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Penis panic and the mysterious case of the retracting phallus

The Amorphophallus Titanum (also known as the penis flower or corpse flower) losing its edge
Photo: Photo: Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Koro

What it’s about: As Wikipedia’s “redirected from” calls it, Penis Panic! It’s a strange psychological disorder in which the sufferer believes his penis is shrinking or retracting, and eventually will disappear, possibly even resulting in death. Stranger still, it’s often a mass phenomenon, in which groups of men think this is happening to all of them together. This belief persists despite a lack of evidence, and temporary “shrinkage” due to cold or other factors is often seen as proof of permanent loss of size.


Biggest controversy: Wikipedia discusses koro as both a Chinese “culture-specific syndrome,” and a phenomenon that occurs in numerous cultures around the world. It does seem to be more prevalent in the lower Yangtze Valley in southern China, where (per Wikipedia here), the population is largely poorly educated and prone to superstition. China-specific koro also seems to include a fear of impending death, and penis panics tend to break out in times of “social tension or impending disaster.” Outbreaks have been recorded every so often since the late 19th century. After a year-long panic in the mid-’80s, a mental health campaign was launched, and there have been no mass outbreaks of koro since, although improved economic conditions and education may be factors as well.

Photo: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Strangest fact: There’s a female equivalent. While the vagina seems to be safe from this particular mania, there have been cases of women fearing their nipples would retract into their breasts. “Extremely anxious sufferers” have been known to pull at their nipples or even pierce them to stop the feared retraction, just as men have tried to stop the imagined effects of koro by performing what Wikipedia calls “manual or mechanical penile traction”—in other words, pulling on it, but not in a fun way.

Thing we were happiest to learn: This psychosomatic disease has a psychosomatic cure! Traditional Chinese medicine treats koro with herbal remedies that often include animal penises, as well as pepper soup, ginger soup, and the cause of—and solution to—all of life’s problems, alcohol. Given that no one’s penis ever shrinks away to nothing after these treatments, they have to be considered somewhat successful.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Cocaine wasn’t the only thing making penises shrink in the ’70s. For some reason, koro went worldwide for a stretch, starting with a 1967 incident in Singapore. A large number of people who ate pork from pigs that had received a swine flu vaccine experienced koro, with one hospital reporting 97 cases in a day. The government had to run “your penis is not actually shrinking” PSAs, which we can all agree is the best possible use of tax dollars.

The Amorphophallus Titanum (also known as the penis flower or corpse flower) in bloom
Photo: Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

A few years later, koro started appearing in Nigeria, with local superstition attributing the phenomenon to someone using juju to, essentially, steal people’s mojo. A 1976 koro epidemic in Thailand with hundreds of cases was attributed to “Vietnamese food and tobacco poisoning in a hideous assault against the Thai people.” Another koro “outbreak” hit Thailand a few years later in 1982, the same year that Northeast India suffered an outbreak.

Also noteworthy: As strange as all this is, it’s not nearly as strange as the penis-related affliction reported in 15th-century witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum. The book claims witches could remove men’s genitals “so that they can be neither seen nor felt,” storing them in birds’ nests, and that “they move themselves like living members and eat oats and corn.” We probably don’t have to tell you not to feed corn to your penis, but better safe than sorry.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: We’ve discussed mass hysteria before, but not why the human brain is susceptible to such a thing. The koro article suggests the mirror neuron may be responsible—it fires both when an animal performs an action, and when it observes another animal performing an action. It’s believed that that’s how animals (humans included) can learn by observation. But that process can sometimes go awry, and mental disorders can be learned as well. Or so the theory goes.

Further down the Wormhole: Koro’s disambiguation page includes towns called Koro in Ivory Coast, Mali, and Wisconsin, as well as a Fijian island. (We can only speculate as to what the residents think of the name and its associations.) It also mentions ’Oro, a Polynesian god of war who was the subject of a secret society. Such societies are sometimes only wild rumors, and as such fall under Wikipedia’s “conspiracy theory” heading. Also housed under “conspiracy theory” is a supposed secret military project that rendered a warship invisible, the Philadelphia Experiment. We’ll visit the City Of Brotherly (and possibly invisible) Love next week.


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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.