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Self-expression of interest: A brief look at extreme body modification

One of the more noticeable ‘extreme’ trends is that of body modification. Arguably the most common (and socially acceptable) forms of body modification are ear piercing and tattoos, followed by various other types of piercings (e.g., nipple piercings) and various types of plastic surgery (e.g., rhinoplasty [nose jobs] and breast augmentation [boob jobs]). More extreme types include foot binding, extreme corseting, branding, amputation, and genital cutting. Such types of actions are known as ‘acquired characteristics’ as they cannot be genetically passed on to the individuals’ children. As the body modification section of the Wikipedia entry on acquired characteristics notes:

“Body modification is the deliberate altering of the human body for any non-medical reason, such as aesthetics, sexual enhancement, a rite of passage, religious reasons, to display group membership or affiliation, to create body art, shock value, or self-expression. The frequency of occurrence depends on the location, extent, and number of modifications, and, perhaps most importantly, on the mind of each individual being asked to accept the modifications on another”.

In a recent issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Dr. David Veale and Dr. Joe Daniels added that:

“Body modification is a term used to describe the deliberate altering of the human body for non-medical reasons (e.g., self-expression). It is invariably done either by the individual concerned or by a lay practitioner, usually because the individual cannot afford the fee or because it would transgress the ethical boundaries of a cosmetic surgeon. It appears to be a lifestyle choice and, in some instances, is part of a subculture of sadomasochism. It has existed in many different forms across different cultures and age”.

These definitions of body modification would also appear to include such practices as circumcision (although this may of course be done for legitimate medical reasons as well as cultural and/or religious rites of passage). Other ‘extreme’ forms of body modification include:

  • Earlobe stretching: This refers to the gradual stretching of the earlobe through the gradual increase in size of piercing rings. This is typically carried out for aesthetic reasons, self-expression and/or group membership.
  • Branding: This refers to the deliberate burning of the skin to produce an irreversible symbol, sign, ornament and/or pattern on human skin. This is typically carried out for group membership reasons (but can also be carried out for aesthetics and/or self-expression).
  • Subdermal Implants (pocketing): This refers to a type of body jewelry placed underneath the skin and often used in conjunction with other forms of body modification. The body then ‘heals’ over the implant leading to a raised (sometimes 3-D) design. This is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Extraocular implants: This refers to the placing of small pieces of jewelry in the eye by cutting the surface layer of the eye following a surgical incision. Again, this is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Corneal tattooing: This is the practice of injecting a colour pigment into the eye. As with the previous two examples, this is almost always done for aesthetic reasons and/or shock value.
  • Tongue splitting: This refers to the splitting of the tongue so that the tongue looks like (for instance) a serpent’s tongue.
  • Tooth filing: This refers to the practice of filing teeth (often into the shape of sharp pointed fangs). This may be done for a variety of reasons including group membership, aesthetics and/or self-expression.
  • Tightlacing (waist training, corset training): This refers to the use of incredibly tight fitting corsets (typically by women) to produce an archetypal ‘hourglass’ figure. This is typically carried out for aesthetic reasons.
  • Pearling (genital beading): This refers to the permanent insertion of small beads beneath the skin of the genitals (such as the labia in women or the foreskin in men). Most of those who engage in pearling do it for aesthetic and/or sexual enhancement reasons (e.g., to increase sexual stimulation during vaginal or anal intercourse).
  • Anal stretching: This refers to the gradual stretching of the anus with the use of specialized built for purpose ‘butt plugs’ (typically carried out for sexual enhancement and stimulation).
  • Penis splitting (penile bisection): This is the cutting and splitting of a person’s penis from the glans towards the penis base (and which I covered at length – no pun intended – in a previous blog). This is typically done for reasons of sexual stimulation and fetishistic enhancement for either the self and/or sexual partner (although it has also been done for both religious and/or aesthetic reasons).

A really great 2007 review paper by Dr. Silke Wohlrab and colleagues in the journal Body Image examined all the known motivations for body modification (including tattoos and piercings) based on scientific studies and concluded almost all motivations fell into one or more of the following ten categories:

  • Beauty, art, and fashion (i.e., body modification as a way of embellishing the body, achieving a fashion accessory and/or as a work of art).
  • Individuality (i.e., body modification as a way of being special and distinctive, and creating and maintaining self-identity).
  • Personal narratives (i.e., body modification as a form of personal catharsis, and/or self-expression. For instance, it was claimed that some abused women “create a new understanding of the injured part of the body and reclaim possession through the deliberate, painful procedure of body modification and the permanent marking”).
  • Physical endurance (i.e., body modification as a way of testing a person’s own threshold for pain endurance, overcoming personal limits, etc.).
  • Group affiliations and commitment (i.e., body modification as part of sub-cultural membership or the belonging to a certain social circle).
  • Resistance (body modification as a protest against parents or society).
  • Spirituality and cultural tradition (i.e., body modification as part of a spiritual or cultural movement).
  • Addiction (i.e., body modification as a physical and/or psychological addiction due to (i) the release of endorphins associated with the pain of undergoing the practice, and/or (ii) the association with memories, experiences, values or spirituality).
  • Sexual motivations (i.e., body modification as a way of enhancing sexual stimulation).
  • No specific reason (i.e., body modification as an impulsive act without forethought or planning).

The review paper was incredibly thorough and these ten motivations cover everything they came across in the academic study of body modification. Unsurprisingly, the most frequently mentioned motivation was the expression of individuality and the embellishment of the own body. Hopefully I’ll cover some of the more specific body modifications in future blogs.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Lemma, A. (2010). Under the skin: A psychoanalytic study of body modification. London: Routledge.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Rowanchilde, R. (1996). Male genital modification. Human Nature, 7, 189-215.

Veale, D. & Daniels, J. (2012). Cosmetic clitoridectomy in a 33-year-old woman. Archives of Sex Behavior, 41, 725-730.

Wikipedia (2012). Acquired characteristic. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acquired_characteristic

Wikipedia (2012). Body modification. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_modification

Wikipedia (2012). Penile subincision. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penile_subincision

Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J., & Kappeler, P. M. (2007). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body image, 4, 87-95.

Split penis-ality: A brief look at genital bisection

One of the most noticeable trends over the last few years is body modification. According to Dr. David Veale and Dr. Joe Daniels in a recent issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior:

“Body modification is a term used to describe the deliberate altering of the human body for non-medical reasons (e.g., self-expression). It is invariably done either by the individual concerned or by a lay practitioner, usually because the individual cannot afford the fee or because it would transgress the ethical boundaries of a cosmetic surgeon. It appears to be a lifestyle choice and, in some instances, is part of a subculture of sadomasochism. It has existed in many different forms across different cultures and age”.

Body modification can range from the relatively minor to the extremely major. On a minor level this may include such modifications as tattooing and minor body piercings to the nipples and genitalia. On a more major level it may include branding of the skin, pearling (i.e., permanent insertion of small beads beneath the skin of the labia or foreskin), major scarification (through controlled skin burning), and tongue splitting (so that it is similar to that of a snake). Other body modifications to the genitals can include the removal of the clitoral hood in women or penile subincision in men (i.e., splitting of the underside of the penis; there’s a photograph on Wikipedia’s page on subincision if you want to see the final result). Some people have gone as far to have their whole faces modified including the infamous examples of Dennis Anver (The Tigerman) and Erik Sprague (The Lizardman).

According to Veale and Daniels, there has been little research on psychological aspects of body modification. They cited the work of psychotherapist Dr. Alessandra Lemma (2010) who suggested that for some individuals, body modification is a way of trying to modify the self that the individual feels to be unacceptable. Arguably one of the most gruesome and extreme forms of body modification is ‘genital bisection’ (the total splitting of the penis where the penis is literally cut into two symmetrical halves). For the interested readers who want some photographic evidence, you could do worse than check out the genital bisection page at the Body Modification E-zine Encyclopedia website that has five examples of real split penises of men who are pleased with the results).

The practice of genital bisection is outlined in Dr. Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. She wrote about the practice from a more historical and anthropological perspective and reported that Australian Aborigines used to ritually split their penises from the glans towards the penis base in worship of a totem lizard that had a split penis. She then described the account of one English man who had carried out the procedure over the period of several years and described the results:

‘My decision to surgically remodel my genitals was deliberate, of deep satisfaction to me, highly exciting, sexually adventurous, and erotically exhilarating…Full erections were maintained as previously but now in two complete, separate halves. The erotic zones of my penis are still the same, with orgasms and ejaculations functioning perfectly. Entry into the vagina requires a little extra effort for insertion, but once my penis is inside, its opened effect on the vagina’s inner lining is more pronounced, giving better female orgasmic feelings”.

There is a much more in-depth description of penile splitting on the genital bisection page at the Body Modification E-zine. The article also describes sub-variants of penile bisection including various forms of partial splitting. More specifically, the article noted:

“Partial splitting is either in length (i.e., head splitting) or in axis (the far more common meatotomy and subincision procedures where only the bottom of the shaft is split, or the very rare superincision where only the top is split). Other variations include inversion where the split leaves the glans intact, allowing the penis to be effectively ‘turned inside out’. In most cases, the penis remains fully functional, although some rigidity loss is possible. The penis maintains its form by the two halves of the corpus cavernosum. When they are no longer attached, the penis tends to curve in on itself (as seen in the first photo showing an erect full bisection), making insertion more difficult, but far from impossible” [see glossary of terms at the end of the blog which explains what some of these specialized words and terms mean].

In a 1996 issue of the journal Human Nature, Dr. Raven Rowanchilde wrote a theoretical paper on male genital modification and argued that people modify their bodies in meaningful ways as a deliberate way to establish their identity and social status. More specifically she argues that:

“Lip plugs, ear plugs, penis sheaths, cosmetics, ornaments, scarification, body piercings, and genital modifications encode and transmit messages about age, sex, social status, health, and attractiveness from one individual to another. Through sociocultural sexual selection, male genital modification plays an important role as a sociosexual signal in both male competition and female mate choice. The reliability of the signal correlates with the cost of acquiring the trait. Women use a variety of cues to assess male quality. Male genital modification is one way that some women assess their mates. Extreme male genital modifications not only honestly advertise status, sexual potency, and ability to provide sexual satisfaction, they may provide a reliable index of male-female cooperation through the male’s commitment to endure pain and risk”.

One possible downside of extreme body modification including genital modifications is the association it has with increased risk of suicide. A study by Dr. Julie Hicinbothem and her colleagues in a 2006 issue of the journal Death Studies, surveyed a large sample of individuals who belonged to a website for body modification (e.g., piercings, tattoos, scarification and surgical procedures). They reported that people who had undergone body modification had a higher incidence of prior suicidality (i.e., suicidal ideation and attempted suicide) compared to those who had not undergone body modification. However, they did also note that controls for self-reported depression weakened the strength of the association.

I agree with Veale and Daniel’s assessment that there is little on the psychological aspects of body modification in the academic or clinical literature although I expect it to grow given the seemingly large increase in people undergoing body modification procedures. Just in case you didn’t understand some of the procedures and medical terms earlier in this blog I’ll leave you with a glossary of terms (all taken – almost verbatim – from the BME website):

  • Head splitting is the bisection of the glans of the penis. The procedure is usually carried out using a scalpel or surgical scissors (although cauterizing, electronic cauterizing or laser may also be used). The wound often needs to be cauterized, either with silver nitrate or with heat. Post-procedural bleeding is relatively heavy and tends to last several days.
  • Meatotomy is incision into and enlargement of a meatus. When the subincision is only underneath the glans it is known as a meatotomy (or, if naturally occurring, a hypospadia).
  • Hypospadia is a birth defect where the urethra and urethral groove are malformed, causing the urethra to exit the penis sooner than it normally would (i.e., closer to the base, rather than at the tip of the glans).
  • Subincision is the bisection of the underside of the penis (from the urethra to the raphe; versus a superincision which is the top half).
  • Superincision is a form of bisection that’s opposite to a subincision, splitting only the top half of the shaft and leaving the tissue below the urethra intact.
  • Inversion is a form of genital bisection that involves a combination of subincision and superincision while leaving the glans intact
  • The corpus cavernosum are two areas of erectile tissue which run along the length of the penis, and fill with blood during erection.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Hicinbothem, J., Gonsalves, S. & Lester, D. (2006). Body modification and suicidal behavior. Death Studies, 30, 351-363.

Lemma, A. (2010). Under the skin: A psychoanalytic study of body modification. London: Routledge.

Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.

Rowanchilde, R. (1996). Male genital modification. Human Nature, 7, 189-215.

Veale, D. & Daniels, J. (2012). Cosmetic clitoridectomy in a 33-year-old woman. Archives of Sex Behavior, 41, 725-730.

Wikipedia (2012). Penile subincision. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penile_subincision

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