Nipple rings and genital piercings were once a symbol of the Victorian upper class

Nipple and genital piercings may seem like a new fad, but they have proven to withstand the test of time.

Dating back to at least the Victorian era, intimate piercings have been the symbol of choice to demonstrate some societies’ most intrinsic values. Today, we tend to associate intimate piercings with unfavorable qualities like drug use and sexual promiscuity, but the original values represented by these types of piercings may surprise you and the current motivation behind obtaining them may not be what you would expect.

Originally, nipple and genital piercings were reserved for only the wealthiest citizens of Victorian England.

They actually were shown off as a symbol of nobility. The high-born knew that if they pierced their intimate areas, people would know that they were wealthy. When women wore low cut blouses to show off their breasts adorned with jewels and, due to the inaccessibility to hygiene at the time, were able to keep their nipple rings clean, they knew their wealth was on display. In a less obvious fashion, noble men and women pierced their genitalia in order to demonstrate their monogamy, which was also revered by the upper class at the time. Women sometimes wore a piercing which locked their outer labia together and prevented relations that were external from their marriages, as only the husbands had the key to the lock. Men adorned expensive piercings to serve as a reminder to themselves and their sexual partners that they were high born, preventing them from engaging in sexual acts with women who were outside of their social class. So when only upper-class persons could, theoretically, guarantee their monogamy or display their wealth through piercings that were pricey to clean and adorn, the poor began to envy the ability to have intimate piercings.

Photo Credit: Benny Armias / Instagram: @bennyarmias

Following the establishment of accessible clean water and the ability for the general population to regularly bathe, intimate piercings became much more popular.

Soon, anyone could obtain a nipple or genital piercing, and they no longer served as a distinction between the rich and the poor. The nobles, finding that their piercings no longer embodied their cultural values, discontinued the trend, leaving it for only the common people who were not wealthy and were not known to be as fiercely monogamous as the upper class. This dramatic switch changed the association of the piercings from wealth and monogamy to poverty and sexual promiscuity.

Intimate piercings, being in such a sensitive and personal area, will always be reborn to symbolize the most important values of a culture and tend to die out when they become associated with less favorable characteristics.

Therefore, the element that many people who still believe intimate piercings are for the unfavorable persons in society are missing is that the trend quickly died out among the impoverished because it no longer symbolized what their society, as a whole, valued. This transition is exactly what happened in our society, which lead to the increased rate of nipple and genital piercings in the United States and specifically among the university student population who tend to be more open to risky demonstrations of their beliefs. Intimate piercings have converted from symbolizing a given status of wealth, like in Victorian England, to representing what college students hold dear, the freedom to decide what happens to us, our bodies, and our lives.

With this shift in symbolism, the trend of intimate piercings also deserves a shift in association.

Those that possess intimate piercings are looked down upon and are assumed to have specific characteristics that are in stark contrast to the Victorian views, such as multiple sexual partners, diseases, and a low income, but the mistaken belief popularly held that intimate piercings lead to risky behavior and sexual deviation is completely based in falsehood. Yes, there is an association between all of these behaviors, but when pierced college students are compared to non-pierced college students, there is no association. It is simply college aged students that are more likely to engage in all of these behaviors than the rest of the population. There is no increase in the tendency to use contraband simply because a person has an intimate piercing.

As different as the motivations behind Victorian era intimate piercings and present day intimate piercings may seem, there is definitely one blatant similarity between the time periods.

This is that both men and women have been and continue to pierce their nipples and genitals to symbolize their values. In the Victorian era the reason for piercing was to flaunt nobility and control sexual desires. Present day, the most popular reasons for intimate piercings prove to be to define the self and to express one’s sexuality. The motivations may seem as different as night and day, but in fact, the relationship is not as hidden as one might think.

Culture has changed drastically from the time of Victorian England to present day western society, but our form of expression has stayed the same.

Genital and nipple piercings reflect the most intimate beliefs of the culture. In the Victorian era, it was highly valued to be high on the social ladder and to never be viewed as promiscuous. Currently, in the culture of college aged students having sexual freedom it is much more important in order to know who you are and to enjoy a healthy sex life. Therefore, even though our western belief system conflicts with Victorian England’s belief system, we still reflect our society’s views through intimate piercings. Nipple and genital piercings have such a strong risk involved that people will only use this form of body modification to express what is most important to them. Nowadays genital and nipple piercings are used to define the indefinable. They give people the feeling that they can establish a sense of self. Without government regulation of identity, people turn to genital and nipple piercings as a way to express their dearest values.

Once the majority of our society understands the current symbols of intimate piercings, those that desire or have them can feel more accepted into society.

Nipple and genital piercings are no lesser than other forms of expression in society like art and entertainment. In fact, one could consider them even more meaningful because of their permanence and intimate nature. Therefore, society as a whole would greatly benefit from understanding the current meaning behind intimate piercings and being aware of any major changes in symbolic piercings as well as other controversy forms of expression.

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