The Ins and Outs of Needle Play

Facts about this rather prickly fetish, and why it may be more approachable than you think.

By Tess Dagger • 9 min read • ENGLISH

Breathe in, breathe out.

Ifyou’ve ever had a piercing done before, you know this little mantra: The pinch always comes on the exhale. You’ve had time to get prepped, in a clean and sterile room (hopefully) with a piercer who knows what they’re doing. You’ll walk away with a lovely new piece of jewelry stuck somewhere in your body, and that’ll be the end of the story.

Or, on the flip side, you’re me at eighteen, wielding a bottle of mom’s rubbing alcohol stolen from the bathroom first-aid kit and a pair of hastily purchased nitrile gloves. My then-boyfriend and I are naked in bed, our meager collection of sexy implements littering the space around us. With me cleaned up with the alcohol after all our necking, and him gloved up like Dr. Frankenfurter on a naughty night, a gleaming sterile needle poised over a piece of my pinched skin and us, we’re both ready to do the horizontal tango.

And, so I breathe out…

And as I do, he penetrates me.

Twice.

At the same time.

Oh glory, I could get used to this.


This was not my first needle and was certainly not my last. The first were sewing needles pilfered from mom’s sewing kit as a child. I’d prick my fingers to see how far I could get them to go; no sexualization there, but you can see I was already a fan of stabby implements from a tender age.

What followed was a love of piercings and body modifications so strong that I was piercing my septum, clit hood, tragus, nipples…you name it, by the time I was in high school. My friends would buy boxes of hypodermic needles from the local medical supply company and we’d sit together in our bedrooms listening to The Locust to see who could make the prettiest needle designs on the others’ skin.

Through that, I met my boyfriend at the time, which is how I wound up mixing needles with sex and arrived at the scenario above. It wasn’t until that very moment when I realized the raw sensuality of needles and the enhancement of intimacy it brought to my life.

I get it, I’ve always been pro-piercing. The divide between my comfort around sharp pointy objects and a pre-poked individual can be quite a distance to span. But can needle play be approachable for everybody? Let’s take a look at it and see.

There’s a long and well-established history of piercing traced from mummy remains to approximately 5300 years ago, a history that goes hand in hand with tattooing. Hand-tapped lines of tattoo work and stretched piercings have had many purposes throughout time, from showing status to enhancing beauty and even to intimidate enemies. But the idea of impermanent piercings takes a different role in history.

The initial and most approachable one is quite therapeutic; the history of Acupuncture, the long-respected tradition of utilizing needles for healing purposes, could be nearly 6000 years old. The first concrete written diagnostic paper citing acupuncture is dated back to 100 BCE, and amazingly, it’s still used today. Its normalcy can’t be understated; when it comes to our fear of needles, acupuncture somehow is withheld from judgment.

The most widely known cultural application of impermanent piercings for non-therapeutic purposes is cheek spearing, with two prominent examples.

In Phuket, Thailand, people selected to bear the troubles of their community, known as mah song, torment themselves for nine days in October by spearing rods and swords through their cheeks and tongues during a Taoist vegetarian celebration.

In the Hindu ritual of Kavadi, which takes place in late January, the Tamil people bear the burdens of two structures representing hills and dance while being pierced all over their bodies by rods and needles. Some piercings go through the back, some through the cheek, and others are simply pointed rods that drive themselves deeper into the body while one dances.Another equally extreme example is slowly working its way into the mainstream. Hook suspension, the practice of placing hooks in the skin and hanging from them, is a modern take on two things — George Catlin’s depiction of the Okipa ritual of the Mandan plains people, and the Saivite Hindu rituals of India.

Popularized by Fakir Musafar during the initial wave of the Modern Primitive body modification movement, hook suspension has now enjoyed a widespread appreciation and a more tempered view in pop culture, with a burgeoning performance presence. We’ve seen it in places like the 2000 film, The Cell, with Vincent D’Onofrio hanging from his back and arms by semi-permanent rings. Jane’s Addiction was one of the first non-metal bands known for touring with girls that flew above the audience with hooks in their backs. One of them was the very same girl that pierced my hooks for my 21st birthday. The hook suspension community is small, but growing internationally. Perhaps, though the appeal may seem difficult to understand, it’s not as difficult as many would think.

In all these impermanent practices, we see much of the same thing; ritual, suffering, and the willingness to brave great sacrifice for belief or experience. Not exactly the lighthearted or sexy idea that’s been planted with the idea of needle play.


How does play piercing differ from these practices?

Well, accessibility, for one. It’s easy to order a box of needles from Amazon and stick yourself and your friends in the comfort of your own home. The sizes of the needles also remove some of the daunting feelings, as the typical play piercing needle is usually much smaller than a cheek spear or suspension hook. The recommended size is very thin, usually at around 20g, or .8mm.

There’s also a lack of cultural context behind hypodermic needles that makes it agreeable to those who don’t want to infringe on cultural beliefs.

The history of modern play piercing is foggy at best, and likely stems from the body modification scene as a way to get the initial endorphin rush of a piercing without the need to heal the body around a piece of jewelry for weeks to months afterward. So there’s little wonder how the cross-section into BDSM was introduced — those who seek experiences are often willing to experiment with pain, and both modification and kink enthusiasts tend to fit that personality type.

Nowadays, many turn to places like the kinky social networking site, Fetlife, for educational purposes as well as meeting other like-minded kinksters. A dinosaur of a website, the outdated design is outshined by the sheer amount of community events, forums, and groups through which a person can connect with those who share their fetish. A quick browse through the events page (Corona notwithstanding) will show a myriad of needle-related classes in cities all around the world.

In general, BDSM practitioners have a laissez-faire approach to the play of others. As long as nobody is being put in non-consensual risk, there is very little questioning of each others’ practices. But the new boom in safety precautions is a boon to the community, as piercing is the sole play outside of penetrative sex that, well…penetrates. And that factor comes with a whole new set of risks.

Many articles out there outline safety precautions for play piercing. Most generally agree on the standards of disinfection, personal protection, and disposal, and are centered around the prevention of spreading bloodborne pathogens. However, for all the useful information on the internet, I still highly recommend taking a class from an experienced teacher; they can answer all your real-time questions and provide valuable instruction and insight that you won’t find online.

This still begs the question: Why would anybody want to learn this stuff? And why are we so curious about it?


Ofall the play that I have personally experienced, piercing is the most visceral of them. Nothing gets our blood up like a little bit of danger, and the human body reacts to the idea of something invading our bodies—literally getting under our skin—very strongly. Some people get faint or woozy at the idea of needles. Some people pass out at seeing them in the skin. And some, like me, get pure tingles at the thought.

So what does the process feel like? To know, we must know a little about what we’re piercing.

Human skin is made up of layers, each with their own nerve response. The epidermis, or outermost layer, is our barrier to the outside world and is mostly made up of keratin. Most of our body is covered in thin skin, which has no direct blood supply (the exception being the palms of our hands and soles of our feet). When you’re scratched and begin to bleed, that means you’ve gone through your epidermal layer down to the dermis. The dermis is a regulatory machine, packed full of nerves and blood vessels. It sits above the hypodermis, a loose connective base that’s mostly fatty tissue.

When piercing the human skin, the part of you that feels the sting is the dermis. Since we tend to tent the skin away from our other tissue (by pulling it up and away from our musculature), the internal portion of the piercing is moving through the hypodermis without piercing anything else below it. Play piercings should not be going through any other tissue than skin. Anything else can potentially be very dangerous.

Because of the isolated area, the sensation is limited to how much skin you’re piercing and how. A singular prick with a needle, as we all know, can be very fast and almost negligible. So to feel more, we do things such as using larger needles, piercing nerve-packed areas, and play with how the needles move in the skin.


Photo by Jay S. Laffat

What’s the reward of this play?

In short, endorphins. Of the four happiness chemicals — the other three being serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine — endorphins are the only ones released through the stimulus of pain and stress. Both our central and peripheral nervous systems can stimulate the pituitary gland to dump endorphins into our system. This was likely developed as a necessary tool to enable us to flee danger, particularly that which causes injury or harm, without initially being hampered by pain. Adrenalin makes up another part of this mix. But in situations we needn’t flee from, pain can become a button to push for the next endorphin buzz, and exploring that can bring about some lovely results.

Combining this with other chemical releases from things such as intimacy, amusement, attraction, and personal achievements creates a pleasurable brain cocktail of hormones that I and others tend to enjoy.

There are many ways we can explore these combinations — mixing needles with sex was my initial example, but it needn’t always be the case. In relation to BDSM, needles can be a piece of a greater scene. I’ve personally tried them with impact play and bondage with great success.

Piercing can add a personal and intimate touch to all kinds of connections, even those new to us. It can even be explored without the context of BDSM. I’ve negotiated needles with new play partners and had wonderful, intense sessions with them, but it can be an activity shared between friends as well. In many cultures around the world, it’s a community experience, with deep emotional and cultural ties. It can even be your ritual with just yourself.

In the many ways that piercing can be initially shocking, there’s the aspect of facing our discomfort to explore what lies beneath that gives it a depth of mental focus. The sheer invasiveness of the piercing process can bring a lot of feelings and thoughts to the surface. This can feel scary, but we know through countless instances in history that mankind can conquer both body and mind in a myriad of ways. Knowing your response to being pierced and why it is can be utterly empowering.

But, is piercing for me? you may still ask. And the truth is, you may never be certain until you try it. If you’re utterly convinced that you would gain nothing from the experience, then trust your boundaries and your knowledge of yourself.

However, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to know the limits of your body and mind. Play piercing can be an excellent way to challenge, excite, explore, and induce. Whether it be with a partner, friend, professional, or on your own, play piercing can bring your focus to the moment. And the benefits, while varied, will be yours to discover.

As always, be safe, sane, and consensual. And most importantly, be yourself.


Sincerely,

Tess Dagger | Writer for SPNKD

BDSM enthusiast and former sex worker
@tessdagger
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