Coming to Terms with Genital Retraction Syndrome
Photo by Dr. Wolfgang Jilek
A koro victim in his natural position.
In 2003, the Middle Eastern Research Institute reported on a new craze sweeping the Sudan. People believed that foreigners were roaming the streets of Khartoum and causing the penises of locals to melt in via handshakes and “electric combs.” According to Ja’far Abbas, a Sudanese writer, “No doubt, this comb was a laser-controlled surgical robot that penetrates the skull [and moves] to the lower body and emasculates a man!!” Abbas also claimed that the supposed comb-wielding thief was “an imperialist Zionist agent that was sent to prevent our people from procreating and multiplying.”
The penis-melting Zionist cyborg comb is just one case of koro, or, as it is better/more funnily known, “penis panic”—an outbreak of mass hysteria that every so often causes hundreds of people in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia to run around clutching their genitals and those of their loved ones. There are three principal symptoms of koro: sweating, dizziness, and/or spasms; a consuming fear that the penis will retract into the abdomen and cause instant death; and the use of bizarre methods to keep the penis from retracting into the body, including strings attached to the shaft of the penis, steel clamps, safety pins, chopsticks, and family members taking turns at holding the penis. I guess that last one is both a symptom and a makeshift solution.
The word “koro” comes from the Malay-Indonesian word for “tortoise,” in reference to the similarity between the motion of a tortoise retracting its head and long, wrinkly neck and the dreaded movement of the penis into the body. Although it’s far rarer, there’s a female version of the condition, in which ladies worry that their breasts will retreat into their chests like the magical islands of Brigadoon.
For as long as men have had penises, they have been scared about losing them. One of the earliest descriptions of koro comes from an ancient Chinese medical text dating to approximately 400 B.C. In traditional Chinese medicine, the condition was known as “suo-yang,” which translates roughly to “Bye for now, penis. Hope to see you again soon,” and taken very seriously. In his 1834 compendium of remedies, Pao Sian-Ow recommends several methods of treatment for suo-yang, including taking warm alcoholic drinks and rubbing the affected crotch with the ashes of burnt female undergarments.
Today medical science is pretty sure that penises can’t really suck back into the body and kill you, so why do the panics persist? Dr. Robert Bartholomew is an expert in mass hysteria whose book Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, and Head-Hunting Panics devotes an entire chapter to koro. According to him, it’s a simple matter of creating new avenues of credibility.
Take, for example, the Great Singapore Penis Panic of 1967. It all began with rumors that were given attention in the national media. According to the press, a large supply of pork had been contaminated with hog cholera vaccination. One newspaper reported that a recently vaccinated pig died after its penis vanished into its own body. People who had recently eaten pork began looking at their own penises in an entirely new light, and the panic set in.
It’s important that these events occurred during a very stressful time in Singapore’s history. The British were just moving out of the area, and tensions between Muslim Malays and the Chinese were at a breaking point. In fact, many Chinese believed that the Malays (non-pork eaters), were poisoning the meat to wipe them out. This psychologically strained atmosphere, along with the pork’s imagined but believable threat to the reproductive abilities of the Chinese (who place a relatively high value on this ability) created, as Bartholomew implies, an ideal environment for a koro frenzy. Nearly 500 cases were reported in all.
Photo by Dr. Wolfgang Jilek
This little finger-trap-looking device is just one of many contraptions engineered to prevent the sudden, fatal retractionof the penis in Southeast Asia.
It's a cottage industry.
While Asia has been koro-free for the past two decades (the last one occurred in Southern China in 1985 and involved a “castrating fox maiden”), in Africa penises are still disappearing left and right. And over there, they don’t just get scared about missing penises. They get even.
Most African outbreaks center around contact with strangers. In many cases, all it takes to melt away a penis is a handshake or accidental contact with his or her clothing. The horrific result of these encounters is what is referred to in Ghanian English as “instant justice”: The “victim” shouts for the help of bystanders who then beat the supposed culprit, often to death.
One of the worst examples of koro-based mob violence happened in the Nigerian city of Ilesa after a man began screaming that sorcerers had made his penis disappear. The “sorcerers” were Christian evangelists. A mob quickly assembled and burnt eight of the missionaries to death, forcing the police to put the city in lock–down for several days.
In 1997, Canadian anthropologist Charles Mather had a first-hand experience of instant justice resulting from presumed genital theft. At the time, he was doing research in Northern Ghana with his wife Rebecca. On February 17, a man named Azure complained that he had felt his penis shrink after giving water to a stranger named Atanga. Atanga was arrested and taken to the local chief’s compound. The Mathers, who were nearby when the commotion started, followed the crowd. At the compound, Atanga was forced to reveal the contents of his duffel bag. Inside was a bottle of dark, mysterious liquid which many saw as evidence of witchcraft.
“The atmosphere was frightening and yet comical,” Dr. Mather said, “People laughed at some of the testimony. When they heard Azure say, ‘before giving the water my penis was fine, but after giving the water my penis was gone,’ they cracked up. But when they saw the contents of Atanga’s bag they were incensed. If it wasn’t for the chief and his sons I think the mob would have killed Atanga—or at least beat him so severely that he would never have been the same. The number of people that mobs in West Africa have killed for stealing genitals is likely in the hundreds.”
Azure was also “surprisingly calm given that he was claiming to have just been robbed of his genitals.”
After the trial, the chief made a decision: Azure would spend the night with his wife to see if he could get his penis working, and Atanga would stay with his uncle. This didn’t seem to appease the mob, and it followed Atanga back to his uncle’s house—pelting him with stones and shouting threats. A short while later, Dr. Mather and his wife arrived at the uncle’s house to see if they could offer help. As time passed the mob grew, and Mather and his wife, who occasionally had to physically force intruders out of the house, started to get a little wary.
“It was frightening and bizarre,” he said. “We felt responsible for Atanga and we became afraid of these people who we had become comfortable with. Suddenly, this was a dangerous place, filled with irrational people capable of horrible acts. It was a total reversal. One of the most surprising things was Atanga’s indifference to the situation. When I asked him about what was going on he just kept talking about a factory near Accra where Nassara (white men) make trucks and cars. Azure was also surprisingly calm given that he was claiming to have just been robbed of his genitals. I don’t think we ever fully appreciated the real danger we were in. My wife is evidently a sort of mythical persona there now. People talk about her standing up to the young men.”
The mob eventually dissipated and the case was brought before the paramount chief of the area. Azure conceded that he had made a mistake. The chief ordered him to pay Atanga a sum of money, but Atanga was satisfied with the apology, and he refused the money.
In a 2005 article on West African genital-shrinking epidemics, Glenn Adams and Vivian Afi Dzokoto point out that many African victims of koro think that their genitals haven’t just burrowed away, but have in fact been stolen. A 1997 Ghanaian editorial claimed that sorcerers or jujumen can infect others with a specially concocted disease that removes the penis upon touch. Once the penises are taken, they are held for ransom. Another Ghanaian weekly wrote that the stolen penises are used for black magic ceremonies in which they “vomit” money.
Victims of dick-napping will occasionally strip naked in the middle of the street to convince others of the theft. Some see that their genitals are still there and claim that their junk only returned when the mob assembled. Other times they will say that their penis is a phantom penis, the wrong one, or a “shrunken” version of the original.
Yeah yeah, we think we’re such hot shit just because we don’t lynch people en masse over supernatural-tinged castration anxiety. But don’t think for a second that Americans are immune from similarly retarded outbreaks of mass hysteria. Here are a few of our favorite shiners.
The Edison Star: After his invention of the first long-lasting light bulb, rumors began to spread that Thomas Edison was designing a “star” that would be bright enough to be seen from anywhere in the United States. For several months, Edison Star sightings were reported all over North America. In fact, what these people were seeing was not the imaginary “Edison Star,” but in fact the planet Venus lying low on the horizon.
McMartin Preschool Incident: In 1984, hundreds of allegations of satanic ritual abuse (without any physical evidence) were brought against the McMartin family daycare center in Southern California. This led to the longest and one of the most expensive criminal trials in US history, as well as a widespread epidemic of unfounded claims of mass satanic child molestation (even Steve Albini fell for it). In the end it was determined that leading questions by the investigators were the cause of the children’s bizarre accusations
Suggestive leading questions from investigators resulted in bizarre allegations from children, including that Chuck Norris had been one of their molesters. All charges were eventually dropped, and new techniques for questioning young children were developed. Chuck Norris went on to create and star in Walker, Texas Ranger.
The Bin Laden Itch: In the wake of 9/11, a number of cases of schoolchildren suddenly developing inexplicable itchy rashes began popping up across the country. Parents freaked out, but when the CDC finally investigated they concluded that this was not the result of bioterrorism, but rather exactly the kind of crap kids normally get rashes from like bug bites, poison ivy, and contact with cleaning agents. Turned out that under constant media bombardment about the danger of anthrax, parents had just projected their own paranoia onto their kids.
There are fewer than 100 recorded cases of koro North Americans and Europeans with obsessive fears about shrinking genitals, and most of these are linked to patients with a history of other mental disorders such as schizophrenia. A full-blown Western penis panic isn’t out of the question. Bartholomew points to recent concerns about toxic Chinese products entering the US and suggests that the only element missing is a rumored connection to reproductive health.
So how do we safeguard ourselves.
“Education is the best vaccination against mass hysteria,” Bartholomew says. Please remember this the next time you wake up in the middle of the night, worrying that a castrating fox maiden is making your genitals shrink. There is no such thing as a castrating fox maiden. Your genitals were probably just very small to begin with.