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March 1993

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1993 by William A. Henkin

<Q> What are the psychological reasons people pierce their genitals, tongues, etc?

<A> Your question implies that piercing has a psychological basis, and while I am inclined to agree that all behavior includes psychology, I am not sure that the psychological explanation is always the best. Let's look at options.

Jim Ward, founder of Gauntlet, says that most people who come into his stores for piercings do so for the aesthetics: they simply like the way pierced body jewelry looks. The second most common reason is the magical or mystical belief that a piercing attracts, dispells, or in some other way directs energy to promote a good effect, such as healing, or to diminish a bad one, such as illness.

Aesthetics, of course, are up to you – beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But a concern with all sorts of energy underlies most magical and mystical belief systems, including nearly all religions. Since these piercings certainly seem to have caught your eye, people who are pierced for magical or mystical reasons might say they have successfully directed your visual energy.

So also might practitioners of acupuncture. While most Western studies have not indicated that acupuncture is the cure-all it was touted to be 20 years ago, others have found it effective in relieving some kinds of distress for reasons that remain unclear to Western medicine. People experienced with acupuncture assert that when they pierce the body at specific points along energy meridians that correspond to different organs of the body and their functions, they rebalance a person's energy centers; it is this energy rebalancing, they say, that effects relief, and some people wear piercing jewelry for the same sort of reason.

The mystical belief in channeling energy underlies shamanic piercings and the movement that favors them, which contemporary piercing pioneer Fakir Musafar named Modern Primitive. Here, piercing is not only an emblem by which members of a sub-cultural tribe can recognize one another, it also has the symbolic and energetic meanings of claiming some part or aspect of a person's life: a tongue piercing may remind the wearer of her relationship to communication (talking) or to sustenance (eating), for instance.

Some people get genital piercings for similar reasons: to reclaim a sexuality they feel was stolen from them by molest, rape, or bashing, or simply by growing up in a society that denied their sexuality. Genital piercing can be a way of saying, This part of my body is mine again. Genital piercings are also common in parts of the SM community, where some Masters and Mistresses may pierce their slaves (or have them pierced by more knowledgeable piercers) to demonstrate ownership of their property. And many people with genital and nipple piercings claim the piercings greatly enhance their feelings of erotic stimulation.

Both shamanic and claiming or reclaiming piercings may be highly spiritual, and may involve a process of associating with a god, goddess, or other higher power. Raelyn Gallina, a professional piercer and cutter in the San Francisco area, says most of her clients come to her for spiritual reasons, to engage in rituals of transformation as they move from one stage of their lives to another.

Certainly there are people who pierce or cut themselves for less lofty reasons than the ones I've mentioned. But even the forms of piercing and cutting that Western psychiatry usually regards as self-mutilation may not be what they seem. Several cutters I knew in a psychiatric milieu, for example, told me that when they cut or pierced themselves they felt great relief from pressures that had built up inside them; psychiatrists had been unable to do as much, and they were using their own methods to feel better, not to feel worse. These people may not have practiced piercing for the usual aesthetic, shamanic, or erotic reasons, and they may well have been emotionally troubled; yet sometimes they, too, saw the possibility that piercing could represent a rite of passage from one plateau in life to another.

As usual, there can be many reasons for one behavior, and you may find some appealing and others appalling. Everyone who is pierced has his own reason for the piercing, so if you really want to know why the guy down the block has that ring in his septum, ask him.

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