This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Recently, my girlfriend told me about a sexual experience she’d had long ago with a Yakuza—a member of a number of transnational organized crime syndicates originating in Japan. Up until that point, the only two things I knew about the Yakuza were that the name derived from the unluckiest hand you can be dealt when playing the Japanese card game of Oicho-Kabu (Ya-ku-za literally means “eight-nine-three”) and that tattoos are so synonymous with the Yakuza that literally anyone with any conspicuous ink can be denied admittance to a public baths or onsen in Japan.
My girlfriend told me that she didn’t remember the guy having any tattoos but she did recall the pearls in his penis. I rewound and reviewed the sentence in my head to see if I should know what she was talking about. I didn’t. “Yakuza put pearls in their dicks to make sex better for their partners,” she said, explaining that it’s intended to provide more vaginal or anal stimulation. When I asked her if it worked, she matter-of-factly explained that she was more focused on the unnerving realities of having sexual encounter with a bona fide gangster than the way anything felt.
I was so gripped by the other aspects of her story that I didn’t look into what putting pearls in one’s penis would actually entail until some days later. Based on her brief description, I originally thought that the procedure involved shoving pearls into the penis via the urethral opening as though loading a miniature musket. A 2010 review of the literature concerning the “implantation of artificial penile nodules” published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, however, gave a comprehensive overview that both confirmed this odd bod mod with organized crime, and gave me a clearer picture of what the procedure entails. Allow me to explain.
Known as pearling or beading, this sort of body modification requires an incision to be made on the shaft of the penis into which a spherical or sometimes rib-shaped object is placed. Originally pearls were used—hence “pearling”—but implants are also made of silicone, nylon, Teflon, stainless steel, or titanium. Often, a single object is implanted on the dorsal aspect (top side) of the penile shaft though they can be placed in rows or arranged randomly around the circumference and length of the shaft. As you might expect, having pearls installed isn’t without its risks.
“Those undergoing pearling must remember that a foreign body is being implanted into the body.” says New York City-based plastic surgeon Neil Tanna, who adds that placing any implant in the body has the potential to result in bleeding, infection, foreign body migration, and loss of sensation. “In addition, severe inflammation can result if an unsuitable material is inserted under the skin.”
A knobbly and possibly infected penis might not strike you as aesthetically pleasing—a little too wabi-sabi, to borrow the Japanese phrase that roughly means "the beauty in the imperfect, impermanent, and asymmetrical." But then, increasing sexual pleasure—not the look—is pearling’s primary purpose. I find it fascinating, almost charming, that macho, gang members of patriarchal crime syndicates would care enough about eliciting partners’ sexual pleasure that they’d retrofit their genitals to that end. Then again, it’s worth noting that amongst themselves, Yakuza refer to to various syndicates they belong to as "ninkyō dantai” or "chivalrous organizations.”
Interestingly, pearling among the Yakuza primarily goes down in prison, each pearl placed under the skin symbolizing a year spent in the big house. Somehow pearling behind bars caught on in the US, too, with inmates using the sharpened end of a plastic spoon to make the incision and stuffing dominos, marbles, and broken-off heads of chess pieces under the skin of their penises. Two summers ago, Vice got four prison inmates to open up about their experiences with pearling in the Hooskow. Somehow, they weren’t pressed on the paradox of making one’s penis ostensibly more pleasurable to female partners when there are none around.
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In that piece, one inmate talks about an ex-prostitute friend of his who reported that sex workers hated the implants as they tend to hurt. Still, the idea that having your penis pearled will make have you wringing orgasms out of your partner by the dozen seems to have taken root. It’s popular in Cuba despite the practice having led to tetanus, balanitis (an inflammation of the head or glans of the penis), and gangrene that ultimately resulted in more than a few penile amputations. It’s also popular among and Filipino sailors. According to one 1999 survey, 57 percent of 314 randomly selected Filipino seafarers were sporting bolitas or little balls, many believing that this actually made them more popular with prostitutes, particularly those in Rio De Janeiro.
Cuban sex therapist Almudena López of Móstoles University Hospital highly doubts that the pearls work as intended. "For it to really stimulate the clitoris, the pearl should be placed at the very base of the penis, which never happens,” she told VICE in 2016. “As for the G-spot, that's something you can easily reach with a finger, but it's much more complicated to reach directly with the penis. Of course eroticism is for a big part a psychological affair, and given that the famous pearl has some mysteries to it, it might actually tickle the brain more than any other part of the body."
If you’re somehow still interested in recontouring your penis, you may have a hard time finding a practitioner outside of the prison system—it doesn’t seem be be something that’s advertised. If, however, you see a guy with devil horns subdermally implanted into his forehead, it would be a safe bet that he knows a guy.