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The History of the Clit Piercing

Sep 28 2015 2:00 PM
The History of the Clit Piercing

Image by Tracie Egan Morrissey

From Borneo tribeswomen to trendy Victorians, clit piercings have been around for much longer than Christina Aguilera's bejeweled privates would have you believe.

From the indigenous Dayaks of Borneo to the "Dirrty" Christina Aguilera, women have been piercing their clits for centuries. In the middle of her Stripped-and-buttless-chaps phase in 2002, Aguilera summed up the eternal appeal of the clit piercing to Rolling Stone: "It just seemed erotic in a place most people wouldn't have the guts to do it." Whether it's for aesthetic purposes or traditional practice, sex—and making it as mindblowing as possible—has remained the most popular motivation behind the down-low jewelry throughout history.

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From The Kama Sutra to the Dayaks

Although widely termed as a "clit piercing" (in reference to the clitoral glans), piercing of the actual clitoris is fairly rare because of the risk of desensitization involved. Instead, incisions are often made in the areas surrounding the glans and there are a variety of styles to choose from.

Studies from the Department of Forensic Pathology at the University of Leicester in England show that genital piercings, especially the clitoris piercings, continue to be requested as a device to heighten sexual pleasure. During sex, the friction caused by the clitoral jewelry stimulates the 8000 nerve endings contained in this tiny but mighty erogenous zone.

The earliest known written reference to genital piercing is in the The Kama Sutra (circa 300 AD), the traditional Sanskrit text on the art of love-making. Vātsyāyana's writings describe genital jewelry, such as pins and penis inserts, as decorative but also as a means of increased sexual arousal for both partners.

Dayak tribeswomen chill out. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Dayak tribesmen of Borneo were most likely the first to adorn their members in this fashion, passing shards of bone through the penis glans, now known as apadravya (vertical piercing) and ampallang (horizontal piercing). According to the Journal of the Association of Professional Piercers, Dayak women have a right to request for their male counterparts to undergo these procedures. If the man does not consent, they may seek separation. They say, "That the embrace without this contrivance is plain rice. With it, it is rice with salt."

For centuries, the most popular procedure amongst the Dayak and ladies worldwide has been the hood. This classic piercing comes in a vertical and horizontal styles, depending on personal taste and in some occasions anatomy. Another that has remained in vogue is the inner and outer labia piercing. Dayak women would traditionally stretch their piercings by wearing thick gold rings, pulling the labia downward and making them more prominent.

From left to right: A labia piercing, a horizontal hood piercing and a vertical hood piercing. Image courtesy of Tattoo Alley Body Art

West: Explorers, Sailors and Trendy Victorians

Until the late twentieth century, genital piercings were virtually nonexistent in the West. Like tattooing, it was gradually introduced through ethnographic reports by nineteenth century explorers, such as Anton Willem Nieuwenhuis. The Dutch explorer travelled central Borneo extensively throughout the 1890s, reporting his findings in a 1900 publication called In Central Borneo: Travels from Pontianak to Samarinda. Here, Nieuwenhuis describes his expeditions, including accounts of genital piercing procedures.

Elayne Angel, author of The Piercing Bible (2011), explains that during this era sailors returned to Europe tattooed and pierced, inspiring soldiers, miners, and even the conservative Victorian upper classes—sparking a short lived nipple piercing trend at the end of the 19th century.

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Modern Piercing is Born in LA

Fast forward 70 years to the sunburnt highways of the Los Angeles. There was disco, amphetamines, pool parties, Hollywood punks, and early piercing pioneers Jim Ward and Doug Malloy. Known for their activity in the gay BDSM scene, Ward and Malloy popularized genital piercing by introducing it to California's emerging body modification community.

Malloy, whose real name was Richard Simonton, led a double life; by day he was a wealthy businessman with a wife and children, and by night, he was Malloy, a piercing enthusiast and homosexual S&M practitioner. Ward, dubbed by MTV as "the granddaddy of the modern piercing movement," innovated piercing techniques as well as many jewelry designs such as the fixed bead ring and barbells.

Malloy financially backed Ward, encouraging him to set up his own piercing studio, the Gauntlet. Opening in 1978 on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, it became the first body piercing specialist in America. The Gauntlet also produced the world's first piercing publication, Piercing Fans International Quarterly (PFIQ), a full colour glossy shrouded with controversy due to its graphic portrayal of nudity and the piercing process.

From Modern Primitives to Janet Jackson

During the 1980s, genital piercing was picked up by the Modern Primitives movement, ushering the culture of invasive piercing to wider alternative communities, such as the punks. Shovelling safety pins where they could, punks fully embraced body piercing as an expression of rebellion. And with the eye of the mass media on punks, the public became more aware of piercing.

Clitoris piercings, however, still remained under the radar. Malloy (though wildly infamous for spinning urban legends regarding piercing), explains in an PFIQessay that while some women on the scene were undergoing the procedure, it was still very rare. Ward also commented in an interview from 1989 with Andrea Juno, author of the Modern Primitives, that in his ten years of experience, he had only pierced half a dozen women.

By the turn of the 20th century, widespread publicity from the media and pierced celebrities redefined the popularity and availability of genital piercing. From Janet Jackson hosting piercing parties and sharing stories about her labia (or her "down South" as she likes to call it), to Lady Gaga flashing her bejeweled part to the paparazzi in New York. Though still provocative, female genital piercing has moved away from the fringe and into the mainstream as more women tap into the sexual benefits of piercing their privates.

Modern Primitives on a magazine cover. Photo courtesy of RE/Search

Clit Piercings: A Painful Controversy

In recent months however, vaginal piercings have shifted as a topic for celebrity gossip to one for legislators in the UK. Under new rules, the Department of Health now classifies women with consensual clit or labia piercings as victims of female genital mutilation (FGM). The new reporting regulations follow guidance from the World Health Organization, where piercings would come under a fourth type of FGM defined as: "All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization."

The Tattoo and Piercing Industry Union (TPIU) maintains that body piercing is "in no way related" to FGM, telling BBC Newsbeat: "It undermines the serious nature of FGM to in any way compare it to a consensual body piercing." But in the 29 years that FGM has been a crime in the United Kingdom, no prosecutions have been made despite estimates that around 170,000 women and girls live with FGM in the UK today.

Hopefully the law can learn to differentiate between elective body modification and non-consensual abuse. Until then, it looks like clit piercings willl remain the preserve of a few brave women who like their jewelry a little more discreet than most.

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