One of the less researched sexual behaviours is stigmatophilia. It is a sexual paraphilia in which an individual derives sexual pleasure and arousal from a partner that is marked in some way. Traditional definitions of stigmatophilia referred to such individuals being sexually aroused by scarring but more recent formulations of stigmatophilia includes those who are sexually aroused by tattoos and piercings (i.e., body modifications especially relating to genitals and/or nipples). According to Professor John Money, stigmatophilia can also refer to the reciprocal condition where the sexual focus is on the person who has the scars, tattoos, and/or piercings. Other even more recent definitions claim that a stigmatophile is “a person with this fetish is sexually aroused by body piercing and tattooing but not ear piercing” (Gay Slang Dictionary).
Stigmatophilia is one of many different eligibility (also called stigmatic) types of paraphilia. In his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices, Dr Anil Aggrawal (Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, India) writes that the strategy adopted by those who have eligibility paraphilias is that:
“To protect the saintly love from sinful lust is to chose his partner who is so base so unqualified, so depraved that he or she is simply unable or ineligible to compete with the saint, their partner must become a pagan infidel or an erotic heathen. The partner must not appear to be a proper or likeable person. This is done by choosing a partner who is very diminutive or towering in stature fat or skinny very young (paedophilia) or very old (gerontophilia), disfigured, deformed (dysmorphophilia), crippled, stigmatized (stigmatophilia), even an amputee (acrotomophilia) In extreme cases, the paraphilic wants his partner to be from a different species (zoophilia) or dead (necrophilia), or even a dead specimen of a different species (necrozoophilia). Sometimes the paraphilic may want even himself to be deformed (he is also one of the partners in love making). This desire is reflected in paraphilias like apotemnophilia in which the paraphiliac desires to have his own healthy appendages (limb, digit, or genitals) amputated”
In previous blogs on various fetishes and paraphilia, I have written about a study led by Dr G. Scorolli (University of Bologna, Italy) on the relative prevalence of different fetishes using online fetish forum data. It was estimated (very conservatively in the authors’ opinion), that their sample size comprised at least 5000 fetishists (but was likely to be a lot more). They reported that some of the sites featured references to stigmatophilia (including body modification). This category made up a small minority of all online fetishes (4%).
Brenda Love noted in her book Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices that tattooing was brought back to Europe by sailors (who had become fascinated by this art from). Consequently, Professor Christine Braunberger (Onondaga Community College, Syracuse, US) wrote a paper for the online journal Genders in 2000 examining the cultural and sexual significance of sailor’s tattoos. She asserted that tattoos are “erotic and potentially fetishistic from an experiential level” and that they “also visually mark a conflation of nationalism and sexuality”. She also argues that navy tattoos depicting women illustrate a “heterofamilial fetish of national culture” that encourages tattoos to be viewed as marks of familial desire (in fact she tries to argue that such tattoos are “symbolic surrogates” for wives and girlfriends). These tattoos often contained “naked women, women draped in flags or other patriotic regalia, dancing girls, and the popular ‘Lady Luck’ or ‘Man’s Ruin’ images in which a female form was surrounded by booze bottles, dice and cards”.
While researching this blog, I came across this confession from a male with a tattoo fetish:
“Now I almost 30 and I am working on a complete tattoo bodysuit. I still am turned on by the idea of being totally covered in ink. I am almost there and I only have a few blank spots left. Before I get more I really want to understand this. I was never abused. I don’t hate my body. I have lots of confidence and there is no ‘thing’ in my past that I can think of that would make me this way. It also isn’t a rebellion thing because my family is cool with it and so is my job. I just love having ink, I love getting it, I love the pain, I love the healing, I love looking at it and I love when women touch it. Why am I this way? I am a normal guy and I have a normal sex life, normal relationships etc. BUT when I masturbate I usually don’t need porn. I just picture my entire body being covered in tattoos…Sometimes I look at my own ink in the mirror etc. The more I get the happier I am. I just want to know, what would cause this? Where do fetishes come from? Are they bad if they don’t interfere with your life?”
For me, this quote neatly sums up the fact that this person’s fetish is unproblematic but is key to his sexual arousal. He also displays what Dr. Katherine Irwin writing in a 2003 issue of Sociological Spectrum might call a ‘positive deviant’. Her paper examined two groups within the most elite realm of tattooing (i.e., tattoo collectors and tattooists), and identified how they use both positive and negative deviant attributes to maintain a privileged status on the fringe of society. Whilst not concentrating on the fetishistic element, many of her observations may apply to those with tattoo fetishes. However, she does note that:
“Tattooists foster tastes for macabre and bizarre objects. Such products as fetish magazines, medical books depicting congenital abnormalities, and fringe films and art are highly coveted by members of the elite world of tattooing”
Comparatively little is known about intimate body piercing or its relevance to human behaviour. Dr. Charles Moser and his colleagues published a paper in a 1993 issue of Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality on reasons for nipple piercing among 362 participants. The main reasons for nipple piercing were sexual responsiveness and sexual interest. More recently, Professor Carol Caliendo and her colleagues carried out some research on intimate body piercings that they published in a 2005 issue of the Journal of Advanced Nursing. They surveyed a convenience sample of intimately pierced individuals (63 women and 83 men) across 29 US states. Participants reported having nipple piercings (43%), genital piercings (25%) or both types (32%). Compared to the general US population those with sexual piercings were significantly younger, less ethnically diverse, better educated, less likely to be married, more often homosexual or bisexual and they initiated sexual activity at a younger age. The average age for first nipple piercing was 25 years, and for genital piercing was 27 years. Their reasons for getting the piercings were uniqueness, self-expression and sexual expression.
Arguably, one of the best papers on motivations for tattooing and body piercing was published by Dr. Silke Wohlrab and colleagues (University of Goettingen, Germany) in a 2007 issue of the journal Body Image. They established ten broad motivational categories, comprising motivations for getting tattooed and body pierced. This they hoped would serve as a reference in future research in the area. The ten categories were: (i) beauty, art, and fashion, (ii) individuality, (iii) personal narratives, (iv) physical endurance, (v) group affiliations and commitment, (vi) resistance, (vii) spirituality and cultural tradition, (viii) addiction, (ix) sexual motivations, and (x) no specific reasons (e.g., doing it on impulse, or doing it while intoxicated). In relation to sexual motivations, the authors noted that:
“Nipple and genital piercings are quite common and serve as decoration, but also for direct sexual stimulation. Expressing sexual affectations or emphasizing their own sexuality through tattooing and body piercing are also common motivations”.
Clearly, the research that is beginning to be carried out in recent years doesn’t really make specific reference to stigmatophilia as it tends to concentrate on specific types of self-inflicted body modification (particularly tattooing and body piercing) rather than those who have been left with inflicted wounds from third parties (e.g., facial scarring).
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Braunberger, C. (2000). Sutures of Ink: National (Dis)Identification and the Seaman’s Tattoo. Genders (Online Journal). Located at: http://www.genders.org/g31/g31_braunberger.html
Caliendo, C., Armstrong, M.L. & Roberts A.E. (2005). Self-reported characteristics of women and men with intimate body piercings. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 49, 474–484
Irwin, K. (2003). Saints and sinners: elite tattoo collectors and tattooists as positive and negative deviants. Sociological Spectrum, 23, 27-57.
Love, B. (2001). Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices. London: Greenwich Editions.
Meyer D. (2000) Body piercing: old traditions creating new challenges. Journal of Emergency Nursing, 26, 612–614.
Moser C., Lee J. & Christensen P. (1993) Nipple piercing: an exploratory-descriptive study. Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 6(2), 51–61.
Money, J. (1984). Paraphilias: Phenomenology and classification. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 38, 164-78.
Scorolli, C., Ghirlanda, S., Enquist, M., Zattoni, S. & Jannini, E.A. (2007). Relative prevalence of different fetishes. International Journal of Impotence Research, 19, 432-437.
Wohlrab, S., Stahl, J. & Kappeler, P.M. (2007). Modifying the body: Motivations for getting tattooed and pierced. Body Image, 4, 87-95