15.4.12

HOLD ON TIGHT - THE GREAT PENIS PANIC

Scott B Mendelson. The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria. The author (Createspace), 2010.

Psychiatrist Dr Scott Mendelson examines the outbreak of koro in Singapore in October 1967. In this culture-bound syndrome, men believe that their penises are retracting into their abdomens, and if this actually happens they will die. Some women were affected also, believing that their breasts were shrinking away. Men rushed into hospitals holding on to their penises, or clamping them with various ad hoc devices.

Mendelson examines the origins of this belief in Chinese traditional medicine, with its emphasis on sexual restraint and the conservation of semen, and places it within the context of Singapore at the time. The country was run from 1959 onwards by Lee Kwan Yu and his Peoples Action Party in an authoritarian manner and had begun a campaign of moral regeneration to change the formerly easygoing and decidedly louche reputation the colony once had. For a brief time it had been part of the Federation of Malaysia before being chucked out in 1965, leading to a sense of crisis.

Mendelson looks at possible Freudian explanations, I am sceptical of the general Freudian position, but he does suggest that there were tensions generated by the highly patriarchal and repressive society which was created there. He also suggests that their may have been delayed after-effects from the nightmarish Japanese occupation in 1942, culturally transmitted to a new generation. The ‘costs’ of such an outbreak were now acceptable (under the Japanese any similar outbreak would probably have led to mass executions. He compares the problems that young people may have been having there, with those of the children of holocaust survivors.

He gives a brief overview of other culture bound syndromes, but warns his audience not to imagine that these are only to be found in exotic or ‘primitive’ cultures, they exists in the USA (and I would add the general Western world) as well. He provides examples of some of the episodes of mass hysteria, and draws particular attention to the role of the rapid rise in the diagnoses of ‘multiple personality disorder’ and the rise of anorexia and bulimia as generated by the media’s worship of thinness. Needless to say, the alien abduction epidemic is yet another example

Mendelson makes it clear that those suffering from attacks of koro were not clinically insane, just frightened. They feared that their penises were retracting, over-reacting to the natural reduction caused by cold, fear etc., but they did not hallucinate that their penises had actually disappeared. – Peter Rogerson.

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