6 'Penis Panics' Around the World

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Imagine an outbreak of epidemic proportions—an infectious condition that permeates a population in a matter of weeks, causing hundreds of individuals to rush to hospitals with the same complaint: their penises are shrinking or disappearing altogether. Some try to stall the shrinkage by securing their members with strings or clamps, or by having relatives hold their penis in relays until they get treatment.

Fortunately, episodes tend to be brief, with a low recurrence rate. Most victims recover within hours or days, convinced that the illness is over or never existed.

Despite cross-cultural similarities, penis panics come in all shapes and sizes, assuming different forms in different places. To understand the psychology behind these phallic fears, let’s look at a few outbreaks spanning the centuries.

1. CENTRAL EUROPE // 15TH AND 16TH CENTURIES

One of the first recorded penis panics occurred in Central Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Men claimed that witches were stealing their penises and hoarding them in birds’ nests. German clergyman Heinrich Kramer described the epidemic in Malleus Maleficarum (1486)—one of the most famous medieval treatises on witches—writing: “Witches ... collect male organs in great numbers, as many as 20 or 30 members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them in a box.” But the disembodied penises didn’t just hang around. “They move themselves like living members and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many,” Kramer wrote.

Kramer reported that witches would sometimes take pity on their victims. When one man asked a witch to restore his missing member, “She told the afflicted man to climb a tree … and take which he liked out of a nest where there were several members ... When he tried to take the big one, the witch said: ‘You must not take that one, because it belonged to a parish priest.’”

2. SINGAPORE'S GREAT PENIS PANIC // 1967

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In October and November of 1967, Singapore’s General Hospital treated a total of 454 men who believed their penises were shrinking. At the peak of the outbreak, 97 men sought medical intervention in a single day.

Chong Tong Mun, one of the physicians on site, wrote that patients reported “a sudden feeling of retraction of the penis into the abdomen with great fear that, should the retraction be permitted to proceed ... the penis would disappear into the abdomen with a fatal outcome.” Experts classified the condition as koro (a term believed to stem from the Malay word kura, which means “head of turtle.”)

Baffled physicians could offer no treatment, other than to examine koro patients and assure them that their anatomies were normal. The Singapore Medical Association and the Health Ministry even tried to mediate the situation by declaring that koro was an extension of fear, not an actual condition.

Nonetheless, many patients suffered genuine and severe physical injuries due to the rubber bands, chopsticks, clamps, and clothes pegs they used to secure their penises in place.

Most victims were men younger than 20; the oldest was only 40. Interestingly, almost none were originally from Singapore; 98 percent had Chinese ancestry (some scholars argue that Singapore’s penis panic stemmed from psychological stress caused by China’s Cultural Revolution). 

3. CHINA'S PENIS PANIC // 1984-85

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Seventeen years after Singapore's penis panic, China suffered an outbreak of its own. Over the course of one year (1984-1985), 3000 individuals were treated for koro. But unlike the previous panic in Singapore, victims didn’t swarm local hospitals. Instead, most sought natural cures: To stave off shrinkage, victims physically pulled at their sexual organs while being fed red pepper, black pepper, pepper jam, or ginger juice.

Not all victims were men, either: 16 percent were women who reported shrinking of the vulva, labia, nipples, and/or breasts. Most sufferers of both genders were between ages 10 and 25. However, some infants suffered “koro by proxy” when their parents claimed their children’s genitals were disappearing. 

4. WEST AFRICA // 1990S - 2000S

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Unlike koro outbreaks in Singapore and China, most recent penis disappearances in West Africa have been perceived as a carefully constructed crime—not an illness. Between 1998 and 2005, West African news media reported at least 56 cases of genital snatching. 

The condition differed from koro in that victims did not think their genitals were shrinking; they believed they had disappeared altogether. Many believed that their penises had been stolen and sold on the black market as part of an international underground trade in organs. One newspaper described thieves whom locals accused of stealing penises and holding them for ransom. Another rumor circulated about a woman who was nabbed by airport security while trying to smuggle several penises into Europe inside a baguette. And one news site stated that a man “was almost lynched ... after he allegedly 'stole' a man’s 'private part' through remote control.” 

Victims reported that their penises had been poached in the same way a pickpocket might steal a wallet. One boy in Ghana reported that he “had gone to fetch water for his father and was returning when [the thief] came behind him, touched him, and immediately he felt his penis shrink until it was no longer visible.”

When doctors assured these men that their penises were perfectly normal, many victims claimed that their penis had only just come back, was smaller than before, or didn’t work.

Rumors of a genital-stealing crime wave caused locals to get pretty testy. While the koro-like condition never killed anyone, the hysteria it produced did. Between 1997 and 2003, at least 36 individuals were killed after being accused of genital theft—usually beaten or executed by angry mobs. In an attempt to mediate mass hysteria, police began to arrest false alarmists who claimed their penis had been stolen.

5. SUDAN // 2003

“Penis-melting Zionist robot combs.” Although it never appears in his original article, that’s how Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto’s explanation of the plague that swept through the Sudanese capital of Khartoum became known.

The scare stemmed from reports of foreigners roaming the city and shaking men’s hands, making their penises disappear (Taranto’s description pokes fun at one particularly colorful hypothesis that singled-out Jewish foreigners, described below.) Rumors circulated via text messages, generating various versions of the same story. Almost 50 individuals were arrested on charges of sorcery and fraud; another 40 were arrested for complaining and inciting public panic.

One victim related a particularly unique tale to a British newspaper: “While he was at the market, a man approached him, gave him a comb, and asked him to comb his hair. When he did so, within seconds, he felt a strange sensation and discovered that he had lost his penis.”

Sudanese columnist Ja’far Abbas offered an incisive analysis of the situation: “No doubt, this comb was a laser-controlled surgical robot that penetrates the skull, [passes] to the lower body and emasculates a man!!” He argued that these robots were the work of “an imperialist Zionist agent sent to prevent our people from procreating and multiplying.” 

Abbas also had a few words for the man who fell victim to the electronic comb: “You jackass, how can you put a comb from a man you don’t know to your head, while even relatives avoid using the same comb?”

Abbas might have been onto something: there might have actually been a conspiracy at work—a local one. A study from the Middle East Media Research Institute postulates that rumors of penis thefts were started to divert the public’s attention from negotiations between the Sudanese vice president and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

6. CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC // 2013

Penis panics in Africa are primarily an urban phenomenon, occurring in crowded spots like Lagos, Nigeria and Douala, Cameroon. However, not all genital-related epidemics occur in big cities. One of the most recent penis panics unfolded in Tiringoulou, a little village in the Central African Republic. According to locals, it all started when a stranger stopped to buy a cup of tea at a local market.

Witnesses testified: “[After the stranger handed] over his money, he clasped the vendor’s hand. The tea seller felt an electric tingling course through his body and immediately sensed his penis had shrunk to smaller than that of a baby’s.” As a crowd congregated around the shrieking man, another man screamed that his penis had also gone missing. Eyewitnesses affirmed that they saw both men’s members shrink dramatically.

The suspect was immediately arrested and interrogated by the armed rebel group governing the town. A few hours later, he was executed by gunshot.

HOW CAN THESE PANICS BE EXPLAINED?

Despite cultural differences, most victims of penis panics had a few things in common: their gender (usually), their age, and the fact that they were all remarkably average. They were “young, poorly educated, working class, and single, but unremarkable in every other aspect,” writes psychiatrist Scott Mendelson, author of The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria

These men had no reported history of physical or mental illness. Admittedly, most of these individuals did not have access to mental health services. However, even psychiatrists, physicians, and researchers who evaluated some of these men after the “panic” had subsided found no evidence of psychosis or delusional thinking. 

As Mendelson points out, phallic fears might be another manifestation of everyday angst. Most victims are in their teens and twenties—an age when many individuals experience anxiety about their body, sex, and having children.

Events like war, revolution, or financial crises amplify individual stress. It’s no coincidence that genital shrinking epidemics typically occur in the midst of political upheaval. 

But while it’s easy to imagine how fear could be contagious, it’s more difficult to understand how collective anxieties give way to cultural delusions. Regardless of the context, how could hundreds of healthy men suddenly become convinced that their penises are disappearing?

As anthropologist Louisa Lombard writes, “If penis stealing seems beyond-the-pale weird, consider what people in Tiringoulou might think upon hearing of Americans who starve themselves near to death because their reflection in the mirror convinces them they are fat.”

Other culture-specific manifestations of anxiety include Saora disorder, which exclusively affects young men and women belonging to a tribe in India. Patients cry and laugh at inappropriate times, suffer fainting and memory loss, and claim that they feel like ants are biting them repeatedly. Symptoms almost always subside after after a marriage ceremony to the spirit that’s causing the hysteria, and researchers attribute the condition to the psychological stress and social pressure placed on teens by their relatives and friends. Another example is grisi siknis among the Miskito communities in Central America. The condition, characterized by bouts of frenzied behavior and fainting, affects 14- to 18-year-old girls. Likewise, anthropologists attribute the condition to teenage angst and the psychological pressures that accompany growing up. 

When examining mass psychogenic illnesses, it’s crucial to consider their broader cultural context. While these epidemics take different forms, they often stem from the anxiety associated with becoming an adult. Ultimately, penis panics are probably rooted in the same subconscious fears that make us all human.

For more information, check out Mendelson’s book, The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria.

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January 29, 2016 - 2:00am
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