Dear Cecil: I’ll get straight to the point: What’s up with penis-stealing sorcerers in Africa? I’ve heard large mobs adamantly believe their penises have been stolen using black magic. How is it so many people can have the same hallucination? How often do these penis-theft hysterias break out? Jim, Baltimore
Hysteria? Come now. In the age of identity theft and other first-world problems, it’s almost refreshing to have an issue that speaks to the brotherhood of man.
I acknowledge you don’t get many substantiated cases of penis theft in, say, Paris. While rumors of genital larceny appear sporadically throughout the world, most commonly they’re found in developing nations with poorly-educated tribal cultures where belief in witchcraft is still strong. In Senegal, for example, it’s believed penises can be stolen by cannibal witches, or via impotence spells cast by sorcerers, or simply by ordinary, everyday evil spirits.
A penis-theft episode typically involves four stages. First the “victim” has an odd encounter, such as a stranger unexpectedly shaking his hand. Next is the sensation of an electric shock or chill traveling to his genitals. Third, he checks his crotch and becomes convinced his penis, testicles, or both have been stolen or shrunken. The final step is crying “Thief!” and enlisting others to confront the suspect, sometimes with the “victim” stripping on the spot to prove his genitals are gone. When an epidemic swept Nigeria in 1990, men walked around grasping their penises to prevent theft.
The result of this delusional drama can be pretty ugly. About 20 witches accused of penis theft were lynched in Nigeria in 2001, and 12 in Ghana in 2002. One survey counted 56 separate cases between 1997 and 2003, with at least 36 suspected thieves murdered. In a 2008 outbreak in Congo, urgent messages went out by radio to avoid strangers wearing gold rings in taxis, leading police to put 13 suspected sorcerers into protective custody to prevent lynchings.
Baffled Westerners may wonder what kind of idiot could seriously believe his penis had been stolen. From a glance at the reports it’s evident that in many if not most cases the claim isn’t that your genitalia have disappeared without a trace; rather, you think they’re shrinking. There’s a perfectly ordinary explanation for this — namely, the operation of the cremaster muscles, which pull the testes toward the body, typically in response to cold or fear. This is usually accompanied by a tingling sensation that could easily be interpreted as electric shock.
The mystery is why this commonplace experience should be taken as a sign of the dark arts. The default explanation is mass hysteria, which tells you nothing. A slightly shrewder take on things is that penis theft and other bizarre outbreaks in the developing world are “culture-bound syndromes,” which suggests they’re pathologies confined to mobs of superstitious yokels. But the germ of truth is that penis theft is a local manifestation of a broader phenomenon.
Consider Southeast Asia, home of a disorder known as koro, where your penis isn’t stolen but rather starts to withdraw into your body. If you don’t halt the process by grabbing your member or tying it down with string or wire, supposedly it will retract completely inside you, with fatal results. Sometimes attempts to avoid this fate cause severe penile injury, to the point of requiring amputation.
Koro isn’t blamed on sorcery. In 1967 an outbreak in Singapore was triggered by a rumor, repeated in news reports, that eating meat from pigs inoculated against swine fever would lead to koro. While pork rotted on the shelves, frightened men crowded the hospitals, with 469 “victims” by the time the panic ran its course.
In 2004 a koro outbreak in the Guangdong region of China started when a third grader became convinced his penis was shrinking. While his mother held the kid’s member, a local healer used traditional medicine to “cure” him. That might have been that, except the school principal then felt compelled to announce that boys should be careful of their penises. Numerous students suddenly felt their penises shrinking until the same healer put things right. On the bright side, a mere 64 kids professed to be afflicted, an improvement over an earlier koro outbreak in the region that affected more than 2,000.
What’s going on? The likeliest explanation is what’s been called “the witchcraft of modernity”: in a rapidly urbanizing society, when you dump a bunch of bumpkins into the middle of a faceless crowd, you can’t be surprised when some of them get weird.
Although you can find tales of disappearing penises in antiquity, penis theft as a mass-market phenomenon is relatively recent, first showing up in Nigeria in the early 1970s and spreading to most of West and central Africa by the 1990s. The scenario is easy to picture: teeming Lagos, a frightening encounter with a stranger, the activation of the cremaster. Add in journalists uncritically spreading wild tales, and we understand the frisson victims experience: it’s the shock of the new.
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