Editor’s Note: This essay includes descriptions of piercings with hypodermic needles and blood in a BDSM context and brief references to self-harm.
Needles are an edge. They encompass many spheres and much stigma, reminding us that we’re flesh sacks filled with fluid a mere pinprick can pierce. IV drug users and those who are tattooed (although this is changing more and more in the West) are viewed as deviant. People faint at the sight and feel of needles during vaccines and blood draws. This may be why a lot of kinksters consider needle play and blood play to be an edge they won’t cross without deep consideration.
Understandably, the risk of blood-borne pathogens raises the stakes a bit higher than, say, spanking someone with your bare hands. But with hygiene considerations — cleaning the piercing site, using proper sharps disposal and understanding how blood-borne pathogens are transmitted — play piercings can create stunning temporary art as well as hot and filthy kink scenes.
Playing with needles was one of my first masochistic kink experiences. I can understand why kinksters, especially those with a history of self-harm and suicidal ideation, view those who work with needles as fringe edge-players. We’re poking holes in our skin willfully and leaving the needles in there to fuck around with — on purpose. But I’ve always been drawn to this experience.
During childhood, I looked forward to my sparse encounters with needles. I was one of the budding subs who were chasing endorphin rushes by threading the top layer of my skin with a sewing needle pilfered from my mother’s blue tin sewing kit and poking myself with safety pins. In adolescence, I looked forward to vaccinations, relishing the deep ache the needle injection would leave in my bicep. The lingering soreness reminded me of my privilege and the healthcare my immigrant parents didn’t have when they were my age. I was proud to be inoculated. The first time I received acupuncture treatment in my twenties, I didn’t think twice about how the treatment included needles and didn’t get the fuss other patients were making. Honestly, I was disappointed that it didn’t hurt more.
Diving right into needles and skipping impact, restraints or other less-taboo kinks for my first scenes doesn’t make me special or more hardcore than the next kinkster. If anything, it only shows how lucky I was to be in the right place at the right time and to have access to play in that arena with someone who cared about me. It went like this.
“Do you want to do some needles?” they asked me. Warmth flooded through my chest, while anticipation slowly ramped up in my belly. I’ve wanted “some needles” for years. To have a deeply rooted desire offered so casually was a gift I continue to unwrap for myself.
“Yes,” I said without hesitation. We negotiated how many needles (five) and where. It seemed obvious to me that we would christen my still-new-to-me chest for my first kink scene, that we would decorate the lines where my top surgeon carved away the mountains of flesh I carried for years.
A Leo in their full glory, my play partner set the scene without me and made me wait until it was all finished before they allowed me see it. As I walked back into the room, bubbles were floating through the air, and atop a crystal tray were the five needles prepped and waiting for us. Through their sadistic hands, my flesh turned into a bouquet of needle-thorned roses.
That first scene between us broke open something more than just my flesh. I immediately became enamored with the endorphin rush when needles first pierced my skin and the subsequent horror at seeing the needle tent my skin as it exited. I was hooked. There was such catharsis in the way we played in our needle scene, laden with revelry and teasing over my tears.
I cried big wet sobs before the needle would pierce my chest, and a hot flare of pain would register. And in any needle scene, the piercing is just the beginning — once the needles are in, you can move, twist, tap, hit or even threaten to step on them.
The flare of pain elicited from the needles was familiar even though it was my first time. It reminded me of the sensation growing back in my post-op chest. Pain came back to my skin before pleasure did. As my partner stabbed my new chest, it felt like the ultimate ownership. Breaking new ground, a reclamation of my body through what I could choose to do with it.
Later as we scrolled through the photos we took, I witnessed joy, exclamations and exuberance flashing across my face. In one photo, I look down at the 20-gauge hypodermic needles and the eventual blood drips with delight and utter bliss. Here was a new layer of self-understanding revealed in photographs — I felt beautiful.
I needed to learn how to do this myself. There was a needle itch I needed to scratch. As I taught myself to needle as a top through a variety of kink workshops and a play piercing how-to book, it felt natural to me. Swiftly, I came to know the difference between a timidly-placed shallow needle, which caused way more nerve pain, and a confidently pierced needle nestled comfortably in my subcutaneous tissue, plump and pretty.
At this point, I’ve needled myself more often on my own than in a partnered kink context. Piercing my own flesh has brought me ownership over my experience and the ability to move through difficult emotions with a deft and sure hand, an inner knowing that I’ve got my own back. That I can take care of myself, despite what my nervous system wants to frazzle over. Play piercing inspires me to take care of myself in new and radical ways that I haven’t even begun to think up yet.
Oddly enough, the first time I pierced myself, the first needle wasn’t the hardest; the second one was. I looked at my second, unwrapped 20-gauge and seriously questioned if I could do this to myself again. I could hear my self-preservation instincts yelling, “What are you doing? Stop stop stop!” before the second needle entered my skin.
With that second needle, I showed myself I could love myself through any kind of pain; that I could override what emotions were deposited into me by others — the voices of friends who were uncomfortable with my interest in needle play, their well-meaning concern due to my history of self-mutilation. But that pain was different, expressed unintentionally with pure rage and frustration. It contrasted starkly with the clear, premeditated way I was placing my sterile hypodermics.
Satisfied, I ultimately went for three, desiring to test out all three sizes I procured after my needle play class. Picking up the pink capped 18-gauge, I knew this one would provide the most resistance mentally, as it was the biggest. But the femme in me couldn’t resist, since it was also the prettiest out of the three sizes with its pink hub. Once placed, I ran my gloved finger over the feel of the metal in my skin and smiled. I fucking did that. I glowed inside, learning new layers of strength in what I could withstand, in what I could inflict on myself. Once the needles were removed, the running tears of blood down my thigh brought me an inner peace I’d only ever experienced in partner-induced subspace.
As I practiced more needle configurations on the tops of my thighs, the sides of my calves and on my chest, I adored my self-inflicted hematomas. I was top to my own bottom, my own self-lover, poking holes in my existence for the sheer pleasure of it.
Giving myself pleasure through self-inflicted pain has been a means of self-worship in this stage of my life. When I disassociated in my chest harness during a Shibari rope class, needles were how I found my way back into my body. The previously reliable tension of jute across my skin didn’t pull me into my body and ground me — my neuropathy was flaring in flames across my right shoulder and arm. The nerve pain was a pain I couldn’t control, an unreliable wildfire burning down from my bicep into my ring finger and pinky.
I moved through the tie looking down at the ground, avoiding anyone’s eyes, bearing the pain the best I could in order for my partner to learn the tie (something I do not recommend ever doing as rope bottom — talk to your top and stop the tie). By the time my partner and I ended the class and arrived home, I was quiet and unwell.
Despite aftercare, I was unable to fully inhabit my body. The nerve pain in my arm and fingers was persistent, and I was overwhelmed with grief that my body was failing me. How could I get back to myself?
I recalled how months earlier, during an electro play tease against my groin, the electric impulses triggered a searing hot sense-memory. The pain of laser-targeted hair removal sessions on my pubic hair as a teen flooded my body. The playful mood immediately shifted as I started to cry. Sexy, right? But it was through my first trigger in kink that I learned I could move through triggered emotions by evoking another bodily sensation — the endorphin rush of being pierced by a needle. By the time three needles were in my chest, I was smiling and giggling, my tears long dried and trigger a long distant memory where it belonged.
“I’m going to do some needles,” I told my partner after the rope class. This time, I would be the one piercing myself to move through the emotions. Four 18g, four 20’s and then six 22’s crisscrossed to form three of what we call “endorphin buttons.” It was my first time piercing myself with so many needles, and the more needles I placed, the stronger, more capable and self-assured I felt.
I glowed as I removed the needles from my skin. My hand didn’t hurt as much as it did during the tie class — the nerves had quieted for now. I could pull out what I wanted and what I needed from myself. Instead of remembering that night as one where I hit my physical limitations in rope, needles have shown me that while I am flesh — fallible and vulnerable — I am also blood, a dynamic life force pumping through to the next stage.