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Koro or Genital retraction syndrome (GRS), generally considered a culture-specific syndrome, is a condition in which an individual is overcome with the belief that his/her external genitals—or also, in females, breasts—are retracting into the body, shrinking, or in some male cases, may be imminently removed or disappear. A penis panic is sometimes a mass hysteria event or panic in which males in a population suddenly exhibit symptoms of genital retraction syndrome.
In cases where the fear of the penis being retracted is secondary to other conditions, psychological diagnosis and treatments are under development. It is becoming increasingly clear that these forms of mass hysteria are more common than previously thought.
The phenomenon is often, but not always, associated with occult belief, such as witchcraft. These panics frequently, but not exclusively, occur in places where access to education—particularly in science and human biology—is limited, or otherwise restricted (for example, when government policies restrict such education). Others have been reported under the influence of drug use. (Compare with castration anxiety.)
European folktales are replete with examples of witches who could steal men's genitals. These penis panics appear to have ended with the Enlightenment. One particularly illustrating example can be found in a joke in the otherwise quite serious Malleus Maleficarum that details the experience of a man attempting to retrieve his stolen penis from a witch who has hidden it in a bird's nest, along with those of others.
Southeast Asia: Koro
Penis panics in southeast Asia have become known under the term "Koro" (which means "head of the turtle" in Malay). Some anthropologists have referred to Koro as a culture-bound syndrome, but it is phenomenologically related, if not identical, to penis panics in various cultures. Koro most commonly describes the extreme fear that the penis is retracting into the body, including the idea that such retraction will bring about death. It also has a broader presentation in the fear can be about the labia or the brests being retracted to. It can also refer to beliefs of "genital theft" or some kind of sorcery which has resulted in the loss of the penis. Sometimes the testicles are also believed to be affected.
Koro also tends to reflect a certain xenophobia among some groups, whereby foreigners are often blamed as the ones behind the "attacks".
In Chinese, the term used for the condition is the Chinese term Shook yang (suo yang, 縮陽). Outbreaks of Koro in China were reported in 1948, 1955, 1966, 1974 and 1984/85, although none have been reported in the 20 or so years since (Tseng 2006).
Although Koro goes back to ancient times, beliefs have evolved to better suit modernity. Whereas in the past the causes were usually identified as supernatural, e.g. sorcery, a recent Koro episode in Northern Thailand placed the blame on Vietnamese Communist agents who supposedly put chemicals in the water supply.[How to reference and link to summary or text]
Sufferers may resort to extreme physical measures to prevent the believed retraction of the penis. As well as affecting individuals, Koro-like syndromes can often occur in an outbreak of mass hysteria.
Aside from the emotional distress, Koro by itself is not physically harmful, and no actual retraction takes place. Injuries have occurred when stricken men have resorted to apparatus such as needles, hooks, fishing line, and shoe strings, to prevent the disappearance of their penises.
An epidemic struck Singapore in 1967, resulting in thousands of reported cases. Government and medical officials alleviated the outbreak only by a massive campaign to reassure men of the anatomical impossibility of retraction together with a media blackout on the spread of the condition.
Sudanese victims were made to believe by force of suggestion that their penises would melt away after they shook hands, shared a comb, or received a verbal curse. The so-called "penis-melting" has been blamed on Zionists trying to wipe out the Sudanese people by making their men unable to reproduce.
The hysterical reports were spread throughout Sudan by means of cell phone text-messaging.
Sudanese police investigated the claims and have found no evidence of anything supernatural, and that it is likely a hoax which victims believed through the power of suggestion. Mr. Abul-Gasim Mohamed Ibrahim, Sudan's Minister of Health, issued official statements to calm the public's fears.
Local media also contributed to the idea's spread. The Sudanese columnist Ja'far Abbas has warned visitors to avoid shaking hands with "a dark-skinned man". In reference to the electronic comb which was supposed to have caused one man's penis to disappear, Abbas writes, "No doubt, this comb was a laser-controlled surgical cyborg that penetrates the skull, [passes] to the lower body and emasculates a man!!"
The phrase "Penis-melting Zionist cyborg combs" has been coined to describe this humorous story. It was originally incorrectly attributed to Wall Street Journal's James Taranto writing in his "Best of the Web Today". However, the article in question has no such phrase, nor anything similar beyond the aforementioned quote.
Documented cases have not typically indicated actual instances of penis shrinkage or retraction. Any actual injury or damage that occurs to individuals usually arises from overly zealous attempts at preventing retraction. Medical response generally consists of informing patients that the genitals anatomically cannot retract or shrink in the manner typically feared.
As one academic work states, GRS seems to be similar in many ways to the Western category of panic attack, with sexual elaborations. It seems probable that, in a culture where sexual anxiety is high and stories exist of death by genital retraction, a man in the right frame of mind could panic at the observation that his genitals are shrinking in response to cold or anxiety.
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- (Tseng, W.S., From Peculiar Psychiatric Disorders through Culture-bound Syndromes to Culture-related Specific Syndromes. Transcultural Psychiatry. 2006 43(4):554-576
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- World Health Organization article about Koro, with bibliography
- Suo yang (Koro): The Genital Retraction Syndrome at UCSD
- Koro: A Natural History of Penis Panics, September 16, 2002, Kuro5hin
- October 22 report by the Middle East Media Research Institute: "Panic in Khartoum: Foreigners Shake Hands, Make Penises Disappear"
- Wall Street Journal's "Best of the Web Today," Wednesday, October 22, 2003
- "Genitals ‘Disappearance’ Rocks Patani Community", Nigerian Daily Independent's 7 March, 2006 report
- Koro - the Genital Retraction Syndrome - BBC h2g2, Page dedicated to Koro
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