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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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Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute
Ice Age Human Footprints in Canada Reveal a Walk on the Beach Taken 13,000 Years Ago
Calvert Island
Calvert Island
Keith Holmes/Hakai Institute

The prehistoric mariners rowed their canoe into a secluded channel and then onto the island's sandy beach, just above the high-tide mark. One person got out of the boat and stood for a moment, facing northwest. Others, including another barefoot adult and child, followed the leader and walked toward higher, drier land.

Today, roughly 13,000 years later, their footprints have been preserved in a layer of sediment and confirmed to date from the last ice age. The discovery, on Calvert Island on the central coast of British Columbia, Canada, adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests ancient humans crossed from Asia to North America and traveled south along the Pacific shoreline.

"This finding provides evidence of the seafaring people who inhabited this area during the tail end of the last major ice age," said University of Victoria anthropologist Duncan McLaren, lead author of the new study in the journal PLOS One, in a statement.

Archaeologists on Calvert Island, British Columbia, Canada
Researchers Daryl Fedje (left) and Duncan McLaren (right) dig at the Calvert Island site.
Grant Callegari/Hakai Institute

Most anthropologists believe that early peoples migrated from Asia to North America across Beringia, the region where Russia's Chukchi Peninsula and Alaska face each other across the Bering Strait. Then the migrants took two possible routes. One popular theory, proposed in the 1930s, suggests people traveled south along an ice-free corridor that lay on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains where two colossal ice sheets split from one other. A more recent theory proposes that they sailed along a coastal route from Alaska to Washington State.

The coastal route lies within the territories of the Heiltsuk First Nation and Wuikinuxv First Nation. Their oral histories describe how the scattered islands between the open ocean and the edge of the ice sheet remained unglaciated. On these refuges, their ancestors subsisted on the abundant fish, shellfish, and marine mammals and likely used watercraft to travel between the islands. "Heiltsuk oral history talks about our people living in our territory before the ice age, and talks about the physical features of the landscape that our people witnessed change over time due to the ice, which influenced things like place names in our territory," William Housty, chair of the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department board of directors, tells Mental Floss.

Archaeological evidence affirming the histories is scarce, in part because few researchers have focused on the area. In 2014, McLaren and colleagues from the University of Victoria and the Hakai Institute, along with representatives of the First Nations, began combing the beach at a Calvert Island site called EjTa-4 for sediments dating back to the late Pleistocene epoch (also known as the Ice Age, which ended 11,700 years ago). Back then, the sea level around Calvert Island was 6.5 to 10 feet lower than it is today, so the team concentrated on the intertidal zone. After probing several test holes, they found what appeared to be footprints near the base of a huge shell midden.

A 13,000-year-old human footprint on Calvert Island, British Columbia, Canada
A photo of Track #17 beside a digitally enhanced image of the same feature. Note the toe impressions and arch, which indicate that this is a right footprint.
Duncan McLaren

Over the next three field seasons, they continued to excavate a 6.5-foot-by-13-foot pit, removing strata of sand, pebbles, and organic matter before striking the layer of clay. "The site was below the high-tide water line, so we only had one day from the time we opened the last layer. When the high tide came up it would wash everything away," Jennifer Walkus, the research liaison between the Wuikinuxv Nation and Hakai Institute, tells Mental Floss. "We had an idea from the test pit the previous year that there might be footprints, so we knew that day was going to be busy. It was amazing as the last layer was pulled up and the measurements were taken."

In the substrate, the team found 29 individual human tracks, darkened by time, left by at least three different people—two adults and a child—based on the dimensions of the individual prints. "The fact that they were footprints was more and more obvious as the measurements came in and there were three lengths," Wallkus says. The orientation of some of the tracks at the ancient shoreline indicated that a group of people may have disembarked from a watercraft and walked northwest, toward higher ground, with their backs to the prevailing wind.

Researchers also collected samples of clay and fragments of shore pine from the sand underneath the prints. Radiocarbon dating confirmed that the pine bits, and the footprints, were between 13,317 and 12,633 years old.

"I can't speak for the Nation as a whole, but for me, it's a validation of the fact that we have been here for much longer than the previous narrative," Walkus says. "The fact that these footprints put people in the vicinity in the time of glacial recession underlines that our legends are grounded in living in our area over huge spans of time."

When William Housty, who was not present at the dig, heard of the discovery, "I immediately started to think about our first ancestors and the stories of their origin," he says. "I also thought that, once again, science [and] archeology have confirmed what our oral history has been telling us all along."

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University of York
UK Archaeologists Have Found One of the World’s Oldest 'Crayons'
University of York
University of York

A prehistoric chunk of pigment found near an ancient lake in England may be one of the world's oldest crayons, Colossal reports. The small object made of red ochre was discovered during an archaeological excavation near Lake Flixton, a prehistoric lake that has since become a peat wetland but was once occupied by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Though it’s hard to date the crayon itself, it was found in a layer of earth dating back to the 7th millennium BCE, according to a recent study by University of York archaeologists.

Measuring less than an inch long, the piece of pigment is sharpened at one end, and its shape indicates that it was modified by a person and used extensively as a tool, not shaped by nature. The piece "looks exactly like a crayon," study author Andy Needham of the University of York said in a press release.

A pebble of red ochre thought to be a prehistoric crayon
University of York

The fine grooves and striations on the crayon suggest that it was used as a drawing tool, and indicate that it might have been rubbed against a granular surface (like a rock). Other research has found that ochre was collected and used widely by prehistoric hunter-gatherers like the ones who lived near Lake Flixton, bolstering the theory that it was used as a tool.

The researchers also found another, pebble-shaped fragment of red ochre at a nearby site, which was scraped so heavily that it became concave, indicating that it might have been used to extract the pigment as a red powder.

"The pebble and crayon were located in an area already rich in art," Needham said. "It is possible there could have been an artistic use for these objects, perhaps for coloring animal skins or for use in decorative artwork."

[h/t Colossal]

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