Belief in fatally retracting genitals, or a belief in genital theft, is usually known by the name 'Koro'. The word is of uncertain origin but is thought to derive from the Malaysian word for tortoise, (sometimes locally used as a slang term for the penis), perhaps with a nod to the tortoises' ability to retract its head into its body. It takes several forms, including a fast spreading social belief that tends to cause panics and widespread concern, and a more isolated form, usually the problem of a lone individual.
Koro as a social belief
To many people it is perhaps surprising that a belief in Koro can be particularly widespread but this belies that fact that the belief has a long and distinguished history. It is first mentioned in China (known there as 'suo-yang') where it is cited in the ancient Chinese text 'The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine', a traditional medical manuscript which dates from about 300 BC. Similar descriptions appear in Chinese volumes throughout the ages, and the idea exists as a folk belief among some Chinese and Asian peoples today.
Minor Koro epidemics have seized localised parts of Asia at various times, including a well documented 1967 outbreak in Singapore. As the panic spread hospitals became inundated with people worried that their penises were shrinking into their body. Many had resorted to pegs, clamps and even a constant firm grip from concerned family members attempting to prevent the member from vanishing entirely. According to an analysis of the incident reported in the Singapore Medical Journal, the panic stemmed from rumours that pork, poisoned from a swine fever inoculation, was causing genital shrinkage. Similar outbreaks in the Guangdong region in China have been related to an alleged sighting of the beautiful Hu Li Jung, a genital thieving fox spirit traditionally thought to wander the countryside in search of male victims.
In affected parts of Africa, Koro is more commonly related to the work of sorcerers or black magic, and involves alleged penis theft rather than retraction. The belief is of unknown vintage (historical sources are scarce) but periodically creates panics, sometimes resulting in fatal consequences for the unfortunately accused. Recent outbreaks have been reported in Nigeria, Benin and Ghana and usually involve the public accusation of penis theft, often after an unexpected or unwelcome touch from a stranger.
Whilst penis theft would seem a fairly simple charge to refute, victims in an 1990 Nigerian outbreak (reported on by psychiatrist Sunny Ilechukwu) often believed that their penises were returned at the point of public accusation. Some even went as far as undress to prove their accusation to onlookers, subsequently claiming that their 'returned' penis had been replaced but was shrunk, leading them to think it must be a ghost penis or perhaps the wrong one.
Isolated Koro Sufferers
Cases of Koro have also been reported in most nationalities including American, European and Middle-Eastern persons. Sufferers tend to show a couple of marked differences to Asian and African Koro sufferers, mainly that they tend not to believe that genital retraction will be fatal, and that it tends to present more commonly in the context of mental illness, rather than social scares. A recent study reported on three cases of Koro in American males who all formed penis retraction beliefs after smoking Cannabis. In these cases the researchers suggested that Koro was brought on by a combination of pre-existing worries over penis shape, anxiety and bad reaction to situational cannabis use. Perhaps due to a `bad-trip' experience or its ability to trigger or exacerbate psychosis and anxiety in a minority of individuals.
Koro in a Greek Cypriot man was reported in one medical case study from the British Journal of Psychiatry. In this instance the person was concerned that his penis was shrinking into his body, a claim accompanied by depression, psychotic symptoms and heightened anxiety. The gentleman concerned was treated by doctors with mood stabilising and anti-psychotic medication after which his penis-related concerns abated.
Other case studies have reported on Koro after depression following stroke, in relation to phobia for AIDS, after a brain tumour and during schizophrenia. In some cases the individuals had heard about Koro before suffering themselves, an unlikely belief perhaps triggered by later unfortunate events, but in others the belief seemed to arise without previous cultural contact.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know ?
Freud believed that castration anxiety was an important stage of personality development, and although this is not a popular view among psychologists today, it is not difficult to see how Koro beliefs may relate to many common sexual anxieties. Body satisfaction and worries over correct and desirable body shape are also common, and in mental illness they may reach delusional intensity. Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a syndrome where sufferers come to believe that a particular part of their body (often regarded as quite normal by third parties) is particularly ugly, unshapely or undesirable. Whilst there is no evidence that Koro may be directly related to this disorder, it is easy to see how body concerns can be incorporated or even fuel unlikely beliefs.
The type of social Koro that creates panics could be easily dismissed as the result of primitive thinking of superstitious people, but as sociologist Robert Bartholomew has documented, industrialised societies have much modern history of similarly unusual social scares. This includes not one, but several widespread panics sparked by dramatisations of the Orson Welles play `War of the Worlds'. This would suggest that society is great shaper of our beliefs, and we are much more likely to believe what our neighbours believe than we would like to admit.
Several excellent analyses of the Koro phenomenon have been written by Robert Bartholomew. The following books are highly recommended for extensive references and an excellent critique of our understanding of Koro (and other strange beliefs and social panics). The first is perhaps a little easier for the non-academic reader.
Bartolomew, R.E. (2001) Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-hunting Panics: A study of mass psychogenic illness and social delusion. North Carolina: McFarland Publishers.
Bartholomew, R.E. (2000) Exotic Deviance: Medicalizing cultural idioms from strangeness to illness. Colorado: University of Colorado Press.
References to medical reports of Koro can be obtained by searching PubMed using the keyword `koro'