Penis Theft and Other Culture-Bound Syndromes

May 4, 2016

Ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome and premenstrual syndrome may seem completely different from penis theft, also known as koro, but they actually have a lot in common. All three can be classified as "culture-bound syndromes," perceived maladies informed by the cultures where they appear. 

Frank Bures' book, The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes looks at how these ailments are cultivated and what they say about the cultures they come from. 

"When you look at the so-called 'cultural syndromes,' or 'culture-bound syndromes,' for me it's interesting because it's where you can most obviously see how a culture affects us and shapes the way we think the world should go and the way our lives are going," says Bures. "It's a good place to look at how the world comes together in our minds." 

While koro may seem ridiculous to some, it's actually a pretty common phenomenon. The syndrome has roots not only in Africa, but in Asia and Europe as well. The book uses this syndrome, and others, to analyze how cultural beliefs shape our own ideas about health and well-being.

"Culture is like this ecosystem of stories that we're a part of and it shapes the way that we think things can go, and the way that we think things should go and shouldn't go," says Bures.  "You can see that pretty clearly in the Nigerian koro situation where everybody has stories about this. The narrative ecosystem is pretty rich with these possibilities to the point that nobody really doubts that this kind of thing is possible, it's just the reality." 

Some culture-bound syndromes may seemingly defy logic. But Bures says these syndromes are about more than facts. They're based in strongly-held cultural beliefs, which are reinforced by anecdotal evidence.

"It's not like a visual thing, it's a feeling thing... They really feel like it's gone. And if you have that sort of strong belief it doesn't matter what you tell somebody. And a lot of them will go to the doctor and then the doctor will say, 'Oh, you're fine,' you know? Then they will say, 'No, that's not really mine,' 'Mine's bigger than that,' or you know, 'The essence is gone.' Some explanation for why that's not true," he says. "It's a little bit similar to telling an anorexic person that they should just get on the scale and see how much they weigh. It doesn't matter that much what you tell them if they don't believe it."