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
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