“No one is entirely sure when magical penis loss first came to Africa,” but it’s a recurring problem. It’s also known as koro, and it’s fascinating to me for a couple of reasons.
According to the paper, a young man named Wasiu Karimu was on a bus when he “was said to have let out a strident cry, claiming that his genital organ had disappeared. He immediately grabbed [Funmi] Bello, who was seated next to him, and shouted that the woman should restore his ‘stolen’ organ.” They got off the bus, and a crowd of “miscreants” swarmed around the woman, ready to kill her.
That’s one example of how it’s said to happen; here is another.
The stranger had stopped to purchase a cup of tea at the market. After handing over his money, he clasped the vendor’s hand. The tea seller felt an electric tingling course through his body and immediately sensed that his penis had shrunk to a size smaller than that of a baby’s. His yells quickly drew a crowd. Somehow in the fray a second man fell victim as well. […] Shortly after the disturbance in the Tiringoulou market, members of the armed rebel group that governs the town arrested the traveler and subjected him to a harsh interrogation—for his own protection, they told me later. Had they left him to the mob, the town’s women would have torn the stranger limb from limb, they reasoned. But the protection, such as it was, did not last long: the supposed thief was executed by gunshot later that day.
The first quote is from “A Mind Dismembered” in Harper’s, the second from “Missing Pieces: Africa’s genital-stealing crime wave hits the countryside” in the Pacific Standard. Here’s a roundup of stories about a 2003 incident assembled by MEMRI, and there are more citations in the sources list for the Wikipedia article on koro. What interests me about penis theft is not so much what it says about Africa as what it says about America and about the human experience in general. Resist the temptation to just think “wow they belive some crazy stuff over there,” and instead notice the context, the subtext, the relationships. Why do people believe what they believe?
Let’s turn away from Africa for a minute and think about America’s relationship with witchcraft. Now, I’m a wacko far leftist, a delicate San Francisco hothouse flower, so my first reaction when someone says that is “wait, what relationship with witchcraft?” followed by thoughts about modern neopaganism and 17th-century Salem. So I was fairly surprised, a few years back, when a vice-presidential candidate headed for a national election sought the blessings of a witch-fighter. People in my social sphere tend to laugh at Chick tracts, too, but Chick tracts don’t appear from nowhere. Someone believes that there are witches, Satanists, and Freemasons busily conspiring against the God-Bless-the-United-States-of-America — a lot of someones, in fact ( “Planet Of The Satanazis” is a good roundup).
It is trivial to show that this sort of thing is not just false, but outrageously false — as the saying goes, violates important laws of physics. If that were all there were to it, you could just show people a few solid debunkings on Snopes and they’d get the point. But you can’t. Fred Clark has an interesting account of this:
I had a much-photocopied dossier in my desk drawer from the Procter & Gamble corporation. This surreal document was the company’s response to the urban legend that […] the CEO of P&G had at some vague point in the recent past appeared on some talk show – Phil Donahue, or Sally Jesse, or Oprah, the story mutated and adapted over time – and declared that he was a Satanist and that a portion of the company’s profits were donated regularly to the Church of Satan. This is a mind-bogglingly silly story. It’s not just implausible, but inconceivable, impossible. It is unbelievable on its face for dozens of reasons that become clear from even a moment’s consideration, and it’s based on factual claims that are easy to check on and quickly disproved. […] Procter & Gamble had prepared the dossier to combat this rumor […] they had also collected an impressive array of letters from religious leaders — the archbishop of Cincinnati, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, among others — all of whom urged their followers not to believe this stupid, stupid lie. In retrospect, this desperate, shotgun appeal to religious authority demonstrated why the dossier itself was probably futile. It was an acknowledgment that the people they were attempting to convince were beyond the reach of mere fact or reason — people who did not find reality compelling.
Now that’s quite a phrase, isn’t it? “People who do not find reality compelling.” With the important caveat that we’re talking about specific viewpoints people hold, rather than about people’s global “reasonableness” scores, let’s talk about why people might believe these things. Fred Clark has a theory in a follow-up post:
The kitten-burners seem to fulfill some urgent need. They give us someone we can clearly and correctly say we’re better than. Their extravagant cruelty makes us feel better about ourselves because we know that we would never do what they have done. Kitten-burners are particularly useful in this role because their atrocious behavior seems wholly alien and without any discernible motive that we might recognize in ourselves. Their cruelty seems both arbitrary and unrewarding, allowing us to condemn it without reservation. I mentioned that the Church of Satan aspect of the Procter & Gamble rumor seemed a bit too outrageous and over-the-top. But while that outrageousness makes the story less plausible, it’s also what makes it so compelling. The pride that fuels [this kind of] morality is an addictive drug, and the mythological Satan-worshippers of the P&G rumor offer that drug in its purest form. This story has nothing to do with any actual religion or cult or the actual doctrines espoused by Anton LaVey or any other publicity-seeking character who has claimed the name of Satanism. It’s about the idea of Satanism — the lore and legends of this enduringly popular bogeyman. Satanist stories, much like stories about ghosts or vampires, tap into big mythic fears – the sense that there is real evil in the world, that the innocent often suffer, that we may be powerless against the powerful. We tell such stories because we are afraid — reasonably afraid — of powerful, unnameable things. These stories give those fears a shape and a name and a horrifying face, and somehow that can be more reassuring than allowing such fears to remain amorphous and existential. And just like vampire and ghost stories, Satanist stories have their own sets of rules, details and basic outlines with which we’re all familiar. These give the stories their own kind of reality. (Ask most people, “Do you believe in vampires?” and they will answer No. But ask those same people if vampires can be killed with a wooden stake and they’ll tell you Yes.)
This is where we turn back to the penis thieves. I am no expert on African history, culture, and psychogeography, but the theory from the Harper’s and Pacfic Standard articles seems plausible enough to me: no penises (or other body parts) are actually being stolen, but rather, fears are being expressed. I find “the sense that there is real evil in the world, that the innocent often suffer, that we may be powerless against the powerful” a totally normal thing to think - partially because those are enduring worries of the human condition, and partially because we live in 2013, in a world that can reasonably be described as the aftermath of an alien invasion. It is also normal to think if you live in Africa, which has for perhaps the last thousand years been experiencing the business end of a succession of empires, the destiny of African nations not quite their own.
The problem, though, is that particular fears being universal to the human experience does not make them true nor does it say anything about whether or not we will react to them in a healthy way. Fear, indeed, makes us much more likely to react in unhealthy, destructive, and evil ways: we are all disposed to make worse decisions when we are afraid. In the penis-theft hysteria, this shows up as mob violence, and in the case of Americans terrified of Satanists, it also shows up as voting for people who, ironically, would be a lock for the endorsement of the actual LaVey-lineage Church of Satan.
Because at the end of the day we’re all not-particularly-bright monkeys, the American Christian authoritarian/evangelical movement’s fears have the same roots as the fears of the afflicted Nigerian urbanites and Central African Republic villagers. They are not the same fears, but they have the same roots. The world is spinning out of control and no one can stop it, you can hear them muttering. Virtue is disappearing and dangerous foreigners are everywhere. These fears filter through the time and place that we find them in.
The very fact that the penis thefts are sexualized, outrageous, and distant from the everyday experience of Americans makes them a good lens on home-grown American fears that are sexualized and outrageous. It is trivial to show that a great many Americans believe things that are just as credible as penis thefts - the easiest example is the moral panic that Christian leaders tend to stir up about transgender folks' use of public restrooms. Their worries are pure urban legend - they do not pass the sniff test, the laugh test, or the five-minutes-of-Google-searching test. That’s because these are about fear, not about reason, and if you try to appeal to their reason, you’ll be up against “people who do not find reality compelling” again.
We are brushing up against an argument that goes back to Socrates here: persuasion is not inherently about reason. In ideal circumstances, people would be swayed only by appeals to reason, but such circumstances are rare, so the normal course of persuasion is emotional appeal and various shortcuts that range from simply eliding an argument that you’re confident you can prove to patently lying. This feature of human psychology is on full display in Fred Clark’s story about attempting to disprove the Satanist urban legend. Clark says:
In trying to combat the P&G slander with nothing more than irrefutable facts proving it false, I was operating under a set of false assumptions. Among these:
- I assumed that the people who claimed to believe that Procter & Gamble supported the Church of Satan really did believe such a thing.
- I assumed that they were passing on this rumor in good faith — that they were misinforming others only because they had, themselves, been misinformed.
- I assumed that they would respect, or care about, or at least be willing to consider, the actual facts of the matter.
- Because the people spreading this rumor claimed to be horrified/angry about its allegations, I assumed that they would be happy/relieved to learn that these allegations were, indisputably, not true.
All of those assumptions proved to be false […] They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.
You could make a parallel set of assumptions about people who buy into penis thievery, and I would lay down a sawbuck on your getting the same reactions from them that Clark did from the people whose fears he attempted to debunk. There is also a strong parallel to the false-rape-accusation chimera, where people who claim to be very worried about a specific problem are anything but happy to hear that the problem is multiple orders of magnitude smaller than they claim it is. In both the cases of the Christian authoritarians' hysterics about queers in bathrooms and the anti-feminists' horror of false accusations of rape, I encourage you to visit those claims with the scrutiny that you visit naturally upon the fears of penis theft. Are they glad to hear that their fears are unfounded, or are they acting like “people who do not find reality compelling”?
I don’t want to Other the anti-feminists and the Christian authoritarians any more than I want to declare myself a superior being to those driven to mob violence by the penis-theft hysteria: I too am human, I experience fear, I am painfully aware that the world is very large and not very caring. At the same time, though, what I’m trying to point out here is that no one who tries to correct the errors of those three groups will get very far by appealing only to reason. Reason did not convince them that scary queers, false rape accusers, and penis thieves, were terrifying problems. Fear convinced them, fear produced by the state of the world — and, as often as not, fear driven to great heights by people who sensed that they could make a quick buck from the fear-addled (this dynamic is especially prominent in the case of Christian authoritarians, whose history as scam victims goes back a very long way). The term of art for these fears is that they are non-falsifiable - there is no way to conclusively prove or disprove them. You are more likely to get a response like “oh my god, Snopes is part of the conspiracy too!”
Instead, I’d like to invite you to consider the people trapped by their fear of such imaginary monsters with compassion, to consider the broad context of their fears, and to engage them with empathy. For those of us who wish that reason alone was enough to cure them of fear, there is a trap: thinking that, since we able to see by reason that that particular fear is fear of a non-existent thing, we are better than them. Even more difficult than reasoning people out of fear is reasoning people out of any position if they think that you hold them in contempt.
Sara Robinson had an excellent quartet of articles a few years back (1, 2, 3, 4) about people escaping from these fears in a larger context of life change. They make excellent reading, and emphasize the role of empathy and outreach to people trapped in worlds full of invisible monsters no more substantial than the penis thieves. The world is full of scary things - but reacting with violence, xenophobia, and hatred in the manner of the Christian authoritarians, the anti-feminists, and the mobs chasing after the penis thieves, never makes the world better. We make the world better instead with empathy, with compassion, and with lifting one another up. It is not easy, but it builds a better world one day at a time, whereas fear is a foundation of sand, on which nothing enduring will stand.