Body mods

Photo by Atikh Bana on Unsplash

“My body modification is a form of my sexuality for certain,” says Amanda, a former body piercer. “Allowing another person to permanently alter my body is a form of submission (with consent) and was a great release to heal emotional pain and to recapture a sense of sexuality lost after the ending of a partnership. 

“After a breakup or on a partnerless Valentine’s Day I’d opt for pain in the form of a tattoo or piercing to purge myself of heartbreak by giving the emotional pain a physical form and ending,” she says, adding “the pain/pleasure aspect is addictive and intoxicating.”

Almost all of Amanda’s ink is located “in sexual places – or are placed to accentuate female curves.” And while the aesthetics of her body art are intended to elicit the desire of others, she adds that “My hood piercing is 100% sexual and for me – not a partner.”

Body modifications can be found in every culture and are often used to demarcate passage into adulthood and group affiliation, according to the “Encyclopedia of Body Adornment.” Whether it’s a tattoo, piercing, scar, silicone injection, body hair removal, lip plate or teeth whitening, a body mod tells a story of who we are as social beings. 

As Michel Thevoz said, “”There is no body but the painted body.”

Every aesthetic choice we make can be read as an indicator (to ourselves and to others) about who we are and what we value. For generations, body mods like tattooing and piercings were interpreted in American culture as transgressive, a means of rebellion and reclamation of the body. As such, they’ve been a part of queer, kinky, and trans sub-cultures, a visible way of showing that a person chooses not to assimilate to bourgeois mainstream culture

What does the research say about sexual behaviors of people with tattoos and piercings? Several studies have found that, among young people, the presence of body mods is associated with having sex earlier. Other studies have found that while modded-up folks might have sex earlier and hold more open-minded attitudes toward sex in general, they are NOT more likely to be sexual minorities or survivors of abuse, nor are they more likely to engage in risky sexual activity. 

“I’d say tattoos and body mods helped identify more open-minded alternative folks,” says Rachel, who says she has sat for over 52 hours of tattoos over her life. “But since societal norms have changed, I don’t think that rings as true anymore unless you happen to be in a more conservative part of the country.”

Rachel is a fan of both body modifications and kink. That convergence is common – given there’s some overlap, not the least of which is an endorphin rush. She says that there’s a degree of similarity between getting penetrated by a needle and engaging in BDSM. “I have noticed a similar pain/pleasure dynamic, but without the sexual charge. Pain from the ink, the soothing feeling when there’s a pause and the artist does a Vaseline wipe mid process and the final wipe and wrap.” 

Theorists have also pointed out BDSM is in and of itself a form of resistance and subversion from mainstream culture. Kinky practices and fetish play allow people to get away from genital-focused, orgasm-oriented, heterocentric ideas of sexuality.

Rachel clarifies, “It’s definitely different than the sub space from a BDSM scene or play time….It’s not the same level of intimacy. It’s a small power exchange no doubt as you’re trusting someone to modify your person.”

Fellow kinkster Jessica finds convergence in her love of body mods and of BDSM. “One of my piercings was done as part of a collaring ceremony,” she says, referring to a commitment celebration practiced by some Doms and subs. “While it’s also a pretty major aesthetic thing, having it done was very much part of a BDSM thing. Also, obviously, it was done with informed consent of everyone involved, I didn’t just randomly go to a piercer and involve them in a scene.”

This distinction is significant for many people who enjoy both getting body mods and playing with kink. The professionalism of a tattoo artist or piercer that is required for a safe and hygienic business is going to mean there’s a degree of formality and less of a sense of emotional closeness. 

Some folks with these dual interests have taken to tattooing each other as a form of physical intimacy. In the most gruesome, extreme cases of BDSM like the practice of Feris Tergo, a dominatrix might enlist the assistance of a professional tattooer or piercer during the scene. According to Mistress Sophia, Feris Tergo is Latin and translates roughly to “the most brutal” and in such a scene she “orchestrates unrelenting tours of torture intended to violate the body’s integrity and leave indelible physical and psychological marks.”

She says of these scenes, “The project is like a ritual but not just a pain ritual – it’s about trust, connection, and enjoying letting yourself go. Everyone is purely themselves, thinking about nothing other than what is happening in the moment.

“It’s satisfying to be in the moment, to forget all your problems and just enjoy. It’s not about the pain, it’s about feeling alive and letting yourself go.”

But not everyone enjoys the pain component of a body modification. For some, tattoos can be a means of reclaiming the body after assault or intimate partner violence. Some artists even offer their services for free to survivors, to cover up scars or other remnants of abuse.

“For many, it’s purely about the aesthetics, whether for themselves, partners or finding like-minded others. In some instances, these permanent adornments are an important part of conveying identity. 

“I came out June 6th as nonbinary trans, but before that I came out to myself about 4.5 years ago,” says Bri from Philly. “Around 6 months later, I started HRT [hormone replacement therapy] and started stretching my ears. I know this isn’t inherently gendered to most but, for me it was. I also started getting tattooed after I came out publicly.”

They added, “I’m glad I waited to get tattooed because I probably would have felt pressure to get a bunch of masculine-looking tattoos. I’m really glad I’m not covered head to toe in tribal armbands right now.”

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  • Timaree Schmit Headshot

    Timaree Schmit is basically an episode of Adam Ruins Everything, but in the shape of a person. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality Education and years of experience in community organizing, performance art, and finding the extra weird pockets of Philly.

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