That’s My Penis!

Would you like to read a terrifying paragraph?

“A popular interpretation of genital-shrinking allegations was as genital theft, and people reacted to these allegations as they would to other forms of theft.  In many cases, this involved a practice referred to in Ghanaian English as instant justice.  People who suspected theft shouted an alarm and enlisted the aid of bystanders in capturing the suspected thief, whereupon the assembled crowd beat the suspect, often to the point of death.  Although almost certainly underestimates, news media reported at least eight deaths from this practice during the 1997 outbreak in Ghana, eight deaths during the 1997 outbreak in Senegal, 14 deaths during separate outbreaks in Nigeria in 2001, five deaths in Benin during the 2001 outbreak, and one death in the Gambia in 2003.”

Just to be clear, the “outbreaks” referenced above are outbreaks of alleged genital-shrinking.  At least 36 people were beaten to death in West Africa between 1997 and 2003 because someone accused them of stealing their genitals, despite the fact that, according to the authors of the quoted paper, “investigations into allegations of genital shrinking typically revealed an intact organ.”  They then noted that, “confronted with this disconfirming evidence, affected persons typically expressed surprise.”  According to another estimate by Jean-Jacques Mandel, between 1990 and 2008, some 300 people were killed, and 3,000 seriously “wounded”, in Africa as punishment for stealing genitals.

A few weeks ago, I wrote somewhat glibly about the accusations of penis-theft leveled at witches in medieval Europe.  How often, I essentially asked, could that possibly have happened?

Well, evidence for actual genital theft by magic remains thin, but it turns out that the convicted belief that one’s genitals have been purloined by magical means is not unusual.

There are several conditions which feature the belief that one’s genitals are either shrinking, retracting, or have been stolen.  The most commonly known is koro, a culturally-bound syndrome typically seen in Southeast Asia, which is characterized by the belief that the genitals are retracting into the body and that, when they do, the sufferer will die.

One of the interesting things about koro in Southeast Asia and the incidents of alleged genital theft in West Africa is that both conditions often behave like epidemics, and both seem to afflict members of the population without prior mental illness.  This has caused some to suggest that these are better characterized as mass psychogenic (or sociogenic) illnesses: the rapid spread of symptoms of an illness among members of a group without known or identifiable organic etiology.

If koro and genital-theft are examples of mass psychogenic illness, they would be unusual examples in that the patient populations in both cases are overwhelmingly (though not entirely) male, and, in general, women are thought to be more susceptible to MPI than men.  Female sufferers of koro become convinced that their nipples are retracting, or that their vaginas are sealing shut, and, while that sounds pretty horrifying, there is something about the aggressive, delusional, and accusatory panic of penis-theft that is distinctly male: ‘This penis, it’s MINE, MY penis, and it’s VANISHING, because of YOU.  I don’t know how, but I know you did it!  Maybe magic!  It used to be BIGGER!  BIGGER and LONGER!  You made it SMALLER even though it was MINE!  My PENIS!  I’m going to beat you until MY PENIS is BIGGER and LONGER the way I know it’s SUPPOSED TO BE!’  See?  Pretty damn male.

The quoted article is ‘Understanding Genital-Shrinking Epidemics in West Africa: Koro, Juju, or Mass Psychogenic Illness?’, by Dzokoto and Adams.

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