Point #61: “Left is Right, Right is Wrong:” An Examination of Body Piercing, Deviant Subculture, and Contemporary Connotations

By Nancy Napolitano


Customer: I’d like to get an earlobe piercing.
Me: Fantastic! What side would you like to pierce? I suggest the side
you sleep on the least to facilitate healing.
Customer: Um, well, I don’t know; just don’t pierce ‘the gay side’.
Me: What gay side?
Customer: You know, pierce the ‘good’ side…’cause…you know…I’m not gay.
Me: Well sir, how about this: we’ll pierce the side you think will look
best and then, if you get a sudden urge to put a cock in your
mouth, we’ll take it out and pierce the other side!

The dialogue above is a personal anecdote, and reflects a scenario that I have to deal with sometimes more than once daily in my line of work as a body piercer. Although newcomers to this industry may not understand the sarcasm and frustration of my reaction, this is an especially contentious issue for me as I am extremely passionate about the history of body piercing in America; one that is immersed in queer subcultures and alleged sexual deviance. This essay will present a history of body piercing in America in order to frame my arguments about the evolution (or demise) of this subculture, its past meanings and the ways in which the heterosexual, conservative majority has absorbed and redefined those meanings to accommodate a certain level of normalcy, or to render them appropriate. I will also cover the problematic way in which piercing has been used to construct and perpetuate heteronormative views of gender and to control sexual agency. “[…] The groups that had major roles in shaping the [body modification] movement in the 1980s and 1990s [included] cyberpunks, SM gays, radical queers, leatherdykes and other radical women [who, roughly speaking, were a] white, gay-friendly, […] pro-sex, educated and politically articulate set of people,” (Pitts, 2003: 12-14). Given this fact, the anecdote I provided becomes incredibly ironic and altogether frustrating for people who hold body modification dear and who appreciate the erotic/sexual origins of this practice in North America. The idea of getting a piercing to subvert the initial subversion, or to impose certain acceptable limitations on an act of body modification that divorces it from its history truly exemplifies Dick Hebdige’s theory of “recuperation” of deviant subculture by the masses (Hebdige, 1979: 93-95).

History: Doug Malloy, Jim Ward & Other Perverts
There are two schools of thought when it comes to body modification in the West; one can be described as the Modern Primitive movement “emphasizing the spiritual and ritual meanings,” of modification (Angel, 2009: 14) arguably pioneered by Fakir Musafar 1. and the other which was “more visceral, […] modern, [and] emphasizes the use of piercing […] for pleasure, pain and rebellion,” (Angel, 2009: 14). While the former cannot be fully isolated from the latter, they did much of their development separately and the focus of this essay will be on the latter. As piercing pioneer Elayne Angel mentions in her book, “The field of body piercing as we currently know it would be quite different, or perhaps nonexistent, without the involvement and commitment of a group of gay SM enthusiasts in California,” (Angel, 2009: 15).

Photo by Phillipe LeRoyer.

Photo by Phillipe Leroyer

Doug Malloy (born Richard Simonton in 1915) was a man who claims he was born a “piercing freak”. He recounts his earliest encounters with piercings as a child being fascinated by women’s pierced lobes, and later as an adolescent researching through issues of National Geographic to learn of indigenous piercing rituals. After it was implied in an article he read that men of a certain tribe pierced their genitals, Doug took it upon himself to experiment and wrote, “[…] I found a glass-headed corsage pin that I stuck through the skin of my balls. Wow, that was a thrill, and it really didn’t hurt much. Besides, it looked good on my skin. Saturday night was bath night, and my corsage pin got the same workout I did. My mother couldn’t understand why it took me so long to take a bath.” As a university student, Doug came to know a group of men who also sported genital piercings and throughout his student career he acquired a Prince Albert piercing and two dydoe piercings performed by fellow students with crude objects like sewing needles and thick twine. He openly bragged, “I’d get laid three times a Saturday night without half trying. [Those] gold rings were wild!” and referred to his genital piercings as companions that provided him a little something extra in the sack. Throughout his adult life, Doug accumulated significant wealth and in 1975, he met fellow piercing aficionado Jim Ward, whom he would support financially in order to open the very first piercing establishment in the United States, The Gauntlet. In Ward’s book Running the Gauntlet, he describes how their first clients were mainly fellow members of the gay SM scene (Ward, 2011: 22-25); “The first groups to embrace body piercing as a modern lifestyle choice included gay men, BDSM practitioners, and others who used piercing as a profound means for expressing their alternative sexuality,” (Angel, 2009: 14). He mentions, “[In the mid 1970s]  unless you lived in a large urban area where diverse cultures converged, the only piercings you were likely to see were ear piercings or the rare nostril piercing, and then only on women. Any white male who dared have his ear pierced might just as well have had the word “GAY” tattooed on his forehead,” (Ward, 2011: 1). As a result of this inherently queer history, some piercees today fear that “being pierced may cause others to mistakenly believe they are homosexual or participate in the BDSM […] lifestyle;” (Angel, 2009: 9) a presumption that still seems to haunt heterosexual men!

Piercing & Deviant Bodies
When body piercing was in its infancy, due to the nature of clientele piercings were not usually visible and, in fact, when the Gauntlet first opened, their flyers advertised nipple and genital piercings exclusively, with the exception of navel piercings 2. Motivations for these private piercings were very much about alternative sexuality, exploration of sexual pleasure, and even to signify a certain sexual identity.

Himachali woman — Photo by Ellen Reitman on Fotopedia

Himachali woman — Photo by Ellen Reitman on Fotopedia

Romanienko proposes that, “the primary message inherent in private body piercing is to indicate authentic orientation of sexual pleasure sought through intimacy […] in order to communicate commitment to the sexual pleasure of the self or others,” (Romanienko, 2011: 4). For example, an Apadravya piercing is an indicator that the piercee was willing to sustain a significant amount of pain for the greater benefit of his sexual partner which partially informs us about his sexual identity, where as the motivation for a clitoral hood piercing would be much more self-centred. Victoria Pitts elaborates that a given genital piercing can signify roles as pleasure giver or pleasure receiver (Pitts, 2003: 3). The act of piercing itself, including the anticipation, the pain, and the delicate healing process, can itself  be a source of arousal for the piercee; the idea that one could get off on the simple fact of having a piercing, and the way it looked or enhanced the body, like Doug Malloy. The theme of ameliorating the body physically, as well as using the body in order to create a self, was central to the rise of body piercing; it allowed piercees to reclaim ownership and control of their bodies and even “author their own identity” (Pitts, 2003: 16) through their bodies. (delete? as it is repeating what s said before the reference) In fact, Pitts argues that through body modification in general, the body itself has been politicized as a “primary site of social control and regulation” and a “ (remove there is no end for this set of quotations marks?)primary space to identify, label and manage the psyche (Pitts, 2003: 6, 36), echoing Foucault’s ideas of anatomo-politics of the human body, bio-control and sexual policing via pathology (Foucault, 1978). The perversion of the body through highly sexual piercings, or even the curiosity about creating sexually enhanced and sexually liberated bodies, was central to subverting conservative sexual traditions and to reclaim the self from the larger society’s perceived claim on it; “Gay, lesbian, transgendered and SM body modifiers have used [body piercing] as a form of ‘queering the body,’ rejecting mainstream culture and creating a sexually subversive ritual,” (Pitts, 2003: 15). The queer body would be transformed into a vehicle for piercees to reclaim power, push the limits of liberal tolerance, and “make visible the body’s potential for erotic pleasure,” (Pitts, 2003: 91) which would ultimately disrupt our heteronormative society.

Eventually, piercings became more visible, and began to be incorporated among disenfranchised youth fashions with the help of the alternative music industry (Pitts, 2003: 11). This more public form of body piercing was almost like an act of speech and served as a visual sign of communication among rebels and fetishists, but also as an demarcating emblem, “showing to the wider group that they were different,” (Lemma, 2010: 155). In fact, Doug Malloy is quoted saying, “I got in the habit of looking at the earlobes of people I met, even before looking into their faces. Usually, the earlobes told me more than the face. If the lobes had been tampered with, I wanted to know them better,” (Malloy, 1975). This is common through public subcultural symbols, be it through style of clothing or hair, or through body piercing. These symbols are crucial to connect the individual to the social world; they “are used to expedite the process of self-actualization […] and [their meanings] are shared among others in a system of common belief, understanding, and mutually reinforcing reciprocal communication,” (Romanienko, 2011: 2). On that note, there is no historical evidence that shows that piercing the right earlobe specifically was ever used as a form of communication or networking among gay males 3; this preconception just seemed to have developed among heterosexual males most probably because of piercings’ queer roots. In my opinion, it is almost as if a hetero-standard was created as a means to communicate, publish and reaffirm their own, broadly accepted, sexual orientation; it perpetuates this hypocritical desire to be slightly rebellious, but not quite exactly deviant. It fulfills an intrinsic need to dissociate from a subculture because of queer-fear, even though the original message was to encourage sexual open-mindedness.

Commodification & the Present State of Subculture
The fact that conservative, homophobic individuals would get pierced to begin with really puts into perspective the state of the body piercing subculture. Piercing as a fashion accessory rather than as a means of expression renders this practice victim to a capitalist, consumer economy as have been other subcultures, like the punk movement for example. There are two ways to look at this: as a professional who makes a living piercing people, this wider acceptance of body piercing can be seen as a kind of social win, and undoubtedly allows me to comfortably pursue a career doing something I love with the hopes of serving the occasional “piercing freak” (Malloy, 1975) here and there. Alternately, it can be seen as problematic because the symbols that were once used by the body piercing community to portray certain messages are rendered meaningless, and these original piercees are made to disappear into a sea of “followers of alternative fashion” (Pitts, 2003: 12); “Commercialization is an ambiguous process that forces body modification communities to define and reconsider the meanings of their practices,” (Pitts, 2003: 12). This loss of meaning or the literal assimilation of body piercing into mainstream fashion follows exactly as Dick Hebdige posits in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style. He explains subcultural deviance as contributing to a “fractured order” (Hebdige, 1979: 93) which, as Foucault argues, must be categorized and remedied (Foucault, 1978). Hebdige writes, “fractured order is repaired […] [by] the conversion of subcultural signs into mass-produced objects [and] the re-definition of deviant behaviour by dominant groups- the police, the media, the judiciary,” (Hebdige, 1979: 94). He quotes Barthes who also writes about these “ideological assimilation tactics,” claiming that the ‘other’ becomes “trivialized, naturalized, and domesticated,” (Barthes in Hebdige, 1979: 97). Is this wider acceptance of piercing beneficial? The fact that it is not uncommon now to see piercees from different classes and different walks of life is definitely interesting; however I think it has definitely created distinct groups within the subculture- those who get pierced because their favourite pop-star has the same piercing which dictates appeal, and those who get pierced to rebel against the mainstream norm, “push the limits of normative aesthetics” (Pitts, 2003: 12) or to promote a certain sexual openness.  Dylan Clark writes on the death of punk subculture, saying that the subculture died “when it became the object of social inspection […] and so amenable to commodification,” (Clark, 2003, 223), however I think the same can be said about body piercing: symbols are “stripped of [their] unwholesome connotations [and] the style becomes fit for public consumption,” (Hebdige, 1979: 130).

Gender Policing & Issues of Consent
Hebdige explains that in order to dissolve subculture, it must be redefined; in the case of body modification, this has also come to mean regulation by courts and insurance companies, which supports the Foucauldian idea that the “body is a pre-eminent site of political control, increasingly subject to surveillance,” (Birke, 1999: 33). Body modification has been at times equated to mental illness and has certainly found a place on the ever-growing list of perverse pathologies (Pitts, 2033: 17), but only after it crosses a certain line. An example (one that also is quite recurrent) is when a customer comes in to have his or her lobes stretched for the first time: I will explain different options and when I ask how big they intend to go, I have been returned with answers like, “Oh no, I just want small ones….those big lobes are disgusting” or “I want to keep them really small so that they will go back to normal when I don’t want them anymore.” These types of responses truly illustrate, for one, that there is a certain acceptable limit among mainstream society and that one can still be defiant through body modification if they were to surpass this scope of control. Secondly, the second style of response illustrates the loss of permanence, the lack of commitment and accentuates the idea that certain modifications are no more than a fleeting fashion trend for many.

The need to allow deviance within a certain reasonable limit will be illustrated in two examples: the 1987 Spanner Case, and the 2004 Georgia genital piercing ban. Operation Spanner was part of a police raid that occurred in London in 1987 that attempted to charge sixteen BDSM practitioners with assault and causing bodily harm (Angel, 1993: 15-16). Among these arrests was Alan Oversby, a major piercing figure in Europe. He was charged with “assault occasioning actual bodily harm” (Bibbings & Alldridge, 1993: 361) for piercing clients in his London clinic. Although many of the charges were dropped because some of those piercings we ruled to be decorative or purely aesthetic, he was convicted for assault causing bodily harm for piercing his lover’s penis (Bibbings & Alldridge, 1993: 361). What was at issue here was that piercings for sexual purposes were seen as a threat to social order, and their “erotic nature contributed to their illegality” (Bibbings & Alldridge, 1993: 361). This also raises the question of perverse pathology and sexual agency because, by convicting Alan Oversby, the courts essentially reaffirmed that no one in their right mind would allow their genitals to be pierced, or ‘mutilated’. A House of Lords representative is quoted saying, “[…] it is not in the public’s interest that people should try to cause […] eachother actual bodily harm […]. Sado-maochistic homosexual activity cannot be regarded as conducive to the enhancement of enjoyment of family life or conducive to the welfare of society […] Pleasure derived from the infliction of pain is an evil thing,” (Bibbings & Alldridge, 1993: 357). This fear of the sexual unknown echoes the mechanisms of control Foucault writes about in his first volume of The History of Sexuality. This court ruling also perpetuates the materialistic nature of subcultural symbols after they have been re-absorbed by society, by reaffirming that some piercings can be shown to be purely decorative, and therefore not deviant; “You can consent to a […] body piercing, provided it’s only for body decoration [but not for its sexual pleasure];” if it turns you on, it’s criminal! It becomes a wonder to imagine how exactly one can prove such a thing beyond a reasonable doubt; I have many clients whose genitals I’ve pierced in order to enhance their own opinion of themselves aesthetically; the sexual perks that results just happened to be an added bonus. As a result of Operation Spanner, another provision was adopted that extended the existing female genital mutilation laws in order to “protect women’s interest and sexual pleasure [by] preventing vaginal piercing,” (Bibbings & Alldridge, 1993: 362) – a provision that is altogether ironic when the most popular female genital piercings 4 contribute to enhanced erotic pleasure, and banning them would essentially be a disservice rather than a saving grace.

Operation Spanner should not be disregarded as an outdated example of our society’s sexual close-mindedness and what seems to be a fear of indulgence. In 2004, a bill was passed unanimously through Georgia’s House of Representatives banning female genital piercings only, claiming they represented a form of female genital mutilation and that this was a necessary measure to protect American women. It would be a law that would issue a two year prison sentence (and a maximum twenty year sentence) for any piercer who would perform these piercings, regardless of the woman’s consent. This paternalistic law literally overrides a woman’s right to freedom of choice, and shows that women should not have the right to their bodies nor express a subversive 5 sexual agency. As Shannon Larratt commented, this is a direct violation of privacy and is over-extending government reach to control something that has not, as of yet, seemed to create any kind of social or national crisis- it becomes an issue of queer bodies being socially patrolled (Pitts, 2003: 43). A point Elayne Angel tries to rationalize, “Our Western culture does not foster genital pride, so many people feel disconnected from their nether regions,” (Angel, 2009: 134) and I would elaborate that there is also a certain amount of fear associated with harnessing and indulging in one’s sexuality.

It is laws, or attempted laws, like these that have really tried to put a damper on the body piercing industry and really snuff out its erotic roots. I rarely do genital piercings compared to what our shop was doing a decade ago. People seem closed to the idea, and are generally not willing to make a minimal sacrifice of pain to render the body more pleasurable in the long-run; there is this inherent instinct to protect their genitals. I have penis and vagina prosthetics in my piercing room that show different genital piercing placements and the general reactions vary from cringing in pain, reeling in disgust, or questions like “who would do that?/why would anyone do that?” Questions I sometimes feel compelled to explain somewhat crudely along the lines of, “Have you ever fucked someone with a PA 6? You should look into it, you’re missing out,” to which my some of my clients return with awe-filled gaze.

Finally, I think this issue of consent as being dependent on degree of social deviancy is highly ironic. We rob consenting adult women of their right to chose for some greater good because, according to the masses, they seem to be making a wrong, perverse or unnatural choice in obtaining erotic piercings. On the other hand, we are happy to rob the right of consent from female infants, granting their voice to parents who require to earlobe piercings in order to perpetuate this heteronormative aesthetic that has been deemed okay. The idea of piercing a baby girls’ lobes to feminize her straight out of the womb is a modern construction of gender that is allowed to take place. When parents come into my shop to pierce infants, I kindly refuse and try to explain that piercing is an experience that the child should willingly look forward to and remember; it should not be about reinforcing their own insecurities about clearly differentiating their infant as female. Unfortunately they rarely understand this explanation. Nothing is more mortifying to me than hearing mothers say, “But look! Look how much prettier you are now,” in an attempt to calm down their clearly frightened and traumatized young child. The sheer idea of reinforcing this heterosexual aesthetic and literally violating a life because a parent was able to sign her choice away is awful, and comes to be pretty ironic considering that a grown adult has been, at times, not allowed to choose to pierce their own genitals willingly. There are other problematic issues that echo this gendered aesthetic or permissible sexuality. One of the major tattoo and body piercing insurance brokers in the United States allows shops to accept parental consent for minors for lobe piercings, nostril piercings and, more problematically, navel piercings. I cannot see how a navel piercing on a twelve year old girl is not promoting a type of promiscuous image, and yet genital piercing (something utterly private except in ideal circumstances), are made to be taboo. Body piercing has become a tool employed by the masses to contribute to gender construction, or as a means to produce gender in infants, which is completely contrary to the original, even gender-bending, messages of the past.

Body piercing has gone from a closeted practice, worn almost exclusively in the private regions of the body to something allowed to be made visible if only to serve heteronormative gender roles. Jim Ward writes, “I sometimes wonder if people into piercing today have any deep appreciation of the tremendous impact Doug Malloy has had on their lives,” (Ward, 2011: 22), and it is this exact question I ask myself every time I am faced with homophobic piercing requests that are based on misplaced preconceptions. Piercing, in itself, is a queer phenomenon so the idea of requesting a piercing to signify a straight normalcy is really ironic. As a body piercer, I take issue with the invasive attempts at governments to regulate our practices, and the way in which issues of consent are jeopardized and skewed to accommodate mass insecurities about gender identity and sexuality.

Works Cited

  1. Angel, Elayne. The Piercing Bible: The Definitive Guide to Safe Body Piercing. New York:
    Random House Inc., 2009. Print.
  2. Bibbings, Lois and Peter Alldridge. “Sexual Expression, Body Alteration, and the Defence
    of Consent.” Journal of Law and Society 20.3 (Autumn 1993): 356-370. Web.
  3. Birke, Linda. Feminism and the Biological Body. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,
    1999. Print.
  4. Clark, Dylan. “The Death and the Life of Punk, The Last Subculture.” The Post-Subcultures Reader (2003): 223-236. Web.“Classical subculture ‘died’ when it became the object of social inspection and nostalgia,  and when it became so amenable to commodification,” (Clark, 2003: 223)
  5. Fouccault, Michel. The History of Sexuality (Vol. 1). New York: Random House Inc., 1990.
  6. Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1979. Print.
  7. Larratt, Shannon. “Bill Heath: American Traitor.” BME: Tattoo, Piercing and Body
    Modification News. BMEZINE.COM, 25 Mar. 2004. Web. 10 Nov. 2011.
  8. Lemma, Alessandra. Under the Skin: A Psychoanalytic Study of Body Modification. New
    York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
  9. Malloy, Doug. “Piercing Freak.” Gauntlet Enterprises. BMEZINE.COM, 1975. Web. 10
    Nov. 2011.
  10. Pitts, Victoria. In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification. New York:
    Palgrave MacMillan, 2003. Print.
  11. Romanienko, Lisiunia A. Body Piercing and Identity Construction: A Comparative
    Perspective. New York: Pelgrave MacMillan, 2011. Print.
  12. “The Spanner Trust – History of the Spanner Case.” The Spanner Trust. Web. 10 Nov.
  13. “Tattoo Insurance and Body Piercing Insurance.” Professional Program Insurance
    Brokerage. PPIB, 2006-2009. Web. 8 Nov. 2011.
  14. Ward, Jim. Running the Gauntlet: An Intimate History of the Modern Body Piercing Movement. ReWard, 2011. Print.


  1. Although he is known as the father of the Modern Primitives movement (http://www.bodyplay.com/), he was also known for certain gender-bending modifications such as his corseted waist. This is just to show that there can certainly be some intermingling between the two schools of thought.
  2. At this time, navel piercings were not seen as a feminine fashion trend. The reason they were featured was because it was a common piercing men of certain tribes would get and it was justified as directing the eye “south.”(Ward, 2011: 28).
  3. I emailed Jim Ward myself some time ago to satisfy my own personal curiosity. He was unable to provide a definite answer as to why this preconception emerged.
  4. In my career, this would be a VCH.
  5. Subversive, as opposed to the sexual passivity women should display in a male-dominated society.
  6. Prince Albert piercing.

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