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Ink on Skin Doesn’t Necessarily Indicate Sin

A new study of college students finds a correlation between body art and deviant behavior, but only for those with multiple tattoos or piercings.
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Dear Dr. Research:

My college-student daughter arrived home for Christmas vacation sporting a variety of tattoos and body piercings. Should I be concerned?

-- Worried in Wichita

Dear Worried:

Body art is like real estate. The key factors are density and location, location, location.

* * *

That's the conclusion of the latest research from a group of scholars at Texas Tech University that has spent much of the past decade studying the phenomenon of piercings and tattoos. The paper, just published in TheSocial Science Journal, suggests the relationship between body art and deviant behavior is significant only for those who have adorned their exteriors in extreme ways.

There's no doubt that body art has gone mainstream. Surveying 1,753 students from four American colleges — two state-supported public schools and two highly selective religious institutions — they found 37 percent reported at least one piercing and 14 percent were tattooed. Four percent reported having seven or more piercings, four or more tattoos, and/or at least one piercing in their nipples or genitals.

Aside from their use of the body as a canvas, the students were asked about various aspects of their behavior, including drug and alcohol use, sexual activity and whether they cheat on tests.

The findings revealed "sharp differences in the levels of deviant behavior among those with just one tattoo vs. those with four or more, and among those with just one to three piercings vs. those with seven or more," reports sociologist Jerome Koch, the paper's lead author. "The level of deviance reported by respondents with low levels of body art is much closer to those with none than to those with multiple tattoos and piercings, or intimate piercings."

"Results indicate that respondents with four or more tattoos, seven or more body piercings, or piercings located in their nipples or genitals, were substantially and significantly more likely to report regular marijuana use, occasional use of other drugs, and a history of being arrested for a crime," the paper continues. "Less pronounced, but still significant in many cases, was an increased propensity for those with higher incidence of body art to cheat on college work, binge drink and report having had multiple sex partners over the course of their lifetime."

The researchers suggest the traditional subculture of piercing and tattoos, traditionally associated with deviant behavior, has been "encroached upon from the outside" by the increasing acceptance of body art. So those who feel a part of this subculture "may need to modify or extend their behavior to maintain social distance." Ergo, nipple piercings.

So, that butterfly on your sophomore's ankle is not a sign she is hanging out with the wrong crowd. But if she comes home for spring break covered from head to toe, start worrying.

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