Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a college student who wanted to know about the potential sexual infection risks associated with genital piercings.
Is it easier to pass on infections (or STDs) when one or both partners have piercings on their genital organs?
Great question! Intimate piercings have been on the rise in both men and women in recent years, but they are still relatively rare. For instance, a recent study of 454 college undergraduates found that 3% of men and 6% of women had pierced their nipples, while 1% of men and 2.4% of women had pierced their genitals . With respect to genital piercings, the most common male piercing reported in survey studies seems to be the Prince Albert while the most common female piercing is a horizontal bar running through either the body of the clitoris or the clitoral hood . Although people report many different reasons for getting pierced, the most common reasons for pursuing genital piercings are that they help individuals to express themselves sexually and/or enhance sexual pleasure .
Many people, including a number of sexual health educators I have spoken to, assume that piercings substantially increase the risk of both contracting and spreading sexually transmitted infections (STIs). But what does the research say? Most studies I located found that genital piercings were either unrelated to infection risk, or associated with only a small risk increase. For example, one study of 146 men and women with intimate piercings found that only 3% reported contracting an STI after getting pierced . Likewise, an Internet survey of 445 men with genital piercings found that 12% of them reported having an STI prior to their piercing, while 18% reported STIs after their piercing . Of course, keep in mind the self-report nature of these data. We do not know whether participants were being regularly tested or if they were accurately reporting their health history, which means that these numbers could be underestimating infection prevalence.
In short, it would seem that there is at least a slight STI risk associated with genital piercings. Although the rate of sexual infections is not as dramatic as some have claimed, keep in mind that these piercings do carry other risks. In fact, it is common for piercers to report other health complications such as skin irritation, non-sexual infections, ripping or tearing of skin at the piercing site, and problems using condoms [2,3]. Before deciding whether or not to pierce below the waist, familiarize yourself with the risks and read up on the safety precautions that need to be taken afterward (e.g., maintaining genital hygiene, avoiding unprotected and/or rough sex during the healing process, etc.). Also, be sure to find someone reputable and experienced to perform the piercing so as to minimize the chance of infections or other problems arising from shared needles or unsanitary conditions.
Despite the potential health complications, the vast majority of genital piercers (73-90%) report being happy with their decision . Thus, for most piercers, the perceived sexual benefits appear to outweigh the potential risks.
For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here. Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.
 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.
 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.
 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.
Image Source: iStockphoto.com
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