A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

I want to get my nipples pierced. Are there health risks? Plus: sperm trees of Los Angeles

September 20, 1985

Dear Cecil:

I'm seriously thinking about getting one of my nipples pierced. Are there health risks involved? Also, should I go to a doctor and have it done or don't they do that sort of thing? Do guys think it's sexy, or am I just weird?

Cecil replies:

Whatever guys may think about it, Lisa, you're definitely weird — and increasingly, so is this job. When I started writing the Straight Dope 15 years ago, I used to get maybe two or three pathological questions a month. Now I get double handfuls of them in every mail. Here's a sample of what the postman brought this morning:

If a person has a pacemaker implanted in his body, and that person dies, what becomes of the pacemaker? Is it removed? If so, is it inspected and repaired, then sold again? If so, is it sold at full price, or at a discount rate? Who gets the money, the hospital or the survivors of the deceased? And is the purchaser told that his pacemaker is used, and may have contributed to the death of its previous owner? (Sunland, California)

It is nearly autumn again here in Los Angeles, and this week I was once again assaulted with what is, for me, my primary autumn experience here in LA. As I was cycling down Willoughby going east near Spaulding, I was enveloped by the pungent and erotic smell of semen. What causes this? In years past I have noted this smell at Third near Curson and also at Fernwood near Bronson. But by October it should be a very general experience throughout Los Angeles. Any ideas? (Los Angeles)

I am 29 years old, and have been hearing a lot about my 'biological time clock.' As I understand it, some kind of alarm will go off if I reach the age of 30 without having conceived. What I am worried about is the possibility of this alarm going off while I am in some public place. What if I'm at a restaurant or something? Will it go beep, braaaaap, or tingalingaling? Please answer quickly, as it may affect my birthday plans. (Alexandria, Virginia)

If I cross the street in the middle of the block, I cross at an angle to the right or left or else straight across. If anything, it's 'I' walking. SO HOW COME THEY CALL IT 'J' WALKING? (Los Angeles)

After a recent session of cunnilingus, I began to wonder what produces that one-of-a-kind vaginal taste. After talking it over with some friends, connoisseurs all, I found that there are three basic tastes: good, no taste, and really bad — the mustard-gas variety. Why this clear-cut division? (No address)

Did God put us here for a purpose? If so, what? My landlady tells me that our purpose is to pay the rent. My girl friend agrees. She says there is no intrinsic meaning to life, but that we can create meaning for our lives by setting goals — such as paying the bills and doing the laundry — and striving to attain them. But that seems too shallow. So please, Cecil, why are we here? (Chicago)

Needless to say, I'm not going to answer these questions, because they're offensive to my sensitive nature, not to mention nuts. For you, though, Lisa, I'm going to make an exception. The medical authorities I've spoken with on the subject of nipple piercing advise me that, to put it bluntly, you're out of your mind. For one thing, the scar tissue that normally forms around a pierced hole might block the milk ducts, making it difficult or impossible for you to nurse. Second, if the hole became infected, as occasionally happens in ear piercing, the infection could travel up the milk ducts and affect the entire breast. In men, the milk-duct system is vestigial, so guys can get away with this kind of thing. For you, however, I'd recommend looking into something a little more wholesome in the way of bodily adornment, like a buttock tattoo. I understand they're all the rage in Washington these days.

Reports from the fringe, part 1

Dear Cecil:

Abhorrent as it is to speak of such matters, I must corroborate your reader's recent observation about certain trees in Los Angeles that smell like semen in the fall. I have two of these funky-smelling (in the original sense of the word meaning "bitch dog in heat") trees in my backyard in Laurel Canyon. They are ugly, have grotesque hairy blossoms, and smell so bad that bees and flies both share the nectar. It is disconcerting for me and I'm glad I'm not the only one to notice it.

PS: I have no idea what they're called.

Dear R.H.:

I can see it's going to be one of those weeks. Due to the press of business, I haven't had had a chance to hunt down the sperm trees of Los Angeles myself. However, David Lofgren, a botanical information consultant at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum, speculates that the plant in question is the carob tree, Ceratonia siliqua, source of the well-known chocolate substitute. The tree, which grows only in Mediterranean climates like LA's, typically is around 30 feet tall and has bluish green leaves that are rounded on the end. At blossom time it has many little flowers, which may give the appearance of hairiness. In the fall and winter it produces sweet, juicy pods that conceivably could produce the smell of semen when they rot. However, if one of Cecil's devoted readers will kindly send him a sample of the offending tree's leaves, blossoms, pods, or whatever, we'll get to the bottom of this matter once and for all.

The sperm trees of Los Angeles: the search continues

Dear Cecil:

I am writing in regard to the identity of the "semen tree" discussed recently in your column. May I suggest that what the writer was talking about was the female ginkgo tree? In the fall it drops many small apricot-colored fruits. When the fruit ripens, it smells more like vomit than semen. Orientals (I lived in Japan for ten years) consider the nut within this fruit (the ginkgo nut) to be a delicacy. In the early morning old people put Baggies over their hands, push the smelly fruit away from the nut, drop the nuts into a bag, and take them home. They are washed and dried (during which they lose their smell), cracked open, and the nut meat boiled or baked. Ginkgo nuts are great, but the fruit is still disgusting.

Dear Elyse:

Considering I ran the original letter as an example of a question so stupid nobody could possibly be interested in it, the sperm trees of LA have generated an extraordinary response. In addition to vomit, I've heard about a tree that smells like fecal matter and the female generative orifice. A recent graduate of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, reports that while on campus she, too, noticed trees that smelled like vomit. However, another former Vassar inmate — believe me, I check this stuff out — says the indicated trees are definitely not ginkgoes. Knowing the party-hearty predilections of college women these days, I'm not sure the smell is entirely botanical in origin.

Gratz Beehler of Washington, D.C. — a fine fellow despite his dubious moniker — says there's a tall (50-60 feet) and spindly (six to ten inches in diameter) plant in Florida known as the "punk tree," which has "very spikelike flowers" (hence the name, presumably). It blooms in March and October, smells "like rotten stuff" (if not necessarily semenlike), and is known to grow in LA. Gratz promises to try to rustle up a sample so we can get a positive ID. Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for somebody to send me a specimen of sperm-tree foliage. C'mon, kids — there's a Nobel in this.

More opinions

Dear Cecil:

Regarding the "sperm trees" of Los Angeles, I've checked with several people, and they all agree. California privet (sorry, I don't know the scientific name) is your culprit. I've seen it in hedge and tree form. I've seen its hairy flowers bloom in spring and fall; however, it only smells for a few weeks in the spring. That's when swarm of bees are attracted to it.

Dear Cecil:

… carob trees. Said trees abound, for example, in the Los Feliz area north of Franklin near Edgemont. The trees smell like sperm, or Clorox on some days, and have nothing to do with appearing or acting like sperm.

Dear Cecil:

… the carob tree. These trees emit this odor only in the fall when they show a hairlike pollen-tipped fuzz growing from the bark near the tips of narrow branches.

Dear Cecil:

… the carob tree. We had a small one growing in our schoolyard in Arizona. One of the reasons it may be hard to identify is that it does not always smell. It seems to have a cycle, but not a yearly one.

Cecil replies:

The mail at this point is running about 2-to-1 carob tree, so I guess we'll declare it the winner. Unfortunately, the one sample of sperm tree blossom we received had been dumped into an ordinary envelope (rather than, say, a baggie), giving it time to dry out and disintegrate before we could get it to an expert for analysis. Let's use our heads out there, gang.

Late news about the sperm trees of Los Angeles

(November 1, 1996)

Longtime readers will recall the heated debate in this space some years ago over the identity of a tree, originally spotted in Los Angeles, that at certain times of the year smelled like, uh, sperm. (To be precise, like semen. But you know what we mean.)

It wasn't our idea to get into this repulsive topic. It did, however, capture the imagination of the Teeming Millions. Not that the Teeming Millions were much help getting to the bottom of it. Despite repeated pleas, no one ever sent us an identifiable sample, and we never settled the matter.

The controversy flared anew on our America Online message board last summer. But this time our call for samples got results. In fact, we got two samples — one from Robert Williams, the other from Brian Maffitt.

Just one little problem. They weren't the same tree. What's more, neither of them was one of the trees suggested in our previous go-round on this subject. I quote from a letter from the experts at the plant clinic at the Morton Arboretum near Chicago, to whom I sent the above-mentioned samples.

The two specimens you sent us arrived in, well, somewhat poor shape. [Hey, so I delayed sending them out. I'm a busy guy.]

Although you mentioned semen as the putative odor given off by the trees, and one of the specimens had degraded to what looked like a baggie full of the bodily fluid, we found the odor much more offensive than an innocent penis could possibly produce.

However, one brave soul examined the samples long enough to determine their identity.

The Williams sample is a chestnut (Castanea sp.), known to produce flowers with an offensive odor (offensive to humans but revered by pollinating insects). It is likely a Chinese chestnut or hybrid chestnut since our American chestnut was pretty much wiped out by a fungal disease introduced to the U.S. around 1906, and there are very few American chestnuts that reach flowering age.

The Maffitt sample is undoubtedly a tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), although, in honesty, we lacked the courage to pull a leaf out of the 'semen-filled' bag. Tree of heaven is said to stink to high heaven as its flowers produce a decidedly disagreeable stench.

Interestingly, it is the male flowers that produce the stench, while the female flowers are aroma-free (there are separate male and female trees for this species). So perhaps the connection your reader made with male-produced semen is not too far off.

Very good, except that previously the consensus was that the sperm tree was the carob tree, with one radical holding out for the California privet. Now we've got three or four possible sperm trees out there.

So there you have it. The truth ain't pretty. But I feel you need to know.

Reports from the fringe, part 2

Dear Cecil:

Regarding the enclosed: now you know!

Cecil replies:

Susan has sent the following clipping:

PACEMAKERS FOR PETS

If your dog has a heart problem, you'll be glad to know that more and more vets are implanting pacemakers in their canine patients. Pacemakers help dogs with blocked hearts and impaired cardiac function, which often causes fluid buildup in the lungs, coughing and wheezing.

Some of the pacemakers being used for dogs are recycled or outdated human models that originally cost as much as $4,000. These must be recalibrated for a dog's faster heart rate — generally 80 to 100 beats per minute, compared to the resting human pace of 70 beats per minute. A reconditioned unit — sterilized and rewired by the pacemaker manufacturer — costs between $400 and $700. The surgical procedure is not dangerous, complicated or very expensive, but I advise you to use a veterinary cardiologist recommended by your animal doctor.

Taken from Dr. Michael W. Fox, scientific director of the Humane Society of the U.S., Understanding Your Pet.

We live in an amazing age. Cecil has also seen news reports on a pacemaker implanted in a cat at the New York State College of Veterinary Science, Cornell University. The pacemaker used in the $600 operation had been designed for humans but was donated by the manufacturer after its recommended shelf life had elapsed. However, device's lithium battery is expected to last beyond the cat's lifetime.

Reports from the fringe, part 3

(Warning: It gets pretty strange from here on out.)

Dear Cecil:

Re: Your answer to the woman who was thinking about getting her nipples pierced.

Hey, don't rush to judgment without at least taking into account the historical perspective. Stephen Kern in his book Anatomy and Destiny: A Cultural History of the Human Body (Bobbs-Merrill, 1975) says:

"In the late 1890s the 'bosom ring' came into fashion briefly and sold in expensive Parisian jewelry shops. These anneaux de sein were inserted through the nipple, and some women wore one on either side linked with a delicate chain" (p. 97).

Kern cites as his source Eduard Fuchs, Illustrierte Sittengeschichte vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart (Munich: Erganzungsband, 1912), p. 68.

Dear Monty:

Listen, I don't doubt there're people who've done it. I just said it's weird.

Your objectivity seems to have been thrown off a bit by "Lisa." This is not an uncommon reaction to a first time experience with nipple or genital piercing. The first pierced nipple I saw I thought the man was nuts! I now love the look and am an avid devotee of body piercing, but it is a very hidden subject in this society.

It sounds like the doctors you spoke with have no experience with the subject. You would get the correct answers from a store called the Gauntlet on Santa Monica Boulevard (right next to Herotica). They deal only in body piercing jewelry. They also publish a magazine devoted to this subject.

No body piercing should ever be attempted by anyone who does not know what they are doing, including a doctor. There are many variables and it is an exact technology.

The "pluses" are enhanced sensitivity in the area and, for those of us who like the slightly barbaric look, heightened sexual response. The "minuses" are that more men are initially turned off than turned on and in a woman a milk duct can be pierced requiring the removal of the rings and healing before repiercing. More than one woman has nursed a baby with nipple rings intact.

I feel the "minuses" are worth the heightened pleasure sexually. I love the look and feel of rings through nipples, and no, I am not a drugged-out biker. I'm 36, a mother, fairly monogamous, and don't even indulge in caffeine or nicotine. Sex and weightlifting are my two main vices and I like my sex with different spice than you like yours with. That doesn't make me weird, just different.

Keep on, you're basically still doing great!

Reports from the fringe, part 4

Dear Cecil:

Wouldn't want you to not answer one of those pathological questions just because you didn't have the answer, so I am enclosing a couple of articles from the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. They don't answer the question but they do show that scientists are on the trail.

PS: Please note the last author listed for the 1970 article.

Cecil replies:

Sheesh. The two articles are "Odor Threshold and Gas-Chromatographic Assays of Vaginal Odors: Changes with Nitrofurazone Treatment" and "Vaginal Odors: GLC Assay Method for Evaluating Odor Changes." I will spare you a summary of the contents; suffice it to say they are perfectly sober treatments of the topic. The author Dan refers to is I.M. Bush.

This is the last time I'm ever going to run a collection of nutball questions in hopes of discouraging people. Obviously, the Teeming Millions have no shame. You think this column is bent, don't blame Cecil, blame society.

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