My right ear has been mutilated by my own hand.Once,it had three holes in it,starting at the lower end of my lobe and work- ing up in succession.The first came by way of a piercing gun in a mall; the second two by way of ice, a sewing needle, and some adolescent courage. The first hole is still in use, albeit rarely,due to my life as mother and caretaker of small children. The second has closed from lack of use,and the third has torn out and become a split,disrupting the uniform curvature of my upper lobe.
This is partly because of the poor piercing and the use and abuse of weighty, gaudy ’80s earrings. These markings took place during my adolescent rebellion in eighth grade at an upper- class-to-wealthy Catholic grade school quavering in its orthodoxy. The nuns were gone, but the lay teachers would still look askance at an ear with more than one earring. Adorning oneself in such a way harkened back to our pagan beginnings; at the very least, it was countercultural.
Reflecting back, I wish I hadn’t done it. We were silly girls, up late, blowing off homework, desperate to grab onto some meaning. The only thing I garnered was numbness — literal and figurative — and a scarred earlobe. Now, 15 years later, with an explosion of body piercing on the youth-culture scene — a culture far more edgy than it was in my day — I wonder what their reasons are
Jeffrey Fagan, also known as Dr. Jefe, owns two body-piercing shops in San Diego, one in Ocean Beach and one in North Park/University Heights. He offers me some answers.“There are a lot of reasons why people get pierced. You have your younger crowd, who are doing it as a rebellious type of thing or because it’s cool; you have your people who like to wear jewelry and adorn their bodies; and to many people, getting a piercing is something that can be spiritual or really meaningful. A lot of times, I hear, ‘I’ve been wanting to do it for years. I finally just worked up my nerve to get it done.’ Or,‘I broke up with my boyfriend, he never wanted me to do it, and now I’m gonna do it.’ Or, ‘It’s my birthday. I’m turning 40 years old and marking it.’”
Fagan tells me that when he got divorced, he got a piercing; he says his piercings give him strength.“When I’m having a problem with myself, having an inner struggle, I remember getting a piercing, why and when I got that piercing, what part of my life is in that piercing, and what kind of release it was to get that piercing.”
Brandon, a 19-year-old counter clerk at Pannikin, echoes some of Fagan’s sentiments.
“My first pierce was my ear at 13. I was rebelling. I did it with a safety pin, let it close, and later repierced it with a drapery needle. I did my tongue because it was the cool thing to do at the time, but when I was older — well, sometimes, when you’re going through a hard time in your life, to go and get a pierce at the moment, the pain, it just clears your head. It helps you get through. It’s a permanent reminder that you survived, that you made it.”
Marie, a friend of Fagan’s, wears a tiny, delicate silver stud in her nose. “I have piercings in my nose, tongue, nipple, navel, and genitals started learning about piercing, reading different magazines, looking up Gray’s Anatomy, Clemente’s Anatomy, learning a little more about the body. I even went to a school out of Sacramento, the Michael Hare Exotic Body Piercing School. It was a good school for learning, very basic.
“I started doing piercings out of my house for about a year and a half before I opened up my store. People at parties and clubs were telling me there was a market for it, so I sold a motorcycle, maxed out my American Express card, took a cash advance on my Visa, and maxed out another card, because I believed the idea was going to work. When we first opened, we did only basic piercings. We wouldn’t do any genital piercing — I didn’t have the proper training. It’s very important to understand the anatomy, especially in the genital area. I mean, ruining somebody for life is a possibility if you have no clue what you’re doing.”
Fagan tells me all of his piercers have a minimum six years’ piercing experience and a thorough knowledge of ster- ilization techniques. Every day the piercing tools are soaked in an ultrasonic cleaner filled with maidacide, a hospital disinfectant, for ten minutes. This kills any bacteria. Then they are hand-washed, rinsed, and packaged in sterile bags. The tools and any jewelry that will be used are put into an autoclave, a sterilization machine, and cooked at 275 degrees for 15 minutes to get rid of any residual bacteria. Fagan adds, “We buy brand- new needles all the time. We never reuse a needle. Dropping a needle in a bottle of alcohol is not going to kill the hepatitis or the HIV. Hepatitis can live on the surface of something for up to two weeks. Alcohol is not going to clean it off; that’s why you need the autoclave.” All the jewelry used in initial piercings is made from surgical steel.
The emphasis on body awareness and health is reassuring, especially to a mother, but I wonder if such cleaned-up rebellion is really rebellion. “Sure,” answers Fagan. “These are smart people. They’re rebelling, and they’re doing it the right way. I mean, they could very easily do it at home, do it the wrong way, do it dirty, get an infection. I decided to open up an establishment where people can do the things they want to do in a safe environment, so I’m not hurting people, and they’re not hurting themselves.”
Fagan says the most common pierces are done in the tongue, the nose, and the navel. “Ninety-five percent of navel piercings are obtained by women, because it’s a cute pierce. And you can always get great jewelry for it — something subtle, just to look sexy. But it’s important to suit the piercing to the person, whether it’s the size of the ball or the type of stone. In navel piercing, some girls might like large balls because they’re a bigger girl, and they want it to be seen. Very dainty girls like something a little smaller.
“It’s also important to get the right kind of jewelry for the pierce in there. Curved barbells tend to be the easiest piercing to get, because 90 percent of that jewelry is inside of your body. But with a hoop or a circular barbell, only about one-third of that jewelry is in your body. The other two-thirds is out there to be hit by all the elements — like your jeans, shirt, or just the air — and collect bacteria. Your body is secreting fluids from the pierced area that harden and form a scab, and these fluids also harden onto the jewelry. When jewelry, like a hoop, rotates freely, the dried plasma, or the crusties that have formed onto the jewelry, go into your piercing and scratch it.” And once it gets scratched, it can get infected. The danger lessens with time, as the skin forms a protective epidermal track — a skin tube — around the jewelry, just as it would around an ear piercing.
“Getting a tight stud in there might also be a problem, because when you’re cleaning it, you’re not able to extract it and move it around. When you have a barbell, you can slide it up and down. You’re able to clean the upper 50 percent, push it down through the skin, extract the other 50 percent, and clean that. Some people may need longer, curved barbells, like a half-inch, while others only need three-eighths.”
But not everyone seeking navel adornment leaves with it.“We turn people away all the time. Some women come in and want their navel done. If they’re too heavyset, they might have thicker skin or less of a lip, and the way the stomach will fold or sit may create a problem for the piercing to breathe, causing a kind of stagnation. Then it won’t heal properly. Or, if they’re too skinny, and they have a flat stomach with no lip on their navel, the body might reject the piercing and push it out.
“There’s a lot of things [said] about navel piercing, like, ‘Oh, they get infected all the time. They’re problematic.’ Well, they can be, if somebody is pierced who shouldn’t be. The old school was: you pierce deep. But if you pierce deep, it takes a long time to heal. There’s a fine line between too deep and not deep enough. When it’s not deep enough, the surface layers over the jewelry can actually lose the circulation of blood and turn into a scab — the jewelry will fall out. But when it’s deep...the more meat you go through, the longer it takes to heal. It’s like a steak cooking. The thinner the steak, the quicker it will cook; the thicker it is, the longer it will take.”
I wonder also about the pain. Piercing all those sensitive body parts seems like it could be torturous. “Piercings are not very painful,” Fagan assures me.“They don’t even take one second to get, for the most part. You feel either a quick burn or a little body rush, like getting a shot but without the liquid get- ting injected into you, which is what really hurts.” Marie adds, “I think it’s the apprehension before you go in that’s the hardest. You’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I wonder if this is going to hurt.’ But it’s so quick...”
Mark, a client of Fagan’s who has piercings in his tongue, ears, nipples, and penis, jumps in.“It’s really quick, really efficient. It’s not like they’re grinding or drilling it into you. My first genital pierce was through the foreskin. That hurt quite a bit; it was probably the worst of all the piercings, but it was a brief pain. My nipple piercings were a little sore. I didn’t sleep too well that night, because I rolled over on them.”
Fagan goes up and down the pain scale for me. “The most painful pierces are through the cartilage in your upper ear, because cartilage is basically one stage down from bone. But the tongue is absolutely minimal pain; it’s nothing to get it done. It’s a very simple piercing. What we do is go through what’s called the median of the lin- gua, the center of the tongue, which is pretty much lacking everything like arteries and such. But what will happen is, 24 to 48 hours later, you will start to receive some swelling and soreness. That’s why we start people out with a longer barbell, so it will accommodate your swelling.
“One of the things we tell people is, when your pierce is healed, come in and get a shorter barbell, because when it’s long, it flops around in the mouth. A person may play with it a lot and wear the enamel off his teeth, or it could cause gum deterioration. But if you shorten the barbell, you still have a piece of jewelry in there, and it will still be effective during oral sex for cli- toral stimulation. Also, you reduce the risk of problems like slurred speech or others I mentioned.”
The willingness to run a piece of metal through your tongue for the sake of greater stimulation reflects a deep devotion to the sensual world, a devotion exceeded perhaps only by those willing to pierce their most sensitive organs — their genitalia. Fagan backs me up. “To be perfectly honest with you, it’s for stimulation purposes.”
Which is not to say that the barbell is a magic bead. “People ask,‘Will it really make me that much better in bed?’ My answer to them is, ‘No, it’s probably just going to make them feel a little bit more.’ If you don’t know what you’re doing now, it’s not going to make you know what you’re doing.‘When I get my tongue pierced, is it really that much more sensitive for my girlfriend when I’m having oral sex with her?’ Well, of course, the ball is a much smaller object; it can really manipulate the clitoris better. But if you don’t know what you’re doing anyway, it’s not going to make a difference. Some people come in and they get things done because they think that it’s going to make a dif- ference: they have a short tongue, and their girlfriend wanted them to get it pierced because they thought it might work better. So they get it done for that particular reason only: ‘I only got it done because my girlfriend wanted me to do it.’”
But then it might not help?
“It won’t make it worse, but it might not solve their problems.”
Besides enhancing more conventional practices, piercing can open new horizons. “I have a nipple piercing,” says Fagan.“I was always intrigued by the fact that women had such sensitivity in their nipples. Men do, too, but men just don’t really know how to bring it out; it has a mental aspect. I was intrigued by the fact that when I would kiss a woman’s breast, she would moan, enjoy it. When I found out that a male nipple piercing makes it more sensitive, I decided to feel what it was like. If a woman could enjoy it so much, then maybe I could, too. It’s about sensitizing your body so you can feel better while you’re touching yourself or making love with your partner.” Further, “It’s also a self-esteem booster. I’ve never met a gentleman who has a genital pierce who hasn’t been more proud of it, showed it off, and had more confidence.”
Along the confidence line, he explains to me how piercings can help women with inverted nipples.“Women with inverted nipples are usually bothered by them, because it’s a self-conscious thing. And when a woman is in bed, and she’s feeling uncomfortable about that particular thing, it may disenable her to climax.
“The problem with the inverted nipple is that the ten- don that the nipple is attached to sometimes doesn’t stretch enough in order for the nip- ple to come out, or it’s underdeveloped. So we pierce it with a straight barbell in order to pull it out and stretch the ten- don, so that it becomes relaxed. Since the barbell is straight, it can’t be sucked in. We couldn’t use a hoop, because it would be sucked back by the ten- don, and the hoop would sit outward and just stand out. It would get caught on things and be in the way all the time.”
Mark explored genital piercing on the Internet, and it intrigued him.“I thought it was cool. I decided to try something different. I surprised my girlfriend. At first, she freaked out and thought I was crazy. I told her to keep an open mind, and when she got used to the idea, she kind of got turned on.” What’s the sensation like? “I haven’t had a chance to really experiment yet as far as having sex, because the pierce in my penis is still healing. But the idea of it excites me. Like right now, I’m walking around, and I hear a little jingle once in a while, because I have rings in my scrotum that I call the Ladder of Truth. This is a little turn-on for me. I’ve got a little secret, and people don’t know.” Marie chimes in, referring to her pierced nipple, “The sensation is wonderful, and it’s kind of a secret little thing, which adds to the erotic quality of it.”
Curious for intimate detail, I push for more information. Fagan tells me,“Usu- ally, with genital piercing, it’s the female who receives more pleasure, and when a man knows he’s doing a good job getting his woman off, he knows that she’s going to reciprocate. Also, some piercings tickle when you’re having intercourse. They could tickle the male — it could be a urethra tickle, depending on the piercing. It may tickle different parts of your partner. I don’t want to say male or female, because not everybody is straight. Male genital piercings work on other males; it stimulates the prostate gland.”
What exactly have these men had done to their penises? Fagan gives four examples, though more exist. “Well, there’s the ampallang, which goes straight across the entire head of the penis, through the urethra. That can take a year to heal.” From the pictures he shows me, the jewelry used for this pierce is usu- ally a barbell. “Then there is the Prince Albert, which loops from the underside of the penis through the urethra, coming out the opening. Then you have a frenum, which is in the same area as a Prince Albert — the soft tissue right below the corona of the penis gland.” Those latter two are the most common, “but you can also do a piercing straight down the shaft, going vertically through the penis.”
Fagan tells me a frenum piercing might bring more inner wall stimulation to one’s partner, while a ReSearch book on
Modern Primitives that he shows me offers this about the Prince Albert: “The Prince Albert, called a ‘dressing ring’ by Victorian haberdashers, was originally used to firmly secure the male genitalia in either the left or right pant leg during that era’s craze for extremely tight, crotch-binding trousers, thus minimizing the man’s natural endowment. Legend has it that Prince Albert wore such a ring to retract his foreskin and thus keep his member sweet-smelling so as not to offend the Queen. Today its function is strictly erotic, providing the ultimate in sexual pleasure to men of both persuasions.” Depending on the piercing, healing can take anywhere from three months to a year.
We move on to what the women use to adorn their pearly gates. “What women usually get done is a hood piercing. You’re piercing the skin above the clitoris, not the clitoris itself. This causes direct stimulation to the clitoris; it takes two to four weeks to heal.” Fagan emphasizes that he doesn’t pierce the clitoris because “it has about 6000 nerves, and if you hit that thing, you’re going to ruin it. It’s going to die. That’s why we won’t do it. People do get it done, but I personally believe it’s a risky piercing.”
What else do the girls go for? “We do a labia minora or a labia majora piercing — the inner and outer layers of skin. The inner labia is the softer, thinner tissue that leads to the vaginal orifice. This thinner tissue goes upward in a very thin line of skin that’s going to surround the clitoris, called the frenula. That’s where you do your hood piercing. The outer labia are mostly pierced for looks. I’ve even gotten requests for two piercings in the inner labia, so that when their men go overseas, they can put a little padlock on it.