by Tiffany Lee Brown

There’s nothing quite like sharing an evening of romance with your partner, is there? Candlelight, satin sheets, red wine and, of course, a gleaming scalpel held in a latex-gloved hand. Maybe some play-piercing needles, an ivory-handled straight razor, and a goblet from which to sip your lover’s blood. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Whether or not it’s your personal idea of a good time, bloodplay is gaining followers and media attention as a source of eroticism, ritual, and body modification. This attention follows the publication of True Blood, Charles Gatewood’s latest book of photography. Gatewood has been documenting body play and body modification since the 1960's. In particular, you may have seen his depictions of Fakir Musafar, hanging from hooks or cinching his waist, in books like RE/Search’s Modern Primitives. “This is a natural continuation of my work,” Gatewood told me recently. “Mostly I’m doing this as a documentary artist. I’ve participated a little bitÉ I do a lot of pagan ritual, but I don’t do much blood play myself.”

True Blood shows women in fetish gear and men wearing Native American-looking headdresses, couples in the desert at Burning Man, solo portraits – and every one of them involves blood. A smiling woman holds a large syringe full of blood in one image, with more of it smeared on her nude torso; in another, bloodplay meets golden showers as a woman crouches over a man’s back, which is awash with blood from a freshly-cut pentagram. Yes, it’s rather graphic and gory stuff, fraught with shock value. It’s also one of the most gorgeous, lush, and erotic coffee table books you’re likely to find.

However beautiful Gatewood’s photographs may be, they shouldn’t be taken as documentation of all bloodplay practices or practitioners. The subjects of True Blood make for striking photography, hamming it up as vampires, getting married in public while drenched in blood, or using fetish costumes and props. But other people use bloodplay to enhance their sexual and spiritual lives without so much exhibitionism and drama. The rites of playing are only limited by the players’ imaginations; while vampiric blood-drinking and -sucking appeal to some, others prefer to simply smear the red life substance on their skin. The danger and intimacy of spilling blood can add layers of suspense, trust, and even terror to bondage games and SM scenes, amplifying the aesthetic and tactile pleasure of pain.

Blood ritual and its close relation, cannibalism, have an established place in religious and spiritual practice, from the symbolic ingestion of Christ's blood and body in the Christian communion service to the do-it-yourself scarification ceremonies invented by modern pagans, magicians and neo-tribalists. And while bloodplay is sensual by nature, it can also be performed for the sake of art, fun, decoration, or friendship, involving very little sacred or sexual intent. Exchanging cuttings with a close friend can be a surprisingly sweet and tender act, like becoming “blood brothers” on the playground as kids. Decorative scarifications aren’t necessarily all that different from tattoos or brands; but for blood and blade fetishists, the process of cutting can be extremely erotic.

In other words, bloodplay is just like anything else people do with their bodies: when you first hear about it, see it, or do it, it’s probably quite shocking. But once these things come out of the closet and get rolling as a trend, they stop appearing so wild and suspicious to outsiders. In most urban centers and liberal communities today, few blink an eye at the mention of a leather party or look twice at a heavily-pierced face or a gay couple walking down the street hand-in-hand. A decade or two ago, that wasn’t the case. And by the year 2001, you’ll probably be bored with the once-shocking idea of bloodplay.

Playing it Safe

Much of bloodplay’s current shock value has nothing to do with sex, pain, sadism, or masochism. People are freaked out to see blood because the AIDS crisis has taught us to think of it as dangerous, like a vial of deadly poison or some unstoppable sample of chemical warfare. As with other kinds of play – piercing, branding, tattooing, BDSM, even good old-fashioned vanilla sex – the participants select their own levels of safety when it comes to spilling blood.

Abstinence is the best way to play it safe, just as it is in the case of sexual intercourse. Knives can slip, after all, and latex can break. But people still elect to take the risk and engage in bloodplay, educating themselves about HIV and using common sense.

“I haven’t always played with blood safely,” admits R.K., a San Francisco resident who got his first intentional scar several years ago. “It’s one of those decisions you make sometimes. Like certain kinds of sexual play. What chances are you willing to take? Sometimes the frisson of the moment makes the chanciness feel worthwhile.”

For some players and observers alike, it’s the lack of safety precautions and common sensibilities that give bloodplay its thrill. It’s difficult to think of drinking another person’s blood or smearing it into your own cuts as safe behavior, even if you’ve both been tested repeatedly for HIV. Maybe people are driven to it for the same reasons that some people like extreme sports, Russian roulette, or even driving too fast on a curvy mountain road. “Sometimes you just want to spit in the face of fear,” R.K. continues. “Sometimes it’s just naive. I usually use gloves when I cut others these days.”

In addition to HIV concerns, the players must consider anatomical issues. Will they use shallow, surface cuts or deep ones? Are they going to play with scalpels, syringes, knives, razor blades, or play-piercing needles? Where is it relatively safe to cut deeply? “I know enough about anatomy to not be too concerned about hitting an artery, so sudden death or blood loss doesn’t scare me,” says R.K. When leading scarification rituals, self-described priestess M.B. usually makes shallow cuts on the outer side of the arms and shoulders, the thighs, buttocks, abdomen, or chest.

“If someone wants to let blood from their head, neck, or genitals, they have to make an appointment ahead of time where we discuss the pros and cons, the possible hazards,” explains M.B., who lives in Washington state. “I’m stuffy that way. I firmly believe that a group ritual, where you’re high on dancing, drumming, pain, maybe drugs or alcohol, is not the time and place to make a permanent decision like that. Sure you can have triangles carved into your cheeks or sew weights into your scrotum, I don’t care – just look me in the eye and tell me you want them when you’re sober, in the morning, over coffee.”

What about keeping cuts clean? Most body modification tutorials, whether in the form of an Internet FAQ file or a magazine devoted to the subject, stress the importance of protective gloves and new or autoclaved needles when discussing precautions that your piercer or tattooist should take. Those precautions are taken by bloodplay participants, too, when they want to minimize risk of infection, but the aftercare part is often different. Piercings and tattoos are usually treated similarly to scrapes or wounds: with bandaging, cleansing, salt water soaks, and applications of topical antibiotics. The same holds true for blood players who don’t want any visible scarring.

But for many of us, the body decoration is an intrinsic part of the act. Decorative scars, or cuttings, are often created by bodymod professionals and amateur players alike. They may start with a clean blade, but many rub cigar ashes into the new cut; it hurts, and aggravates the wound so that the resultant scar is more substantial. Tattooing ink and powdered metals, stones, or pigments can also be added to fresh cuts for more permanence; again, research is required to avoid poisoning or allergies. Scarification sites are rarely bandaged or thoroughly cleaned, because being exposed often amplifies the decoration. People often pick at and stretch their new cuttings to keep them open, to keep them from healing quickly, and to encourage the buildup of scar tissue. Of course, the scar risks becoming infected by remaining exposed, just like an accidental wound might. (In my own experience, a scar cut over 100 times has never gotten infected or caused problems, but my safely-applied tattoo required medical attention. Your mileage may vary.)

Whether they choose to do it professionally or at home, alone or in a ritual, carefully or throwing caution to the winds, people are discovering the joys and fascinations of their own blood. Is it a new sexual revolution, or just another trendy chunk of the ’90s zeitgeist? Only time will tell.

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