Sex Question Friday: How Common Are Genital Piercings?

Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know:

“How many people have their penises or vaginas pierced? And do many people have problems these piercings?”

Good questions! Although more and more people are getting so-called "intimate piercings," they tend to be pretty rare overall. For instance, one survey of 454 college undergraduates found that 1% of men and 2.4% of women had pierced their genitals [1]. Likewise, data from a national probability sample in the US of 500 adults aged 18-50 revealed similar numbers: 2% of men and 0.8% of women reported a genital piercing [2].

The most common male piercing reported in surveys is usually the Prince Albert [3]. There are a few variations on this piercing, but perhaps the most widely recognized version involves a ring that enters at the urethral opening and exits on the underside of the penis right where the glans and shaft meet. In contrast, the most common female piercing reported in surveys is usually a horizontal bar running through either the body of the clitoris or through the clitoral hood [3].

Of course, genital piercings can take many other forms. For instance, some men may have a bar that runs horizontally or vertically through the glans or shaft of the penis, while other guys might have a scrotal piercing. Likewise, some women may have labial piercings, or piercings that enter or exit through the mons pubis or perineum. Also, and this is extremely, extremely rate, but some individuals have anal piercings (however, please note that for health and safety reasons, I just cannot recommend this one).

People report a wide range of reasons for piercing their genitals. But most commonly, people seek these piercings either to express themselves sexually or to enhance their own and/or partners’ sexual pleasure [3].

Of course, there are certain risks associated with genital piercings, just as there are risks with any other body piercing. The most commonly reported health complications include skin irritation, non-sexual infections, ripping or tearing of skin at the piercing site, and problems using condoms [3,4]. There also appears to be a slightly increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections afterwards, which may stem at least partially from condom use difficulties [4]. However, risks will vary to some degree depending upon the type of piercing selected, the piercing location, and whether post-piercing instructions are followed (e.g., cleaning, allowing the tissues to heal before resuming sex, etc.).

Despite these potential health complications, the vast majority of genital piercers (73-90%) report being happy with their decision [3]. For most piercers, it would therefore seem that the perceived sexual benefits appear to outweigh the potential risks.

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[1] Mayers, L. B., Judelson, D. A., Moriarty, B. W., & Rundell, K. W. (2002). Prevalence of body art (body piercing and tattooing) in university undergraduates and incidence of medical complications. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 77, 29-34.

[2] Laumann, A. E., & Derick, A. J. (2006). Tattoos and body piercings in the United States: a national data set. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 55(3), 413-421.

[3] 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.

[4] Hogan, L., Rinard, K., Young, C., Roberts, A. E., Armstrong, M. L., & Nelius, T. (2010). A cross-sectional study of men with genital piercings. British Journal of Medical Practitioners, 3, 315.

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