By Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Pubic hair grooming is an age-old practice that dates back to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Though not new by any stretch of the imagination, genital grooming has increased in popularity in the last few years. In fact, studies consistently find that a majority of women and men alike report having done it at least once before; however, women tend to do it more often.
So what’s behind this growing genital grooming trend?
Looking at the reasons men and women report for trimming and removing their pubic hair offers some insight. Across the sexes, what people say most often is that they think having less hair down there will make them feel more attractive, or that it will make them more attractive in the eyes of others.
Why do so many people today associate a lack of pubic hair with attractiveness? We can’t say for sure, but some suspect that it might be related to the fact that, over the last several years, pubic hair has gradually been disappearing in the world of porn.
Beyond feeling more attractive, there are numerous other reasons people cite for genital grooming. For instance, some women say that it makes sex more comfortable, while some men say that it makes their penises look bigger.
What all of this suggests is that people seem to perceive a lot of benefits of pubic hair grooming. But are there drawbacks, too? That is, are there any health risks linked to this practice?
According to the research, the answer is simple: yes. Genital grooming is far from a risk-free activity. In a recent study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, over 1,100 college students were surveyed about their genital grooming practices. Researchers found that most had experienced symptoms at least once before following pubic hair removal. Specifically, 75% experienced genital itching, 40% experienced genital cuts, 40% experienced genital rashes, and 15% experienced genital pain. Although women were more likely to experience itching, rashes, and pain than men, these symptoms were reported pretty infrequently, they didn’t tend to last very long (usually less than 1 day), and they were rated as being low to moderate in severity on average.
In other words, what this study suggests is that if you engage in genital grooming, odds are that you’ll experience symptoms from time to time. For most people, however, those symptoms will probably be pretty minor.
That said, serious side effects and injuries are still possible and genital groomers should be mindful of them. For example, when people use razors or scissors in the process of shaving or trimming their pubic hair, there’s a chance that they might wind up with a cut that requires medical attention. Unfortunately, injuries like this happen more often than you might think.
For instance, one study reported that between the years 2002 and 2010, there were an estimated 11,704 incidents in the United States in which people wound up in the emergency room following a genital grooming injury! This study also reported that, as pubic hair grooming has grown in popularity, so has the number of grooming-related injuries.
Beyond this risk for serious injury, new research suggests that genital grooming could potentially increase the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Indeed, a study published earlier this year in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections found that people who had ever engaged in genital grooming were more likely to report having had an STI.
This was particularly true for those who groomed frequently (as in daily or weekly) and those who typically removed all of their pubic hair. These individuals were most at risk for contracting STIs that can be passed via skin-to-skin contact-think herpes, HPV, and syphilis. The thought here is that grooming may create tiny microtears in the skin that make it easier for viral infections to take hold.
However, it’s important to note that we can’t determine cause and effect from this study, given that the researchers didn’t actually look at how timing of grooming was related to when STIs were contracted. More research is therefore needed to confirm this link.
With all of that said, the point here is not to suggest that pubic hair grooming is something you should necessarily avoid. The decision is ultimately yours and no one else’s; however, it’s worth being informed and aware of the potential risks so that you can take appropriate precautions.
There are several things you can do to make genital grooming safer and to minimize some of these potential health risks. For starters, in the interest of not ending up in the ER, avoid the use of scissors and, instead, opt for an electric razor with a pubic hair setting. Likewise, if you’re going to use a blade, make sure it’s fresh, use it gently, and don’t attempt to shave when you’re in a hurry-this is the kind of activity where it’s important not to do it in a rush.
Also, if you’re concerned about the potential for pubic hair grooming to increase the your risk of contracting STIs, you can probably reduce this risk to some degree by reducing the frequency with which you groom and stick to more trimming as opposed to shaving. Of course, if you feel that these changes to your grooming routine would defeat the purpose, use of condoms would at least help to minimize your exposure. Lastly, if you notice an obvious injury to the skin after grooming, give it time to heal before getting sexual and try to take more precautions the next time you groom.
Butler, S. M., Smith, N. K., Collazo, E., Caltabiano, L., & Herbenick, D. (2015). Pubic hair preferences, reasons for removal, and associated genital symptoms: Comparisons between men and women. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12(1), 48-58.
Osterberg, E. C., Gaither, T. W., Awad, M. A., Truesdale, M. D., Allen, I., Sutcliffe, S., & Breyer, B. N. (2017). Correlation between pubic hair grooming and STIs: Results from a nationally representative probability sample. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 93(3), 162-166.
Ramsey, S., Sweeney, C., Fraser, M., & Oades, G. (2009). Pubic hair and sexuality: A review. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6(8), 2102-2110.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. He has published articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, written two textbooks, and produces the popular blog, Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research topics include casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. He is currently the Director of the Social Psychology Graduate Program and an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at Ball State University.