Here in the U.S., we’d like to believe we’re “free.” Free to speak and act in accordance with our opinions and desires as long as our words and actions don’t harm other freedom-seekers. Yet there are myriad ways in which we’re prevented from achieving this simple breed of freedom every day. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much control we have over what we do with our own bodies. Specifically, I’ve been wondering how it can be illegal in many areas of our country for adults to perform consensual mods on one another. In the infamous Spanner case, a group of gay men were prosecuted for performing various acts of consensual S&M play on each other. In a more recent incident, a DVD depicting the voluntary, non-medical genital modification of a Canadian woman was dropped off to Canadian authorities by an anonymous (and mal intentioned) informant. This was apparently done in order to provoke an investigation into the procedure and the employees of the tattoo shop at which it was performed. The most recent reports regarding this case suggest that no charges have been filed against the woman nor her fellow employees (who carried out the mods), but the whole scenario has nonetheless reignited my outrage at laws limiting our freedom to do what we please with our bodies.
This issue has been in the back of my mind since my first encounters with extreme body modification. Sure, many extreme mods were at first offensive to my eyes and to my logic, but once I got used to the idea that people enjoy cutting and pasting and inking and bedazzling their bodies, it wasn’t so hard to accept. So why can’t lawmakers do so?
Where does the law cease to be about protecting people and start intruding on our personal freedoms?
First, let’s explore the various types of body modification prohibited in the U.S. Specific laws vary from region to region, state to state, and even county to county, but in general prohibitions exist against the following procedures when not performed by a licensed medical professional:
Voluntary amputation, female genital modification (in some places even on consenting adults), subdermal implants, tongue splitting, certain forms of male genital modification, scarification, branding, transdermal implants, uvula piercing, neck piercing, hand/foot/tongue web piercing, eyelid piercing, eyeball tattooing, anal piercing, deep penis/testicle/vagina piercing, skin braiding, “cartilage modification” (presumably that of the ears, a process yielding “elf ears”), saline inflation….anddd probably any other type of mod that some find pleasurable and others find deplorable.
Now to consider why these procedures are seen by our legal systems as so detrimental to individuals and society that performing them must actually be labeled as a criminal offense.
Think first about society’s view of tattoos and piercings up until very recently. In short, they were thought of as barbaric and a sure indication of an unsound mind. This is because, at one time in the history of the Western world, body modifications were found only on criminals and other degenerates of society. When ink and metal leaked out of these lower social spheres and started being seen on the flesh of the general population, negative regard for mods stuck around. Plainskins made no differentiation between modders whose alma mater was the state pen and those who were educated professionals. Their conditioned association between body art and the scum at the bottom of the social food chain couldn’t be undone by a few librarians with tattooed allusions to Chaucer.
The same series of events is unfolding currently as tattooing and piercing are becoming more art forms than trades. Piercing methods have become safer, more sanitary, and more tailored to the human anatomy than ever before. And tattooing has evolved into a fine art where human flesh is the canvas and a tattoo gun the brush. There is a lot of care and pride put into body modification these days, yet inking and adorning the body are still generally looked down upon. This is because the image of a tattooist as a prison scratcher and a piercer as a shady character poking holes in underage kids on the cheap can’t seem to be shaken from the public memory. Although a dying breed, these sorry excuses for mod artists continue to perpetuate a negative social perception of body modification practices and sully the image of the community as a whole.
Society's unwillingness to change their perception of tattooing and piercing despite changes in the circumstances of both parallels societal resistance to accepting extreme body modification. Checkit:
It used to be that S&M amongst gays was the most prevalent arena for extreme body modification. As the gays were viewed as social deviants to begin with, practicing or sporting extreme mods became enough to qualify one for this label as well.
Unsavory history: check.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is a traditional form of body modification performed on young girls, mainly in Africa, as a rite of passage into womanhood. It is expected by many parents that their female children undergo the procedure, as their marriagability and bride price will suffer greatly as a result of going un-circumcised. When compared to male circumcision in the Western world this may seem all fine and well, until the medical risks of FGM/C are considered. The procedure is done by unqualified practitioners (typically a gypsy) in an unsanitary environment with improper and unsanitary equipment. Infection is common, as is excessive bleeding and problems related to urination and menstruation. The process must be undone just before giving birth (and usually re-done after birthing), and birth-related complications are almost expected for women who have undergone FGM/C. Not to mention the psychological trauma that results…
Existence of poor quality body modification work: check.
Considering the sea of pressing issues lawmakers have to worry about these days, deciding what to do about extreme mods probably doesn’t keep them up at night. Based on what comes to mind when they think of extreme modding, it’s not hard to decide that such procedures should be condemned. All they need is a legitimate reason (aside from social, moral, and religious leanings) to ban the practices, and thus extreme modding becomes categorized as practicing medicine without a license.
OK, fine. You guys have got us there. Despite the amount of research and training that goes into being a proper heavy mod artist, we are doing some admittedly dangerous shit and no, we’re not doctors. But wait…traditional Jewish male circumcision is done by an unlicensed practitioner: a mohel. Non-doctor: check. And it’s religiously and/or socially prescribed rather than a doctor-recommended procedure. Medically unnecessary mod: check. So what’s the difference? If anything, circumcising baby boys is more wrong because it’s done against their will. Consenting adults undergo extreme mods, and under most circumstances they know exactly what they’re getting themselves into, risks and all. And when it comes to voluntary amputation, modding is actually a cure for a medically recognized disorder (BIID). All circumcision does for boys is slightly reduce the risk of urinary tract infections – very slightly. Many argue that it “looks better,” but what about people who think they would look better with a silicone star implanted under their skin? I’m just confused: how is it legal to mutilate a young boy’s genitals for religious/social reasons against his will, but it’s illegal for a sane adult male to opt to have beads implanted under the skin of his penis?
At the end of the day, making extreme mods illegal is not the answer. Not in our country, and not abroad. Even when it comes to FGM/C, education should come before legislation. Some countries in which FGM/C is known to be widely practiced have achieved wonderful results with programs that educate families on the dangers of subjecting their children to this unsafe practice. Simply ceasing the practice of FGM/C is often not an option due to its place in many societies as a traditional rite, but teaching and encouraging more sanitary practices can curb the incidence of complications. Other programs have been successful in working with small communities to actually eradicate the practice altogether by coming up with alternative rites that don’t put young girls at risk. We are headed in the right direction, but many countries have preemptively banned the practice of FGM/C before a means of educating their citizens has been enacted. This results in, at best, a law that people don’t understand and can’t really be enforced, and at worst it triggers the procedure to go even deeper underground and become even more dangerous.
The same applies to extreme mods in the Western world. Education of lawmakers on procedures like voluntary amputation, scarification, and genital beading should be a first step to such procedures gaining legal status. Amputation is the *only* recognized cure for BIID, and scarification and beading (when done by experienced practitioners) are quite safe procedures. In addition, perhaps the world of extreme modding could use a bit of regulation, at least in terms of health inspections in venues where such mods are performed. I support being able to choose what one does to one’s body, but there should be specific sites where these procedures can be carried out as safely as possible and only on individuals of a certain age.
Now, I understand that laws against extreme mods may be in place partially to protect taxpayers from having to support the medical care of individuals who encounter complications with their mods. However, the medical community also handles complications with male circumcision, problems resulting from tattoos and (legal) piercings gone wrong, and conditions associated with the many toxic yet legal substances we ingest every day (i.e. alcohol, cigarettes, trans fats). Plus, making extreme mods illegal only increases the likelihood that modders will end up in the hospital.
Think of it this way - abstinence proved to be an unrealistic answer to curbing unwanted pregnancies and transmission of STDs, so sex education became the avenue of choice. In the same vein, people are not going to stop modifying their bodies. For some people it is a passion, for others a career, and for others, it’s the cure to a tortuous neurological disorder or a means of increasing their self-esteem. Thus, making extreme mods illegal will do nothing but drive it further underground and make it more dangerous than ever. The answer is education and regulation.
Our country can’t be run on conservative values. Just because something is new and shocking doesn’t necessarily mean it should be made illegal, and just because we’ve been doing something for hundreds of years doesn’t make it right. Racism, discrimination against gays, degraded social status of women…we change the stuff that sucks. And ya know what? It sucks that I can’t legally get my tongue split or ear cartilage modified in many areas of the country. Not because I’m worried about the legal repercussions of going for it anyway, but because I want to have access to such procedures in a safe, regulated environment that becomes near impossible to achieve when extreme mods are illegal.
Luckily for the Canadian woman and her team of mod artists, the authorities decided to be lenient and ignore the laws condemning extreme mods – this time. But why? Maybe it was seeing the smiles and laughter and words of comfort exchanged during the procedure that did it. Or maybe they were just too lazy to carry out the dirty work of someone else’s personal vendetta. Or just maybe, they were secretly into heavy mod play themselves. No matter the reason, there’s a woman somewhere in Canada whose satisfaction with her genital mods has grown exponentially as a result of escaping prosecution for acting out a basic desire: to do to her body what feels good.