BDSM Bullshit part 3: “Temporary Branding” & “Circles of Necrotic Flesh”

Part 1 of my series on BDMS myths and misconceptions can be found here, part 2 can be found here.

This article was written by Shay and contributed to/edited by two kinky doctors, Dr. Who and Miette Rouge. Who are we/what are our credentials? Bio can be found at the bottom of the article!

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It’s been my experience that branding myths & misconceptions are widespread, solemnly perpetuated (even/especially by presenters) and largely impervious to spontaneous attacks of logic. Let’s break a couple of them down, starting with “temporary branding,” and then the one that sends me into the most vigorous fits of facepalming, “circles of necrotic flesh.”

I want to start by saying that branding is risky. It is not something that I personally do. Be sure the person branding you is trained and experienced with the specific technique they are using. If you’re thinking of being branded, I recommend that you always check references (from people they have branded in the past) and ask to see pictures of their brands (at least 6 months into the healing process, to give you an idea of how they turn out).

Even hearing the words “temporary branding” makes me flinch. Here’s what you need to know: ANY significant break in the skin can potentially lead to a scar. “Significant” may sound vague, but I’m actually referring to something very specific — extending beyond the outer layer of skin, the epidermis, into the dermis. Hint: every branding technique I’ve seen involving electricity or heat goes deeper than the epidermis (a burn involving just the epidermis is a first degree burn, like a mild sunburn). If there’s an argument that “MY branding technique is only epidermal!” I think THAT is bullshit, too — the thickness of the epidermis varies wildly [1] and there is IMHO no way to guarantee such a thing. “Scars arise after almost every dermal injury… There is considerable quantitative and qualitative variation in scarring potential between individuals and even within the same individual.” [2] “Injury to the epidermis can (but does not always) heal without scarring… Injury to the elastic and collagen fibers in the dermis results in scarring” [3] Whether any given dermal injury will result in a visible scar depends on numerous factors- genetic propensity to keloid, how the wound is cared for, location on the body, type/depth of the wound, sun exposure during healing, additional irritation during the healing process, age, medical conditions, hormone levels [3][5][7]…. and the list goes on. “Not [everyone] in these [high risk] groups will form scars… and it is impossible to predict which patients might.” [5] We have many, many medical sources to tell us that scar formation is highly unpredictable [4][5][6][7][8][9] (just to sample a few). Hell, burn surgeons readily admit *they* can’t accurately predict scarring [6]- so I have MAJOR side-eye for tops/instructors who think they know better.

There is a bit of nuance to this — “I’ve done dozens of brands and no one had a lasting scar, so I think it’s highly likely that you won’t scar, either” = *possibly* not bullshit. I say “possibly” because, well, I question the ability of of any top to do a detailed wound assessment with “dozens” of people months after playing with them. Also I wonder how liberal a definition of “scar” is being used- any remaining trace of the image, including skin tone changes, counts as a scar. So, as a counterpoint to the “possibly not bullshit” quote above, try this one: “I absolutely guarantee you this brand will leave no permanent scar” = flaming piles of bullshit. Get the difference there?

Moving on to “circles of necrotic flesh” — if you’ve been to a branding class you’ve almost surely heard this one. The general form is as follows:“When you make a shape like a circle with a brand, be sure to leave small gaps, because if you make a solidly outlined shape you will cut off blood flow to to the area inside the shape and create a circle of necrotic flesh”. One instructor I heard this myth from pronounced “necrotic” wrong, but clarified that they meant dead flesh, so I felt I understood what they were trying to get across. A circle of necrotic flesh! Damn, now I know why all those cows had pieces falling off of them! It was all so obvious!

You would think this myth would be easily dismissed as anyone can google image search for “human branding” and see dozens of pictures of brands, fresh and healed, with fully enclosed shapes that are notably lacking in any “necrotic flesh” sloughing off in the center (for a few examples try here, here, and here). So there’s the experimental evidence. But as the t-shirt says, stand back, I’m going to try — SCIENCE!

Your skin circulation does not work like this. It works like this. Circulation to the surface of the skin comes in a “web” of blood vessels that feeds from below, not laterally along the skin in some sort of labyrinth. “Human skin is enormously well supplied with blood vessels.” [10] Even if blood did circulate in a labyrinth-like surface maze, how would you know what was the right piece to leave open? Oh my god. Do I have to go further with explaining this?

Now, it’s certainly true that if you leave only a little space between two lines of a brand, or inside a small shape, it’ll all just kinda blend together into one big wound. For strike branding, the “conventional wisdom” suggests that the wound will expand to about 1.5 to 3 times the width of the branding metal — this is largely born out by the brands I’ve seen, in various stages of healing. For this reason, strike brands generally are not fully enclosed shapes — they are done in pieces with gaps between, because as the wound heals the gaps will close in, and the resulting scar will be an enclosed shape. If you do make a closed shape, there will not be necrotic flesh in the middle, there will just be… more wound/burn, and then more scar. Corners tend to focus the heat, so if you made a closed square, you often end up with blotchy large spots in the corners… probably not the intended aesthetic effect.

Because of the way corners and closed shapes can focus heat, it’s possible that infection and complications would be more likely with single strike brands containing closed shapes, or multi-strike brands where the wounds exactly meet… this is a theory I’ve heard from several branding specialists. This effect still would not be due to cutting off circulation and causing necrotic flesh in the middle of the shape, but rather causing more severe wounds that are simply more infection prone. Note that I’m referencing superficial partial thickness burns here — deeper brands have potential for many complications that are beyond the scope of this article.

Violet wand branding, hyfrecator branding, and cutting seem to often get a “pass” from the list of things that will cause the dreaded “circles of necrotic flesh.” For the record, cutting (even flesh removal) or violet wand branding closed shapes will also not cause your skin to die and fall off.

There are plenty of real risks of branding without making up bullshit. Infection (up to and including sepsis, where the infection spreads to the entire body causing life-threatening illness) and scarring (especially with strike branding, the scars are often not what the bottom wanted/expected) lead the list. One thing that actually should be avoided is branding circumferentially around a limb or the torso (a ring around the arm, or even most of the way around an arm, for example), which can cause serious complications — the wounds and associated swelling may cause a tourniquet effect [11], cutting off circulation to the distal limb. Perhaps misunderstanding this concept is part of where the whole “circles of necrotic flesh” thing came from? But even leaving gaps, do not brand circumferentially around an extremity. This article on FetLife tells about a very severe wound caused by circumferential burns — DON’T DO IT.  Also, don’t fuck around with solar burns.

So if you want to get branded, be concerned with how you’ll heal and how it’ll look. Worry about the experience level of your top and what techniques they’re using. Don’t worry about flesh falling off in the middle of a shape (but DON’T do circumferential brands around an extremity), and don’t believe anyone promising you that a brand won’t scar. I hope this clarifies things, because of all the myths I want to debunk, these are some of the ones that aggravate me the most, and I really CANNOT POLITELY TALK ABOUT THIS NOT EVEN ONE MORE TIME!

Good talk, everyone.

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References:

[1] “Body site largely explains the variation in epidermal thickness, but also a significant individual variation was observed.” Epidermal thickness at different body sites. Sandby-Møller
J1, Poulsen T, Wulf HC. Acta Derm Venereol. 2003;83(6):410-3.

[2] “Scars arise after almost every dermal injury… There is considerable quantitative and qualitative variation in scarring potential between individuals and even within the same individual.” Skin Scarring, BMJ. Jan 11, 2003; 326(7380): 88–92.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1125033/

[3] “Injury to the epidermis can (but does not always) heal without scarring… Injury to the elastic and collagen fibers in the dermis results in scarring” DeGowin’s Diagnostic Examination, 9e, Richard F. LeBlond, Donald D. Brown, Richard L. DeGowin

[4] “When an injury extends to tissues deeper than the epidermis, the repair process is more complicated than epidermal healing, and scar formation results.” Post-burn scars and scar contractures Arun Goel and Prabhat Shrivastava Indian J Plast Surg. Sep 2010;
43(Suppl): S63–S71.

[5] “Not all patients in these [high risk] groups will form scars… and it is impossible to predict which patients might.” -CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment Emergency Medicine, 7e, C. Keith Stone, Roger L. Humphries

[6] “Unfortunately, even experienced burn surgeons have limited ability to accurately predict the healing potential of partial-thickness burns.” Schwartz’s Principles of Surgery, 9e, F. Charles Brunicardi, Dana K. Andersen, Timothy R. Billiar, David L. Dunn, John G. Hunter, Jeffrey
B. Matthews, Raphael E. Pollock

[7] “Because scar formation depends on the interaction of many different factors, final appearance can never be guaranteed with absolute certainty.” http://www.hillcenter4derm.com/PDF/Scar%20formation.pdf

[8] “Scarring following surgery or injury is difficult to predict.” Hypertrophic Scarring and Keloids: Pathomechanisms and Current and Emerging Treatment Strategies Gerd G Gauglitz, Hans C Korting,Tatiana Pavicic, Thomas Ruzicka,and Marc G Jeschke. Mol Med. 2011 Jan-Feb; 17(1-2): 113–125. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3022978/

[9] “Scarring is unpredictable and varies from person to person.”
http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Scars/Pages/Introduction.aspx

[10] “Human skin is enormously well supplied with blood vessels… far in excess of the maximum biologic needs of the skin itself. [This] is evidence that the skin is at the service of the blood vascular system, functioning as a cooling device.”
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/547591/human-skin

[11] Surgery: Basic Science and Clinical Evidence. J Norton, P Barie, R Bollinger, A Chang, S Lowry, S Mulvihill, H Pass, R Thompson

PS: Let’s talk specifically about micro-branding, or “cell popping,” as it is sometimes called. For the uninitiated, this is the process of using an implement, usually with a surgical cautery pen or a small pointed piece of heated metal, to make small burns on the skin (often in a pattern of some sort)… because, you know, pain + smell of burning flesh + scars = win!
My point is this: Can we all just agree to call it “micro branding” from now on, and never say the words “cell popping” ever again? To me, “cell popping” brings to mind taking small balloons and gleefully piercing them with a cautery pen, one by one. What does it mean to “pop” a cell? Do they explode? Does all the inside cell stuff fly out of them? Perhaps you mean to say “damage” a cell? In that case, sure, micro-branding does that… as does flogging, or, say, stubbing your toe on a door. The worst part is that “cell popping” is singular, like “one cell at a time” (otherwise it would be “popping cells”, which sounds like a hip-hop move). Do people really think they’re doing it one cell at a time? Because if so, I can only file them under “ignorant of basic biology” and move on.

About the writer:

This article was written by me (Shay)- I’m an ER nurse and ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) instructor who has spent WAYYY too much time geeking out over BDSM safety. I also got input on the ideas in this post from two kinky MDs (Dr. Who & Miette Rouge & Miette Rouge). I would, however, note that nurses (and doctors!) can and do say idiotic/incorrect things, so using your own judgement no matter how “qualified” the source is always a good thing. Thanks for reading, and please feel free to email me (shay.sfblondie AT gmail) with any feedback or suggestions on how this article could be improved!

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