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Body piercing is a type of body modification often compared to and grouped with tattooing. It uses a gun or needle to create a hole in various parts of the body, into which decorative materials such as metal rings and pieces of wood or bone are inserted. The most popular body part for piercing is the ear, as demonstrated by its popularity among people in Africa, India, Indonesia, and North and South America. Other areas of the body that commonly are pierced include the face, mouth, nipples, navel, and genitals. Facial piercings include the lip, tongue, labret (beneath the lip), nostril, septum, and eyebrow. Male genital piercings include the ampallang (horizontal bar through the penis head), dydoe (bar through the ridge of the penis head), foreskin (ring through end of foreskin), apadravya (vertical bar through penis head), frenum (bar through skin on the underside of penis shaft, below head), guiche (under scrotal sac near anus), Prince Albert (through urethra opening to bottom of penis head), and hafada (through scrotal skin). Female genital piercings include the clitoris, fourchette (over the perineum from the bottom of the vaginal opening), and labia.

Because of its connection with rites of initiation, piercing is embraced most commonly by adolescents, but adults also modify their bodies with piercing for its aesthetic or sensual appeal. Women were once a minority among the largely male population of body modifiers, but the practice has become more common within both sexes. As of the year 2000, approximately 50 percent of the pierced population was female. Motivations for body piercing include group affiliation, aesthetic appeal, rites of passage, individuation, shock value, fashion trends, and sensual enhancement. Many people argue that piercing, similar to other forms of body modification, reestablishes a connection between mind and body in modern industrial cultures that privilege mental work over physical activity.


Piercing has been practiced since ancient times in diverse cultures. Ancient Maya, Aztec, and other Mesoamerican cultures practiced nose, tongue, ear, and lip piercing. Biblical stories from the Old Testament indicate that nose and ear piercing were common practices in the Middle East (see Genesis 24:22). In India, nose piercing has been common since the sixteenth century. More recently, in Victorian England, many women pierced their nipples to enhance both sensation and the roundness and appearance of the nipple and breast. In the 1970s body piercing was embraced by various groups outside of mainstream culture, including the punk culture in Europe and North America and the homosexual culture of California. Starting in the late 1970s, the punk movement began using safety pins and other common objects to pierce and mark themselves as members of this counterculture. Similar to leather clothes and tattoos, piercing in the gay and BDSM sexual communities (practitioners of bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and/or sadomasochism) signifies an enhanced emphasis on sexuality and sensuality in all aspects of one's life. It also continues to mark pierced individuals as not subscribing to mainstream or corporate standards of appearance. The art of piercing in North America and Europe fully began in the 1980s, when Doug Malloy and others standardized the ancient practice with the use of stainless steel materials and specific, hygienic processes. Beginning in the 1990s, piercing became increasingly popular among celebrities and more common on fashion runways.


Genital piercings have functioned historically as means of both enforcing chastity and enhancing sexual pleasure. Labia piercing rings can be used as chastity belts, linking together to prohibit penetration. Likewise, the male genital piercing of the frenum has been used to prevent copulation by the addition of a padlock inserted through the ring. Genital piercing can also enhance pleasure of the area pierced. Women with pierced nipples and clitorises note much higher sensitivity in those areas, and men with Prince Albert piercings and other penile piercings also experience increased pleasure during intercourse. While the Prince Albert is the most pleasurable genital piercing for men, other options such as the ampallang and the dydoe also enhance the experience for their sexual partners. In fact, the ampallang, a piercing practice begun in the areas surrounding the Indian Ocean, makes such a difference that women have been known to specify the size ampallang a man wears during intercourse or deny sex altogether to men without this piercing.

In addition to sexual uses, genital piercings also have symbolic meanings. Such piercings can compete with finger rings as symbols, so women receive labia piercings and men receive frenum piercings at the same appointment. Such piercings can also symbolize ownership or belonging; for example, a submissive woman may have a labia piercing that marks her as belonging to a certain partner. In some countries, female genital piercing is taking the place of female circumcision, satisfying the requirements of ritual bloodshed without the accompanying health risks and loss of sensation that clitoridectomies produce.


Caplan, Jane, ed. 2000. Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lloyd, J. D., ed. 2003. Body Piercing and Tattoos. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.

Vale, V., and Andrea Juno, eds. 1989. Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment and Ritual. San Francisco: Re/Search Publications.

Wojcik, Daniel. 1995. Punk and Neo-Tribal Body Art. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

                                           Michelle Veenstra