The Return Of The Penis Thieves: "Thief! My genitals are gone!"

>> Friday, July 11, 2008

Back in April, I happened to do an entry about penis thieves. According to Reuters, there was an epidemic of fear in Kinshasa, in the Congo, as citizens complained that their genitalia were being stolen.

It turns out there's an article on the subject in the June 2008 Harper's, "A mind dismembered: In search of the magical penis thieves," by Frank Bures, and (somewhat to my surprise) it's actually more provocative than funny. Well, I think it's funny, too, to be honest, in spite of the lynchings that apparently are a routine follow-up to a penis theft. (It's like stealing horses in the American Old West, it seems: those who are caught rustling penises are strung up without hesitation or mercy. Perhaps the horse was a psychic substitute for the prick--suggesting our ancestors might have been as small as they were great, perhaps?)

Bures has the usual absurd anecdotes, but places the whole idea of penis theft into a larger context of "culture-bound syndromes"--mental illnesses or hysterias that are dependent on the society in which they're found, as opposed to whatever mental illnesses might be universal. All humans, perhaps, are subject to the chemical imbalances we label "depression" but maybe only Japanese humans are victims of hikikomori. (Or maybe not, see the Wikipedia link in the previous sentence.) Fear of penis theft is obviously uncommon in the contemporary Euro-American sphere, but Bures suggests it's shockingly common in Africa, parts of Asia, and maybe in Europe's past (Bures says the infamous Hexenhammer, the Malleus Maleficarum used by European inquisitors as a field guide to the habits of witches warns that witches can steal genitalia--perhaps the poor bastard who was turned into a newt (but got better) ought to consider himself relatively lucky.

It all actually raises some interesting questions about how the mind works, and about culture, and it's a decent enough read. Hope you find it as entertaining and provocative as I did.


Jeri Friday, July 11, 2008 at 2:18:00 PM EDT  

I think I heard all of your male readers crossing their legs at once.

Thanks for sharing. I think. ;)

Eric Friday, July 11, 2008 at 3:15:00 PM EDT  

Don't be too sure us guys are the only ones with something to be afraid of: the Bures story (the Bures piece? Oi!) quotes from an account from Lagos:

"Women were also seen holding on to their breasts directly or discreetly, by crossing the hands across the chest. . . . Vigilance and anticipatory aggression were thought to be good prophylaxes. This led to further breakdown of law and order."

...aside from the fact that breast thieves may be running amok as well, one also has to remember that women are frequently the victims of "anticipatory aggression" or retaliation: women are accused of stealing men's power, as symbolized by the phallus. Ergo, lynch the woman responsible and the penis will regrow.

One could make a purely Freudian case from it if there weren't male witch doctors periodically strung up or beaten to death as well. As it is, the whole thing does give a little more weight to the concept of "castration anxiety" than one might have thought.

Interesting. Y'know, I hadn't taken that avenue at all--Freudian psychology is basically bullshit, dependent on constructs (e.g. "the Id") that appear to be as illusory and unmeasurable as faeiries and unicorns. Yet, clearly, there is some hint of a widespread anxiety over have you seen your penis today that transcends time and place. Hmm.

Nathan Friday, July 11, 2008 at 6:47:00 PM EDT  

I read this earlier today and thought, "I'll go back later and have something witty to say".

It's later........." ".

vince Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 12:36:00 AM EDT  

That was a good piece you linked to, and you have (as usual) some interesting thoughts on it. But in my admittedly warped and twisted mind, this sentence:

"Yet, clearly, there is some hint of a widespread anxiety over have you seen your penis today that transcends time and place."

immediately brought to mind a warped reworking of a Stones classic:

Have you seen your penis baby
standing in the shadow?

Jim Wright Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 12:45:00 AM EDT  

Penis theft?

These guys should get married - that way the penis is locked up and untouchable.

Whup! Look who's channeling Sam Kinison.

Eric Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 1:33:00 AM EDT  

These guys should get married - that way the penis is locked up and untouchable.

Tell that to John Wayne Bobbitt.

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