Fifty Shades of Tattooing: Body Art, Risk and Personality

Tattooing and erotic fiction as signs rather than causes of risky behavior

Posted Apr 27, 2015

In a previous post, I discussed issues about whether popular culture and the media could have a harmful influence on risky behavior among women. Specifically, whether the popular Fifty Shades Trilogy had an unhealthy influence on women’s attitudes or whether it was fairly harmless entertainment. Evidence was presented that readers of the series engaged in more high-risk behavior, such as binge drinking, having more sexual partners, and dieting, compared to non-readers (Bonomi et al., 2014). As an alternative explanation, I suggested that it might be the case that women who are predisposed towards this kind of risky behavior are also more likely to be attracted to the series. The case of the Fifty Shades Trilogy seems analogous to another phenomenon that has also been popularised through the media and that is also associated with similar kinds of risky behavior. The phenomenon is tattooing. Does this mean that tattooing is a social problem that needs to be treated? Or it may be that treating tattooing as a problem is merely attacking an outward symptom without addressing the underlying cause.

Jan Blok via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Jan Blok via Wikimedia Commons

Tattooing seems to have become more popular in recent years. A 2012 Harris poll found that one in five (21%) Americans had tattoos, which is up from polls in previous years, e.g. 16% in 2003 and 14% in 2008 respectively. The same poll also found that women were somewhat more likely than men to have a tattoo (23% versus 19%) for the first time in any survey. Tattooing has also gained mainstream media exposure through reality TV shows dedicated to the subject, such as Miami Ink.

Although tattooing appears to have become more widely accepted, it has traditionally been associated with negative stereotypes such as rebelliousness and even with deviant behavior. The Harris poll cited earlier in fact found that 50% of people surveyed who do not have tattoos think that a person with a tattoo is likely to be more rebellious than someone without one. A British study suggested that women with tattoos are perceived as less attractive, more promiscuous, and as heavier drinkers than women without them (Swami & Furnham, 2007). An experimental study found that men were more likely to approach a woman on a beach when she had a lower back tattoo (pejoratively known as a “tramp stamp”). Men also thought the woman was more likely to have sex on a first date (Guéguen, 2013).

Although stereotyping a specific individual based on a single attribute such having a tattoo is inherently unfair as not everyone is the same, there is nonetheless a body of evidence indicating that people with tattoos do have higher rates of problematic and risky behavior such drug and alcohol use, promiscuous sexual activity, and illegal activities. For example, a number of studies have found association between tattoos and sexuality, such that men and women with tattoos tend to have an earlier age of first intercourse, engage in more frequent sexual activity (including oral sex), and have a higher number of lifetime sexual partners (Guéguen, 2012b; Heywood et al., 2012; Nowosielski, Sipiński, Kuczerawy, Kozłowska-Rup, & Skrzypulec-Plinta, 2012). There is also evidence that people of both sexes with tattoos have higher rates of smoking, drinking and drug use than non-tattooed people (Heywood, et al., 2012; King & Vidourek, 2013). For example, in one study young people leaving a bar were asked to take a breathalyser test, and it was found that men and women with tattoos and/or body piercings gave higher blood alcohol readings (Guéguen, 2012a). Tattooing has also been found to be associated with risky behavior more generally. A study of high school students found that boys and girls with tattoos and/or body piercings were more likely to be involved with a range of high risk activities such as multiple drug use, illegal activities, gang affiliation, problem gambling, school truancy and rave attendance (Deschesnes, Finès, & Demers, 2006). Interestingly, both tattooing and body piercing were more prevalent among girls than boys in this study. Tattoos have even been found to be associated with disordered eating, as one study found that females with tattoos had more symptoms of bulimia than females without them, although the effect was fairly small (Preti et al., 2006).

There may be a number of reasons why having a tattoo is associated with such a range of risky kinds of behavior. Part of the reason may be that people who decide to get tattoos have personal characteristics that predispose them towards taking risks. Compared to the non-tattooed, people with tattoos tend to have a higher need to feel unique, and tend to have certain personality traits associated with risk taking, such as low agreeableness and conscientiousness, higher extraversion, higher sensation-seeking (a desire for novelty, variety, and stimulating experiences) and higher sociosexuality (willingness to engage in uncommitted sex) (Swami, 2012; Tate & Shelton, 2008). Low agreeableness and conscientiousness are associated with impulsiveness, and extraversion and sensation-seeking are each associated with risk-taking for the sake of excitement. Hence, people with this kind of personality profile are particularly prone to drug and alcohol use, and to be rather uninhibited in their sexuality. Therefore there are parallels between women with tattoos and women who have read the Fifty Shades Trilogy. Both groups are more sexually active, more likely to binge drink, and perhaps more likely to have issues with dieting and presumably their body image.

Alexandra K Passe via flickr
Source: Alexandra K Passe via flickr

Of course, the reason why tattooing is associated with risky behavior is not actually known. It is possible that tattooing somehow causes people to engage in this kind of behavior, or that the way tattooing is promoted in popular media somehow glamorizes the culture and lifestyle associated with tattooing. However, I do not think this is a very plausible explanation because it seems unlikely that simply getting a tattoo would change a person’s whole way of life. (However, I am open to being proved wrong.) Furthermore, appealing to the influence of mass media as a causative influence does not explain why some people choose to get tattoos, while most people do not. In my opinion, it seems more likely that tattooing is an outward manifestation of tendencies that people already have, tendencies that are expressed in risky behavior. In a similar vein, it has been argued that reading the Fifty Shades Trilogy might influence a woman’s behavior (Bonomi, et al., 2014). Bonomi et al. argued that reading the books might create “an underlying context” which makes risky behavior more likely. However, it is not actually clear how the storyline of the books encourages binge drinking or having more than one sexual partner, particularly as the books’ female protagonist has only one sexual partner in her whole life. Alternatively, one might consider why some women choose to read these books in the first place. Just like getting a tattoo, reading the books might be an outward sign of predispositions towards risk rather than a causal influence. Women who enjoy pornography for example tend to have more permissive sexual attitudes (Wright, Bae, & Funk, 2013). While it might be that watching pornography changes women’s attitudes towards sex, it could also be that women choose to watch in the first place because of their attitudes. Similarly, women might choose to read the Fifty Shades Trilogy because it fits with their existing attitudes.

Those who are concerned about the incidence of risky behavior in women might do well to address the underlying causes rather than the outward symptoms. For instance, the fact that women with tattoos are more likely to drink heavily, be promiscuous and have disordered eating does not mean that discouraging women from getting ink done will address any of these latter problems. Similarly, the fact that women who read the Fifty Shades Trilogy are more also likely to have many of these issues does not mean that educating young women about how these books supposedly contain harmful messages will in any way help address these same problems. 

Finally, I want to point out that as is usual with statistical trends, absolute generalizations should never be drawn and not all people with tattoos are the same. Women and men may get tattoos or read erotic books for many reasons, and they are not always indicators of risky behavior or specific personality traits. Furthermore, nothing in this article should be read as an attack on anyone's lifestyle. 

Image Credits 

Woman with chest tattoo: Jan Blok via Wikimedia Commons

Teaser Image: Tattooed ICandy by Alexandra K Passe

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.


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