take risks.

Now what about motivation? When all of the Southwestern students at this university (and it was a series of studies, done over a period of years) were put together, 419 had no tattoos and 97 had tattoos. These undergraduates were queried about their motivation and reaction to body art. All the students reported a positive image for body art, whether they possessed it or not. And uniqueness appeared to be the major motivation, supporting the suggestion that the acquisition of body art may be an expression of the need for a kind of rite of passage into adulthood for Western youth, a way to express one’s independence and freedom.

Now, what about the meaning of tattooing to a person’s sexuality? When the sexual behavior of these 450 college undergraduates from the Southwestern United States was evaluated, it was found that they were significantly more likely to be sexually active than those who were not tattooed. However, only the tattooed men became sexually active at an earlier age as compared to their non-tattooed classmates. No such difference was found between the tattooed and non-tattooed undergraduate women. So it was just the men, and it just had to do with an earlier age at sexual initiation.

In another study from this same group which evaluated risky sexual behaviors, those who were tattooed were more likely than those who were not, or those who were only pierced, to have ha sex without a condom, and were more likely to have had more than six sexual partners. But it was a small difference, and they were still less likely to do this than populations in other parts of the country.

In another study of 79 adult patrons – and this is an interesting study – 19 to 55 years old with an average age of 25, who were recruited from two tattoo parlors, one in Florida and one in Louisiana, questions were asked about motivation for the acquisition of body art. So this was a specific population of people – they were found in tattoo parlors, and they were asked about their motivation for an acquisition of body part. Who were these people? 58% were female who answered the questionnaire. Now, this doesn’t mean that 58% of the people who went to these parlors or galleries were female, but women are usually much more likely to participate in questionnaires. We’re more helpful than men are, in general. This is true also in colleges and in classes and in other places where you ask for participation in studies. Women tend to be more likely to participate. 78% were employed, 65% had some college education, 80% were Caucasian, 72% were single. 73% stated they were heterosexual, 20% said that they were homosexual, and 7% said they were bisexual. Now this doesn’t tell you about the population of people that go to tattoo parlors – it’s the population that goes to tattoo parlors that is willing to answer questionnaires.

Now, there was one sexually related motivation, of the motivations that these people agreed were important to them. And it was the perception of sexiness. They felt that having a tattoo or getting a tattoo added to the perception of themselves as a sexy person. The other reasons or motivations were individual expression – and that was number one, and we hear that also from the college students – art, and that’s a big one, which you hear on Miami Ink also. People are interested in expressing art, in having art on their bodies. A celebration of an event, and that’s also very important – that’s one of the major reasons that people have body art on them. Beauty is another. And by the way, the celebration of an event doesn’t necessarily need to be happy. It appears very important to people to sometimes help them to work through a very important event – the death of somebody, the birth of a child, a marriage, the loss of a loved one – in many ways it has great meaning to people.

Now what about the relationship to health risk? A study conducted by the Uniformed Services University (which has to do with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) focused on health risks, and surveyed a group of 550 Marine recruits – that is, when they arrived to become Marines – in1999 (it was published in 2003) and the relationship of tattoos to alcohol use, to tobacco use, to seatbelt use, suicidal behaviors, depression, and physical violence. 499 participants were in the study, and 27% of them had tattoos when they entered military service. Surprisingly perhaps, women were more likely to be tattooed than men! And again I think this is another thing that we’re seeing – men and women are more and more likely to obtain tattoos or acquire tattoos now. And these are young people, of course – people who joined the Marines. Now although it was found that tattooed individuals who were joining the Marines were more likely to smoke, more likely to drink heavily at some times, more likely to use smokeless tobacco, and more likely to ride in a vehicle with someone who had been drinking, than the non-tattooed individuals – all risky behaviors – they were no more likely to use or not use a seatbelt, to show suicidal behaviors, no more likely to be depressed or show depression, or to have been or to be physically violent.

Now this study was clearly designed to discover negative health outcomes only. They didn’t ask about positive outcomes, as far as I can tell. And this is typical of studies that are funded by the federal government. They usually tend to look for negative things about behaviors that the majority have, in the past, or conservative parts of our society think are immoral or are not valued. And we’ll see another thing in a few minutes that supports that view – my view.

Another study published in 2003 was designed for the purpose of investigating, in the researchers’ words, and I quote: “whether people who engage more frequently in healthy behaviors, and attach a higher value to health, are likely to engage less frequently in tattooing and piercing.” The health behavior questionnaires were completed by 108 tattooed and/or pierced individuals. No significant relationships were found between healthy behaviors, health value, and the number of tattoos or piercings. So the people had healthy values. Now, as related to cultural prejudice, or perhaps the lingering medical prejudice or the government prejudice, I might say, because this was a pamphlet that I think was published by the government. A relatively recent brochure on HIV and hepatitis, published in 2002, stated that tattooing and body piercing is the third leading cause of hepatitis C transmission. However, the pamphlet lists no evidence for this assertion. And I don’t think there is evidence for this assertion in the medical literature, real evidence that comes from empirical research. And yet it’s in a government pamphlet. So people are willing to accept this as being true when there isn’t evidence for it – so keep that in mind. Evidence is very important. That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to go to a very clean place, which I’m now going to talk about, because of course every time – I’m going to say this again – that your skin is pierced by anything, you can get some kind of infection from it.

Here are my conclusions. There appears to be no question that more and more young people are making the decision to acquire body art every year. And some people who are in their fourth, fifth, and even sixth decades are following suit! Just check out Miami Ink, on the Learning Channel, and you’ll see all kinds of people getting tattoos. And by the way, there was a study on career women that shows that they are getting tattoos and body piercings in larger numbers than anybody ever thought.

Although tattooing and, to a lesser extent, piercing, has been associated with some potentially self-destructive and risky behaviors, this seems to be far less the case in younger, educated individuals who now appear to be the largest growing patrons of body art. And there’s also a lot more acceptance of body art, both tattooing and piercing, by the general population, who themselves may not be getting these kinds of body modifications, but seem to be approving of them or accepting of them. People who do get these kinds of body modifications are more unconventional and show an increased likelihood for engaging in some kinds of risk-taking behaviors. They do appear to have some higher levels of some sexual behaviors, but with regard to personality variables and religiosity, they are in general little different from their unmodified undergraduate peers. And their sexual behavior which is risky is not really at very high levels. It is different, significantly different, but not really at much higher levels than the general population.

It has been said by a number of researchers and clinicians studying Western cultures’ increasing trend of body modification that common themes include image management, sexual expression, sexual enhancement, individualism, and the celebration or commemoration of important events in people’s lives. If image management includes beautification, which I think it does, then I think that all of these are pretty important, and, I think, real reasons that people do this, based upon the research that has been done so far. I hope there’s going to be a lot more research, because I think this is a very interesting new trend in people’s behavior. And if it helps a person to express their independence and coming of age, or their triumph over hardship or a traumatic experience, or a very happy experience – which seems to be a major theme, again, on Miami Ink – or permits a person to reclaim their sexuality, then it is a very simple therapeutic or celebratory tool.

Again, my advice – like with piercing – is to take time to consider your decision, because at least with tattooing, it’s a very permanent decision and very expensive to undo, if you want to undo it. And make sure you go to a professional practitioner who uses sterile technique with sterile tools and sterile ink. Any activity that pierces your skin puts you at risk for infection, so it’s your responsibility to make sure that you are careful to be at the lowest risk possible. And a professional with years of experience is who you want.

As always, your questions must be answered. You’ve got to think of the questions you want answered – you can go on the internet to find out what questions you should ask, go to friends who have already done it and interview them to find out what you need to know. Don’t be satisfied if you don’t get your questions answered. If they’re not answered to your satisfaction, get up and leave. Don’t be embarrassed – it’s your body, it’s your health that’s at question here. So get up and leave, like you should do in a doctor’s office if you’re not happy with the physician – he’s not God! Leave, if you’re not happy, and find another practitioner who makes you feel safe. Recommendations from family and friends are always a good idea. Remember, take care of yourself. Whatever you do in life, and in your sexual life, and in your social life, and in your personal life, you are the one that needs to care for yourself.

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