As Tommy Lee allegedly once said, “Unless you’ve got a bolt through your genitals, you’re not making it in the ‘90s.” But despite popular culture’s renewed fascination with all things ’90s, genital piercings — in particular, the ring through the penis tip known as a Prince Albert — have yet to regain that prominence as the standard for sexual, rebellious men. So where did all the dick piercings go, and does anyone still get one?
Of course, Prince Alberts and other genital piercings (including those on the scrotum and anus) are not an American invention. They are mentioned in the Kama Sutra, and were worn by ancient Egyptians and Bornean tribes, among others. But the mythology surrounding modern piercings traces back to 1970s Los Angeles — and specifically to Richard Simonton, a Hollywood socialite and married entrepreneur, who participated in L.A.’s gay fetish community under the secret identity Doug Malloy. Through his travels in Asia, Simonton-slash-Malloy developed a fascination with body modification and tattoos, which he explored and helped popularize in the periodical Piercing Fans International Quarterly and at Gauntlet, the country’s first professional piercing studio, which opened in L.A. in 1978, one year before Simonton’s death.
“Since his death I have tried to do some research [but] the only two piercings with any verifiable history are the ampallang [a horizontal piercing through the entire glans of the penis] and the apadravya [a vertical top to bottom piercing through the glans],” Rick Ward, an artist and cofounder of Gauntlet, told Body Art magazine in 1994. “[Malloy] even made up a history of some of the piercings,” Ward added. These included the Prince Albert — which Malloy let people believe dated back to Queen Victoria (who, legend has it, either wanted to emphasize her husband’s bulge or constrict his junk while he was traveling) — and nipple piercings — which he claimed Roman centurions used to attach their capes to. “[I]t didn’t matter since it made a good story anyway,” Ward said.
Despite Malloy’s marketing savvy, Gauntlet’s opening was badly timed. With the explosion of HIV in the ’80s, the free love and expression of the ’70s gave way to panic and an increased emphasis on celibacy, “risk-free sex” and more monogamy-oriented fuck buddies. And it wasn’t until the ’90s that genital piercings fully hit their stride, thanks in part to increasing knowledge about the spread of HIV that decreased taboos and enabled a more celebratory attitude toward sex.
“Everyone was like ‘Okay…We can fuck now,’” remembers Dave Black, the operations manager of Venus by Maria Tash, an upscale piercing shop in lower Manhattan that became one of the city’s two most popular places for heavy piercings in the ’90s. Instead of just the domain of leather daddies and dedicated kinksters, BDSM became cool: Gaultier was dressing Madonna in bondage gear and Versace debuted its “Miss S&M” collection in 1992. The rise of tribal body modifications and aesthetics (most famously profiled in the 1989 book Modern Primitive) led to both an increased fascination with piercing and the boom of those tacky tribal tattoos.
Black says both genital and tongue piercings reached their peak of nearly one per day between 1994 and 2004, as opposed to today’s more modest volume, about five each month. “A lot of women were doing clit hood piercings,” Black reminisces. “A lot of men were doing scrotum, frenulum [the underside of the shaft right below the head] and Prince Alberts because it was sort of trendy, which is crazy to me… People were getting them because their friend[s] were, which doesn’t happen anymore.”
There aren’t great statistics about the number of genital piercings each year, making it hard to track the modification’s popularity. A 2006 study by Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reported that approximately 2 percent of men ages 18–50 had a genital piercing, which means most people likely have never encountered one.
“I can’t think of anyone I’ve slept with where I haven’t been their first,” says Chris, a 35-year-old graduate student. He already had seven piercings by the time he got a Prince Albert in 2007. “It just seemed like the next thing to do. I didn’t want to get a nipple or belly button piercing.”
For other guys who aren’t already piercing veterans, the genitals might be the only place they would risk experimenting with body modification. “It’s discreet. It’s kind of my little secret,” said Travis, a 30-year-old whose Prince Albert is his only form of body modification, thanks to his management job.
Louis Nevaer, an independent piercing artist who got his start in California in the ’80s, agrees that it’s hard to tell if someone has a genital piercing based on their personal style. “A tattoo is less of an indicator that someone has a piercing than a Brooks Brother suit,” said Nevaer, describing his typical genital piercing customer as “someone who is very conservative in public life — lawyers, bankers — who wants to express themselves in private.”
A 2010 study from Texas Tech seems to confirm that men who get genital piercings are, well, rather boring. More than half made more than $45,000 a year, nearly 90 percent were caucasian, 20 percent had a graduate or doctoral degree and 41 percent were married. According to Black, today’s genital piercers are often over 40, eager to do something for themselves now that they’re divorced or no longer have children at home. Perhaps most surprisingly, given piercings’ early popularity in the gay community: The study found 82 percent identified as straight. What started out as a staple for kinksters has become as mainstream as your boss having a tattoo or your girlfriend owning anal beads.
Piercings’ mainstream appeal doesn’t minimize their complexity or pain. During a Prince Albert procedure, a piercer inserts a quarter-inch tube in the urethral opening, pushes upward, and then slides the jewelry in after the needle which exits through the glans. Clients often experience a “rush of endorphins,” says Black, making the piercing almost as intense as its supposed effect — stimulating the urethra’s sensitive nerve endings during intercourse.
Adam, who got the piercing last year at age 36, says a few sex partners (dudes) have expressed particular interest in his piercing, but it hasn’t radically changed his sex life. Not so for Mark, a 33-year-old with both a scrotal piercing and a Prince Albert. “My current girlfriend is a size queen,” who has increasingly pushed him to stretch his gauge. “I was at a 3.2 millimeter [gauge] when we met. Now I’m at 10.”
But most of the men I spoke to didn’t rave about the piercing’s erotic powers. “After hundreds of orgasms it’s not that much better than before,” Chris concludes.
Genital piercings also come with a raft of potential complications. Given the risk of infection, sex must be avoided for two to four weeks after the procedure. But even after they heal, genital piercings can increase the risk of condom breakage. (There’s no conclusive research suggesting that genital piercing increases the risk of STDs, a common concern.) Travis says that because of stretching, he has had to increase his gauge size to a point where he no longer keeps the ring in during exercise or penetration. And the least sexy side effect is what he calls a need to “be creative with peeing.” Because Prince Albert piercings create a second hole in the urethra, men will have a double stream. (All the men I interviewed for this piece pee sitting down.)
Despite all this, neither Travis nor any of the other men I spoke with have plans to permanently remove their piercings. “I’ve had that point where I think, ‘Ah, I’m done with this,’ but then after one week or so I miss it,” Travis says.
Black, now a father of two, removed two of his five genital piercings when he and his wife were trying to conceive their first child because of the irritation caused during increased amounts of sex. He now only has a Prince Albert and lower scrotal piercing, which don’t seem to be going anywhere.
“The sense of self having piercings and tattoos is really wonderful, but once you delve into genital piercings you’ve crossed a line into a more extreme existence where any partner you ever meet will see you in a new light,” Black says. “It’s the most personal, it’s the most intimate, and it’s the most generally rewarding in terms of feeling,”
Tonya Riley is a freelance writer based in New York and an associate editor at Heleo. Her work has appeared in publications including Mic, Fusion, and The New Republic.