Anyone can go mad. But how you do depends on where you are.
A young Indian jute mill labourer takes a break from his work and goes to the toilet. He usually looks forward to these few minutes when he can relax and let go. But this time, he looks down to see something not at all relaxing— a smaller penis.
That night, he lays prostrate, arms crossed and eyes prised open by anxiety. When he wakes up, instead of seeing his penis back to normal size, as he had hoped, he sees that it is nearly gone. The stricken worker hurls himself into a pond, and does not move for 16 hours. His friends, whose genitalia have also started to shrink, join him one-by-one in the restorative soak.
Nineteen men in this West Bengali jute mill were temporarily struck by penis shrinking syndrome, or koro, according to a 2011 case study. Koro is a contagious disease in many Asian countries, and particularly so in China, where descriptions of the syndrome date back to 2,000 years ago and the cultural emphasis on reproduction and fertility provide rich soil for the penis-anxiety syndrome to grow and spread in epidemic proportions.
In the West, koro typically occurs on an individual basis. In some cases, the penis shrinks because of anxiety. In other cases, it simply remains its habitual size while its owner balloons in weight. This happened to one middle-aged Italian-American man whose growing obesity, schizophrenia and impotency created a panic that his penis was shrinking. Westerners tend to blame the shrinking syndrome on personal problems like drugs or see it as a part of another mental illness.
But even Western koro remains deeply influenced by social ideas of masculinity— inboxes are flooded with advertisements for penis-enhancing surgery, while virility pills and media images of the male body all bespeak a global culture obsessed with size and stamina.
Although koro changes its proportions in different places (from an epidemic in Asian cultures to individual affliction in Western cultures) one thing remains the same: the syndrome feeds off a popular cult of the penis, which glorifies reproductive potency and machismo to incredible lengths.