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Reports of genital theft have spread like an epidemic
March 25, 2013 11:08 AM   Subscribe

"Elaborate greetings are the norm, I’ve found, when one enters a Central African village. So it was a surprise when I noticed that many people weren’t shaking hands the morning I arrived in Tiringoulou, a town of about 2,000 people in one of the remotest corners of the Central African Republic, in March 2010. I soon found out the reason: the day before, a traveler passing through town on a Sudanese merchant truck had, with a simple handshake, removed two men’s penises."

"Genital theft is neither new nor confined to Africa. Similar panics afflicted Central Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. (Malleus Maleficarum, a book-length jeremiad against the dangers of witchcraft from 1486, includes a discussion of sorceresses who “take away male members” and keep them in birds’ nests.) And in 1967, an outbreak of koro—the belief that the penis is retracting into the body—overwhelmed hospitals in Singapore. [...] But here I was in Tiringoulou—a dusty, peanut-growing hamlet so small and poor it barely has a market. If penis snatching had previously been a city dweller’s fear, now it seemed that not even the remotest places would be spared."

"...Mysterious indeed. But perhaps no more so than certain afflictions that are less strange to us in the West. 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."

Related: 'Perplexed ... Perplexed': On Mob Justice in Nigeria. Malleus Maleficarum previously and previously.
posted by not_the_water (52 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'll get this out of the way right off the bat: King Missile.
posted by not_the_water at 11:08 AM on March 25, 2013 [16 favorites]


I love the anorexia analogy, because I was about to wander in here and leave a comment to the effect of "BUT THEY HAVE PENISES LOOK THEY ARE STILL THERE," and that made me pause and think, "oh ... right."

Man, culture will fuck your shit up.
posted by Myca at 11:13 AM on March 25, 2013 [28 favorites]


I read about this phenomenon in Harper's a few years ago and it remains one of the dumbest things about humanity I've ever heard.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:31 AM on March 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


The anorexia analogy is a good one but it has its limitations. For one thing, the implication that anorexia is a culture-specific trait of America or "the West" in general is probably not correct (in other words, the reaction of a rural African villager to hearing that Americans sometimes self-starve may not be "OMG, those crazy Westerners" so much as "hmmm, that's like my sister's girl.") For another, what tends to strike us about these penis-theft stories is not "OMG, there are people who believe that their penis was stolen!" it's that the explanation "witches did it" gains widespread social currency. Anorexia is seen as a mental disorder, not as evidence that someone has enchanted your mirror to make you look fatter than you are.
posted by yoink at 11:33 AM on March 25, 2013 [11 favorites]


My penis was stolen, but then I got better.
posted by found missing at 11:35 AM on March 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also previously.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:36 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't get it. They simply believe the victim is telling the truth, and summarily punish the accused?
posted by Ardiril at 11:38 AM on March 25, 2013


This story makes my head hurt, and the fact that the supposed perpetrator of this silliness was summarily executed is downright horrifying.
posted by hamandcheese at 11:38 AM on March 25, 2013


I don't get it. They simply believe the victim is telling the truth, and summarily punish the accused?

Just because the victim got better doesn't mean the witch didn't previously turn them into a newt. Witches, man.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:39 AM on March 25, 2013 [11 favorites]


Ah, ha, so it's not that the penis is gone it's that someone supposedly made it smaller. That makes the analogy to anorexia much more apt than I at first thought. Still, no one else dies because you have anorexia.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:39 AM on March 25, 2013


I don't get it. They simply believe the victim is telling the truth, and summarily punish the accused?

See "witch trials: entire history thereof."

Although, of course, it's more complex than that. As others have pointed out before, the Salem witch trials were incredibly scrupulous trials by the standards of the day--far more scrupulous than most ordinary criminal trials would have been. I think the problem is that once you accept the crazy premise as possible it has a way of being irrepressible by ordinary forensic means.
posted by yoink at 11:42 AM on March 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


Lombard was just on the CBC's The Current this morning. I actually found Dr. Ayonrinde's interview more interesting, as he talked about psychiatric practice in Nigeria (see also), bridging traditional beliefs and modern medicine, the effect of external stressors and anxiety, and the parallels between koro and other cases of mass hysteria.

The entire feature is available through streaming audio in the "Listen" button or the right sidebar of my first link or here (scroll down). Dr. Ayonrinde's interview starts at about 13:40.

Ardiril, the claim isn't always that the penis completely disappears, but that it just shrinks or malfunctions. Given the effects of stress on the male anatomy, the accuser may make these claims in utter good faith based on what he sees and feels. Dr. Ayonrinde says that he made a clinical examination of a koro patient some years ago, and while, of course, he still had his genitals, the good doctor may have observed some shrinkage.
posted by maudlin at 11:43 AM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


the good doctor may have observed some shrinkage.

"Like a frightened turtle."
posted by yoink at 11:45 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just to reiterate here, the other night (after reading an article about this subject linked from the blue) I had a dream that my wife and I were adopting a second dog, and I desperately wanted to name him African Penis Theft, and we got into a huge fight about it!
I need to find other before-bed reading material!
posted by jake at 11:50 AM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Have you seen me?

8======)

Reward if found
posted by dr_dank at 11:53 AM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


it's that the explanation "witches did it" gains widespread social currency.

A valid point. People believe all sorts of strange things about themselves with very little in the way of actual evidence to support their views - anorexia is but one example, we could go even more extreme with something like Morgellon's.

I can grok the idea that "witches did it" would seem like a surprising explanation to the crowds gathered around MeFi, but that the reaction in the larger population is similar seems odd considering the vast number of occurrences, illnesses, and all manner of strange and groovy things that are attributed to "God" throughout the Americas and Europe.

My god makes more sense than your god (or witches, as the case may be)?
posted by IvoShandor at 11:54 AM on March 25, 2013


Still, no one else dies because you have anorexia

Lots of people die from anorexia.
posted by ryanrs at 11:56 AM on March 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


When i started in care-work, doing personal care with disabled people, i did come across a few men whose penises were sometimes fully invisible and at other times short. Obviously i didn't ask - they had enough on their plate, and frankly i wasn't that interested just surprised - but i read somewhere since that this does happen with some men and has a medical term. I imagine fear could do it with other men too. But it is certainly physically possible for the entire organ to disappear.
posted by maiamaia at 12:01 PM on March 25, 2013


More on culture-bound syndromes: Wikipedia; Latif Nasser: "Do some cultures have their own ways of going mad?"
One illness on the list is dhat syndrome, particular to the Indian subcontinent. Indian men report a vast array of symptoms — among them headaches, forgetfulness, and constipation — that they attribute to a lack of vital fluid, namely, semen. Patients may blame the semen loss on excessive sexual activity, masturbation, nocturnal emissions, or even loss through urine.

West African university students are mentioned as susceptible to brain fag (“fag” being old slang for fatigue). As first described in 1958, a young Nigerian male tired from “too much study” could spontaneously lose the ability to read. In addition, sufferers have complained of a burning scalp, blurred vision, and even sexual dysfunction (one student inadvertently experienced an orgasm during an exam). The Canadian psychiatrist who coined the diagnosis speculated that the syndrome was “an unconscious rejection of the education system.”

...

What has also struck some critics, though, is that some of these supposedly exotic disorders appear strangely familiar, if you look hard enough. Bhugra, who is also former dean of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, points out that 19th-century Americans had their own version of dhat — a semen loss anxiety that led, in part, to the development of health foods like Kellogg’s corn flakes and Graham’s crackers, whose inventors created their products as panacea for ills caused by, among other things, masturbation.

Nigerian-British psychiatrist Oyedeji Ayonrinde has similarly found an American wave of brain fag — the phrase was such a household term between 1890 and 1920 that the Chicago Tribune called it “the disease of the century.” Quack cures proliferated around the country: thermal baths, a “brain fag pillow,” even an electric hairbrush invented at Stanford University.

So what’s really going on here? Is brain fag a universal phenomenon draped in West African garb, or is it a unique condition that only appears when the right cultural circumstances align?
posted by maudlin at 12:01 PM on March 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


Relevant
posted by Reversible Diamond-Encrusted Ermine Codpiece at 12:04 PM on March 25, 2013


Lots of people die from anorexia.

Not really. The US has around 145 per year. (Insert standard 'more people die from X than Y' comparisons here.)

(Like this: Obesity kills around 300k Americans per year or 800+ per day.)
posted by unixrat at 12:07 PM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Penis theft or koro are no weirder than believing my same-sex marriage will damage your complementary-sexes one.
posted by Dreidl at 12:08 PM on March 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


I think the point was that the only people who die from anorexia are anorexics, not random bystanders lynched by angry anorexics.
posted by Behemoth at 12:09 PM on March 25, 2013 [21 favorites]


Concerning anorexia: i am 40, and diets were rare, started older, and 'skinny' was an insult - you wanted to be 'slim' - when i was at school. Girls didn't shave their legs, let alone their chachas, only underarm hair later on, and 'thin' was size 12, 'fat' was size 16 and most girls were size 14. Now, everyone either looks like they came out of Belsen last week or like they've been inflated with a bicycle pump past what they were meant to: i had one of those weird flash-backs you get when you're older, when you see something you had forgotten used to exist and realise for the first time, on seeing it again, that it had disappeared, when i went to Holland: all the Dutch girls were 'normal', with the same narrow spread of sizes. The first anorexic anyone in my society had heard of was Princess Di/Lady Di. Everyone was like 'what is this bulim thing?' and 'how can you have an illness of vomiting/not eating, because you can cure it by just eating again?' Similarly, getting drunk and fighting to injury or worse on Friday nights was considered a normal activity for men of a certain age. You got paid in cash, if you had a family you did the food shop, if you were single you went to the pub - most of your pay never went near the bank, it came in an envelope with your name on it. The world changes radically every 20 years or so, believe me: the only reason Africa now resembles here is that both now resemble america. I went round europe in the 1980s and the countries were actually very different, i went recently and they all looked identical with small differences. My gran went to brittany in the late 1960s and they were still wearing trad peasant costume in modern france. I totally don't believe anorexia is common in africa - look at the problems with putting oxo cubes in your ass to gain weight, not exactly an epidemic over here is it?
posted by maiamaia at 12:09 PM on March 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


If you keep eyes and ears alert you will constantly gather evidence that humans are a most bizarre species. Just yesterday I was reading a metafilter thread on bronies and people brought up furries and one brave soul even offerred up Dungeons & Dragons. There is almost no end to it though. Beatlemania. Investment bubbles like Facebook. People in my zipcode seem to think a family of four needs three bedrooms, three bathrooms and two sport utility vehicles.

I think they are all mad but I'm sure many of you would think the exact same about me if you got a close look.
posted by bukvich at 12:17 PM on March 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


everyone either looks like they came out of Belsen last week or like they've been inflated with a bicycle pump past what they were meant to

No, please don't say things like this. All kinds of wrong.

Also:

I totally don't believe anorexia is common in africa - look at the problems with putting oxo cubes in your ass to gain weight, not exactly an epidemic over here is it?

That's not the point, the point is that there is anorexia in Africa, as elsewhere, and the comparison made in the article is that Africans would think it bizarre that any Americans would ever starve themselves, just as we would think penis theft is bizarre. But since anorexia of course exists in Africa it's not really a good comparison.
posted by sweetkid at 12:20 PM on March 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Actually, a pretty good Western analogy to the penis-theft thing that featured recently on Metafilter would be the various windfarm induced ailments that people are claiming to come down with. Those, too, spread memetically (you need to hear about the possibility of the ailment before you can come down with it), lead to a powerful belief in actual physiological consequences and a strong desire to punish or in some way socially sanction those who "inflicted" the illness upon you.
posted by yoink at 12:21 PM on March 25, 2013 [29 favorites]


Brain cancer from cell phones is worse than penis theft by witches, but not as bad as that pony fetish.

...please excuse me, I have to go brick my camel.
posted by mule98J at 12:26 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the point was that the only people who die from anorexia are anorexics, not random bystanders lynched by angry anorexics.

Yes, precisely.

The wind farm analogy actually is better in every way.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:31 PM on March 25, 2013


The first anorexic anyone in my society had heard of was Princess Di/Lady Di. Everyone was like 'what is this bulim thing?' and 'how can you have an illness of vomiting/not eating, because you can cure it by just eating again?'

This is more of a comment on "your society's" knowledge of the history of anorexia and their ability to grasp the nature of mental illness than really anything else.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:32 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


The parasympathetic nervous system is a hell of a drug. I have definitely witnessed persistent changes in size due to general mood/arousal(e.g. getting extremely scared/nervous is like being in ice water) so it doesn't surprise me to think that if someone experienced some sort of mental break, this claim could be literally true.
posted by crayz at 12:33 PM on March 25, 2013


>> Still, no one else dies because you have anorexia

> Lots of people die from anorexia.


Yes, but I think they meant that just because someone has anorexia doesn't mean someone *else* can be blamed for it to the point of being put to death, unlike with this penis thievery panic.
posted by Wonton Cruelty at 12:41 PM on March 25, 2013


Concerning anorexia: i am 40, and diets were rare, started older, and 'skinny' was an insult - you wanted to be 'slim' - when i was at school. Girls didn't shave their legs, let alone their chachas, only underarm hair later on, and 'thin' was size 12, 'fat' was size 16 and most girls were size 14.

There's a lot of exaggeration when it comes to comparing the "good old days" with the present on pretty much every issue, including this one. I'm older than you and there was plenty of anorexia around when I was a kid. Twiggy didn't become one of the first break-out supermodels in the mid 60s by being pleasantly plump; and an awful lot of girls desperately wanted to be just like Twiggy.

It is true that people back in the 60s and 70s wore clothes with larger number sizes than today; but that is because the dress we call a "12" nowadays would have been called a "16" or "18" back then. People like to point to Marilyn Monroe, in particular, and say "people used to think curves were sexy" but if you've ever seen a show of Marilyn's clothes and costumes IRL, you quickly realize that she was nobody's idea--even by today's standards--of "overweight." As that photo shows, she worked damn hard at keeping "in shape." It's true that in some of her later films she is a little bit better padded than in that photo: but she often got hell for it from the studios and from her directors; it was something she could "get away with" because she was Marilyn Effing Monroe, not because beauty standards of the day were so radically different from today's.

"You can never be too rich or too thin" was a saying coined by Wallace Simpson in the early C20th. If you watch films from the 20s and 30s there's lots of talk of diets, spas, sweatboxes etc: and lots of rake-thin leading ladies: Mary Astor, Loretta Young, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers etc. etc.
posted by yoink at 12:45 PM on March 25, 2013 [12 favorites]


Could we maybe not do the anorexia and the perceived causes of eating disorders discussion? I think the windfarm sickness really is a better analog.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:51 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Couldn't this be partially explained as men who can't have erections telling their wives that their penis was stolen?
posted by desjardins at 12:51 PM on March 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


Well, at least penis theft is one thing that probably wouldn't have been featured too prominently in the Salem witch trials.

"It is here Alleged that Goodwife Hewitt, having on previous occasions Consorted with the Devil in Various Forms and caused Crops to Wither and Livestock to Weaken, and &c., did, on the 5th day of June in the Year of Our Lord 1692, cast a Spell upon Thomas Fletcher, and did cause his Small Companion to Vanish."

"His what?"

"Small Companion."

"What?"

"Little Friend?"

"No, I'm still not sure what you mean."

"His Man Parsnip."

"What?"

"His Trouser Cod."

"I'm sorry?"

"His Lord Protector."

"What?"

"His Roundhead?"

"I beg your pardon!"

"His Man Banana?"

"I don't even know what that is!'

"His Pestle, With Regard to the Provision of the Mortar Belonging to His Good Lady Wife."

"Do you mean some sort of kitchen appliance?"

"His Equipment for the Advancement of His Matrimonial Duties?"

"I'm sorry Minister Talbot, you are approaching your point in a very roundabout way. Please be more direct in your account of the charges."

"My Lord Magistrate, his Male Member."

"Minister Talbot, you will have to speak up!"

"His MALE MEMBER."

"Ah yes, I see. Very well- Minister Talbot is Hereby Sentenced to Reside for Two Days in the Stocks on the charge of Obscenity."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:00 PM on March 25, 2013 [28 favorites]


The culturally interesting thing to me is that I don't expect men to be the primary imaginary-disease-carriers because it seems like that's a female thing around here. All the people campaigning against smart meters, wireless internet and windfarms seem to be stay at home hippy moms. It makes this particular imaginary disease seem weirder and stupider somehow solely because the sufferers are not who you think initially. Goes to show how you don't even know your own prejudices. Or I don't.

otoh, maybe the fact it's men imagining things is why it's more widely accepted in the community. Because with few exceptions, no one takes the crazy anti-wireless people near as seriously as this.
posted by fshgrl at 1:03 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


One thing I found surprising was the penis snatching victim still lying ill on a mat the next day. You'd think this sort of thing would be very heat of the moment, over with and back to normal within an hour or so. But maybe he was feeling guilty that someone was executed thanks to him.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:08 PM on March 25, 2013


Funnily enough a windfarm stole my penis the other day. But then I suppose it serves me right for trying to make love to it while it was somewhat blustery.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:09 PM on March 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am not at all an anthropologist, so I don't have the tools to analyze whether my experience is representative of a broader trend, or indicative of anything in particular, or even an accurate reckoning free from confirmation bias. All that said, the article brings up both penis theft and human-organs as witchcraft ingredient. And my experience, after occasionally hearing both types of story while living for five years in Burkina Faso (two of them in a small village as a Peace Corps volunteer), is that when you hear the former type of story, the villain is never of the same ethnic group as the storyteller (unlike the author, I've never actually met a person who claimed it happened to them). But in the latter type of story, they always are.
posted by solotoro at 1:11 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've 99 problems, but a witch ain't one.
posted by mfu at 1:22 PM on March 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


yoink: Actually, a pretty good Western analogy to the penis-theft thing that featured recently on Metafilter would be the various windfarm induced ailments that people are claiming to come down with.

It also reminds me of the Le Roy High School situation.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:29 PM on March 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


Culture is an iceberg. You look at the obvious stuff - religious practices, clothing, claims about witches - and think that's a culture, but in reality culture is this huge, immense, hidden force that is so much bigger than outsiders to a particular culture can really grasp or hope to understand.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:33 PM on March 25, 2013 [4 favorites]


So you mean to tell me I have someone else to blame my shrinkage on every time I go for a 50+ bike ride?
posted by photoslob at 1:33 PM on March 25, 2013


> Actually, a pretty good Western analogy to the penis-theft thing ...
posted by yoink at 15:21 on March 25


Eponysterical!
posted by scruss at 1:47 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of cavalier jokes in here, which is surprising to me considering someone was killed.
In all seriousness, it seems to me Freud would have a field day with this, given the suggestion that it draws from urbanization and economic imbalance resulting in a loss of one's manhood.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 2:10 PM on March 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, a pretty good Western analogy to the penis-theft thing that featured recently on Metafilter would be the various windfarm induced ailments that people are claiming to come down with.

Totally. The reason the anorexia analogy struck me so strongly was because of the "how can you deny the obvious physical evidence" part.

I think you're right about the windfarm/memetic spread/etc stuff, but that has to do with causes. Everyone feels a little run down sometimes, the question is what to blame it on. (Personally, I blame it on lack of caffeine.)

Here we've got both the "your problem is obviously, empirically, objectively, not true" as in the "I'm too fat/No, you're too thin" anorexia discussion, and the misattribution of causes as in the windfarm malady discussion.

Like ... even if you don't attribute it to witchcraft, there's a problem with thinking your penis has gone missing (or is mysteriously shortened).
posted by Myca at 2:24 PM on March 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Like ... even if you don't attribute it to witchcraft, there's a problem with thinking your penis has gone missing (or is mysteriously shortened).

To an extent. But it's less clear than you're suggesting. For one thing, windfarm sickness produces claims of some pretty marked symptoms (not just "well, I feel a bit blah"), and if "stolen penis" manifests as "my penis is smaller than it should be and I'm impotent" that's not the kind of black and white "it's either there or it isn't" claim that would be obviously and clearly delusional if untrue. Flaccid penises do vary in length day to day depending on a variety of factors both physiological and psychological, and in some men those variations can be very marked.
posted by yoink at 2:34 PM on March 25, 2013


Concerning anorexia: i am 40, and diets were rare, started older, and 'skinny' was an insult - you wanted to be 'slim' - when i was at school. Girls didn't shave their legs, let alone their chachas, only underarm hair later on, and 'thin' was size 12, 'fat' was size 16 and most girls were size 14. Well, I am 49 and I went on my first diet at the age of 11 and I was already a skinny, underweight kid but that's what everyone else was doing, right along with buying razors and shaving their already hairless legs and underarms. Then all the girls in 9th grade had to watch a film in gym about anorexia. We would have died of shame to be a size 14 - any bigger than an 8 was obese - and that was in the good old USA and it didn't seem that different to me in Europe when I lived there in my late teens (the early 80s) and I was told that 5'10" 130 pound me would have to lose at least 15 pounds to be any kind of looker at all. So, culture, not universal. Go figure.
posted by mygothlaundry at 3:01 PM on March 25, 2013


This penis stealing thing isn't like anorexia. It's an example of mass hysteria, almost always manifested in crowds or otherwise stressful public places, and it usually happens once to each individual. (I think, not really sure though.) You don't hear about men who think their penis has been stolen on multiple occasions.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:14 PM on March 25, 2013


Related post about "penis panic", koro.
posted by nickyskye at 3:17 PM on March 25, 2013


> I think they are all mad but I'm sure many of you would think the exact same about me if
> you got a close look.

Alice: But I don't want to go among mad people.
Cheshire Cat: Oh, you can't help that.
posted by jfuller at 5:00 PM on March 25, 2013


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