The Shames of Men

An anthropologist on a return visit to a remote village in Papua New Guinea learns that all the village’s young men are terribly wounded.

Don Kulick | Longreads | June 2019 | 14 minutes (3,788 words)

A few months ago, in April 2019, an eyebrow-raising headline appeared in the British newspaper the Guardian: “Botched penis enlargements: Papua New Guinea doctors warn of nationwide problem.”

The article reported that over the past two years the General Hospital in the country’s capital city, Port Moresby, has treated more than five hundred men who injected baby oil and other foreign substances into their penises to make them bigger. The medical professionals who sounded the alarm about this practice warned that it seems to be widespread and is a growing threat to men’s health throughout the country.

I read this story and sighed. I knew that those doctors were glimpsing only the tip of a ghastly iceberg.

*

Only a few weeks before the Guardian article appeared, I had returned to Gapun, a remote village in an all-but-forgotten corner of Papua New Guinea where I have been doing anthropological research for the past thirty years. The village is much further off the beaten path than any doctor working at Port Moresby General Hospital is likely to have traveled. Getting there from the nearest town can take two days, but this time I made it in a record fourteen hours.

Leaving from the nearest town with my traveling companions — three health workers from a local NGO — I rode in the back of a truck with no shock absorbers on an unpaved road cratered with potholes. For nine hours. At the end of the road we climbed into a flimsy outboard motor-powered canoe, bobbing on ocean waves up the coast before entering an immense mangrove lagoon and, after three hours, arriving at the end of a shallow, narrow creek. From there, we shouldered our bags and trekked for an hour, through viscous mud and clouds of mosquitoes, across slim slippery waterlogged poles that villagers call “bridges.”

Finally we arrived in the small windless slit in the rainforest that is Gapun; a village with a usual population of about two hundred people.

I first came to Gapun in the mid-1980s, as a PhD student in anthropology. I ended up there because I was interested in language, and I wanted to study how a language dies. Papua New Guinea attracted me partly because it was exotic; to anyone who had grown up daydreaming over the photos in National Geographic, as I had, Papua New Guinea — with its people who wore vibrant bird-of-paradise feathers in their hair, and cassowary bones the size of knitting needles through their septums — was the epitome of exotic.

They whispered to me, Did you bring any medicine for sores?

Mostly though, I went to Papua New Guinea because that large but sparsely populated country (it’s the size of California, but only about eight million people live there) contains the greatest abundance of languages spoken anywhere on the globe. About eight hundred different languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea — note: separate languages, not just separate dialects or variants. Many of them are spoken by groups of five hundred people or fewer, and most of them are still undocumented.

I sought out Gapun after being directed there by an Australian linguist who had never visited the village himself, but who had heard from villagers who lived nearby that the people of Gapun spoke a language unique to them, one that was tiny; so tiny that, the linguist reasoned, it might be moribund. It was, and I have returned many times since my initial visit to document the villagers’ language and understand why it is dying (it currently is spoken by only about forty people). I have lived in Gapun off and on for a total of nearly three years, and with the help of a linguist colleague, I recently completed a grammar and dictionary of the language. It was precisely to present them with that work that I had decided to make my way back to the village, after an absence of nearly five years.

*

I arrived in Gapun feeling ebullient, merrily anticipating how the villagers would react to my gift of a grammar of their heretofore undocumented, dying language. It didn’t take long, though, for my happy mood to be eclipsed by a looming crisis. On my first morning back, as soon as I left the communal men’s house where I was staying, two young men who were standing on the side of the path that leads into the rainforest called out and motioned for me to follow them. They made a beeline into the dense tropical undergrowth.

I tagged after them, and as soon as we were out of sight and out of earshot of any inquisitive villager, they whispered to me, “Did you bring any medicine for sores?”

“What kind of sores?” I whispered back.

“We have sores on our ‘shames,’ ” one of the men said, using the desultory euphemism for ‘penis’ that Christian missionaries had coined long ago and imprinted in Tok Pisin, the pidgin language spoken throughout the country (the language now replacing the villagers’ local language).

I had known both the young men who stood before me since they were babies, and they knew that they didn’t have to feel shame about their “shames” around me. Because the nearest health facility with any reliable supply of medicine is hundreds of miles away, and never visited by villagers, I also had medicine; in fact, the only reason I had made it all the way to the village this time was that I had managed to convince a local NGO in the far-off town of Madang to do a “patrol” into the rainforest, bringing with them whatever medicine they could get ahold of. I had piggybacked onto their patrol, to act as their guide and to facilitate their entry into the village (and also, not incidentally, to spare myself some of the not-inconsiderable expense involved in traveling there).

As far as medicine was concerned, villagers had little experience with it, and I knew that they believed that antibiotic tablets could cure everything from stomach aches to heart palpitations. So before anyone handed out any pills, I wanted to know what the young men were talking about, exactly.

“Show me,” I said.

They each dutifully lowered their shorts. I immediately saw the sores — open wounds festering at the base of their penises. The sores were big and raw, and they looked painful.

But something else looked strange too.

“Wait here,”I told them.

I went back into the village and searched for the male nurse who had traveled with me to Gapun. I found him sitting in the men’s house, chewing betel nut and chatting with a few village men.

I asked him to follow me.

We went back to the two young men in the rainforest and I asked them to show the nurse what they had shown me. They pulled down their shorts again and the nurse wrinkled his nose.

“Did you inject anything into your cocks?” he asked them brusquely, eschewing the prim missionary-inflected euphemisms.

The two men nodded sheepishly.

*

Papua New Guinea is a country that rarely gets noticed by Western media. Most North Americans and Europeans hardly know where it is. To the extent they can venture a guess at all, many think it lies in Africa, rather than the Pacific ocean, where it in fact is located, just above Australia.

Whenever Papua New Guinea does garner attention, it is always for something bad. Last year the country made international headlines on three occasions. The first was when, in February, it was struck by a devastating 7.5 magnitude earthquake that affected half a million people, of which three hundred thousand required life-saving assistance. What followed were reports of how tribal fighting and government corruption effectively hindered many survivors from ever receiving any help at all.

Several months later, Papua New Guinea was again in the news, this time because polio had reappeared, for the first time in eighteen years. The outbreak of that highly infectious, deadly disease was attributed to the abysmal state of health care throughout the country.

The final occasion when Papua New Guinea made headlines in 2018 was towards the end of the year, before it hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Port Moresby. The reason for the headlines this time was that the government, in anticipation of the summit, had purchased forty new Maserati automobiles, at a cost of approximately $150,000 each, to shuttle visiting dignitaries from the airport to the newly built convention center where the summit was to take place (the Maseratis were later joined by three Bentleys). After a public furor over the expenditure, the government insisted that it had always intended to recoup the cost by selling the cars to the “private sector” after the summit. Subsequently, though, in an outcome that surprised nobody, the Maseratis disappeared, only to be rediscovered on a wharf in Port Moresby after further public outcry, while a number of other cars purchased for the event still remain unaccounted for.

This depressing trend of bad news continued unabated into 2019, this time with the report of a national health crisis caused by men injecting baby oil into their penises to make them bigger.

*

The flaccid members I saw on the young men who stood with their shorts around their thighs certainly were big. Cartoonishly big. The reason I went and summoned the nurse when I first saw them was that in addition to being pockmarked with ulcers, the young men’s genitals looked alarmingly bloated. The heads of their penises were dwarfed and almost buried inside a gelatinous-looking mass of puffy, squishy flesh.

Having no medical training, I thought that maybe the swelling was due to an infection caused by the sores, or maybe by a venereal disease the men had picked up from one of their sexual partners. The report from the Guardian about the botched penile injections hadn’t appeared yet, and I had never heard of anyone injecting anything directly into their genitals.

Every single male in the village between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three underwent this procedure.

The Papua New Guineans nurse, though, had been on patrols in other rural areas, and he had seen this sort of thing before. The answers the young men gave to the nurse confirmed his worst fears. Throughout the area where Gapun is situated, it turns out that badly paid health workers (health workers!) supplement their meager income by selling syringes, baby oil and a white powder containing God-knows-what labeled “Growim Kok” (Penis Grower) to ingenuous men, telling them that mixing the baby oil with the powder and injecting the resulting fluid directly into their penises will result in massive, impressive organs. In this case, a young Gapun man had traveled to a nearby village to visit relatives six months previously, and he heard about the practice there. A few young men showed him the results of their injections, and he was impressed by what he saw. He obtained a few syringes from the men, and purchased a few bottles of baby oil and Growim Kok, and returned to Gapun to spread the news.

The young Gapun villagers to whom he reported his discovery upon his return were all enthusiastic, and they took turns injecting one another with the oil mixed with the mysterious magical powder. Every single male in the village between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three underwent this procedure. None of them had any idea what they were doing; it’s a wonder that none of them struck a vein and killed someone. The injections hurt, the men said, but the pain passed and they were happy with the results.

Until the sores started to appear.

*

That evening, the male nurse and I summoned all the young men in the village to a private meeting in a secluded corner of the men’s house. The nurse told them in quiet understatement that what they had done was not good. Under no circumstances should they perform any more injections on anyone else. He distributed copious amounts of antibiotic tablets, and he explained how to take them over a period of the coming two weeks.

Then he calmly informed the men about the fate that might await them: their injected skin might develop even bigger gaping ulcers, he said. It could turn hard, or worse. It might die. If the sores the men had developed remained but stopped hurting, they needed to travel to a hospital as soon as possible, because numbness meant that necrosis had begun to set in.

When I heard this prognosis, my heart sank, partly because I know that villagers are unlikely to ever undertake the several-day journey required to get to the nearest hospital. But mostly I know that even if they did make it there, the underfunded provincial hospital would likely send them right back home, since it has no doctors who could treat such a condition, which would surely require surgery.

The young men sat pensively, chewing betel nut and letting the nurse’s words slowly sink in. I took the opportunity to ask them why they did what they did. They became animated. Having a big penis would give their girlfriends overpowering sexual pleasure, they said. The young women would “writhe like snakes” and “bellow like pigs,” they told me in their inimitable Papua New Guinean idiom, giggling. But they pointed out that they did not regard this pleasure as a magnanimous gift. On the contrary, they explained, it was like a spell or a hex. Making a young woman writhe like a snake or bellow like a pig was the strongest form of love magic. It would ensure that any woman who slept with you would follow you wherever you went and do whatever you asked.

A big penis, in other words, was a means of controlling women.

*

The Guardian newspaper article about botched penis injections quotes one of the doctors who sounded the alarm as saying, “I don’t think it’s particularly a PNG [Papua New Guinea] thing, in every society, adolescents and young men have a thing about their penis.”

At first glance, that might seem like a reasonable observation. But I wonder. Even though male anxiety about penis size is definitely not restricted to Papua New Guinea (a US-based internet survey of over 25,000 men in 2006, for example, reported that 45% wanted a larger penis), is the “thing” that young men in Gapun have about their penis size the same as the “thing” that Americans have, or Germans (who apparently win the trophy for performing the most penis enlargements in the world)?

In the West, penis anxiety seems to be bundled up with issues of body insecurity and self-esteem. Researchers who have addressed the phenomenon have identified what they call the “locker room syndrome” as a possible cause of the insecurity: men compare their own penis to those they glimpse in bathhouses, showers and gyms, and they often find their own lacking (psychologists report that this syndrome often arises in childhood, when a boy observes the larger organs of an elder sibling, a friend, or his father). In other cases, the sense of inferiority tends to center around a perceived inability to sexually satisfy a partner; an inferiority stoked, psychologists say, by exposure to pornography.


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In Gapun, I have never heard any indication that men think much about the size of their penises in relation to their fellow villagers. And pornography is all but non-existent. In the thirty years I have been coming to the village, I have never seen a single erotic image or magazine (they are difficult to come by, partly because they are illegal in Papua New Guinea, which in its constitution has declared itself pledged to “Christian principles”). There is no electricity in the middle of the rainforest, nor do villagers own any generators. Mobile network coverage arrived in the area about five years ago, but it is patchy and unreliable. Only two villagers currently own mobile phones, but they are mostly turned off, since rarely do the men who own them have money to purchase any pay-as-you-go minutes.

Levels of abuse that … are unique outside of a war-zone or state of civil unrest.

Many young men have watched a few minutes of pornography on the mobile phones of relatives and friends they stay with when they travel to other villages. But they are hardly porn consumers. And while the snatches of pornography the men have seen may well excite their imaginations (even if it also repels them — the very idea of oral sex, for example, totally grosses everyone out), it seems a bit of a stretch to assume that the young men’s limited exposure to pornography would be enough to make every single one of them eager to insert a syringe full of baby oil into his penis, and press the plunger.

Rather than assume that those men in Papua New Guinea who modify their genitals to make them bigger do so for the same reasons that men in Los Angeles or Berlin do, maybe we ought, instead, to listen closely to their own explanation of why they do it.

To control women.

*

In addition to earthquakes and political corruption and botched penis injections, Papua New Guinea also regularly makes headlines in the Western press because of something else bad; something very bad: namely, the fact that sexual and domestic violence towards women occurs throughout the country at absolutely staggering rates. Aid organizations and NGOs report that gender violence in Papua New Guinea occurs at epidemic levels and affects more than two-thirds of families in the country. Some studies say one in two women will be forced to have sex in their lifetime. Others report that 60% of men interviewed indicated that they had participated in a gang rape. The Aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has labeled Papua New Guinea’s sexual and domestic violence a humanitarian crisis, with levels of abuse that it says are unique outside of a war-zone or state of civil unrest.

Violence against women in Gapun is nowhere near as horrific as it is in other parts of the country, where women accused of witchcraft are subjected to prolonged public sexualized torture, dismemberment and being set on fire and burnt alive. Nevertheless, over the years, I have noticed a steady erosion in relations between women and men, with young men behaving much more aggressively to young women than their fathers generally did. Wife beatings are more common nowadays than they were twenty years ago. Rape — which was unheard of when I began my work in the village in the 1980s — occurs occasionally and, as far as I am able to determine, increasingly.

NGOs, journalists and researchers have suggested several reasons for the alarming rates of gender violence in the country. They include Christian messages that advocate patriarchal authority and wifely subservience, and the introduction of alcohol, drugs and firearms into communities. But a leading cause, most people seem agreed, is men’s response to their increasing feelings of disempowerment in a post-colonial society.

*

Papua New Guinea has experienced monumental changes during the course of the twentieth century. Saying that the country has traveled from “Stone Age to Space Age” in a single generation is an overly fondled platitude — and an inaccurate one besides, given that most communities in the country hardly have access to space-age anything, including services like primary-school education or basic medical care. But the tired cliché does nevertheless express the magnitude of the impact that white people have had on the lives of everyone in Papua New Guinea.

Like a gigantic, implacable bulldozer, the twentieth century crushed the life out of everything most people in the country had ever believed or accomplished. Christian missionaries quickly and irrevocably broke the backs of indigenous religious beliefs, replacing villagers’ dead ancestors who could be importuned or coerced with a dour, punishing, implacably deaf and unreachably distant white God. Labor recruiters and settler colonialists introduced money into what had previously been societies that had been built on the exchange of gifts. Underfunded and understaffed schools (where they exist at all) teach children to be dissatisfied with their lives, letting them share crumbling Australian-made schoolbooks that contain drawings and photos of things like highways and cities — providing the pupils with glimpses of a life of opulence that they can’t really imagine but that, clearly, exists somewhere else.

The theme that emerges as a consistent, sobering subtext in all the negative headlines that reach us about Papua New Guinea — and a theme that also is consistent in all the research done in the country — is that its societies are convulsing. The descriptors used indicate unequivocal alarm. Words like “break down” and “dysfunction” are common. Violence, everyone is agreed, is everywhere. Communities throughout the country are undergoing far-reaching transformations that the communities themselves cannot control.

In such an uncontrollable world, maybe it isn’t so strange that young men turn inwards, fantasizing that they can control something — that they can control anything — by modifying their bodies. Like anorexics in the West, who address their perceived lack of control by disciplining their own flesh and dominating it, perhaps young men in Gapun, and elsewhere in Papua New Guinea, have begun trying to enhance themselves in a muddled attempt to rectify injuries that they and everyone around them has endured, at the hands of colonialism, Christianity and modernity.

The inconsolable tragedy is that the outcome of injecting non-organic fluids into their penises, in fact, is not controllable at all. The outcome, on the contrary, is intractable. It may well result in the young men becoming impotent for life.

Or, if the skin around the injections begins to blacken and die, it may result in something much, much worse.

A few days after the nurse dispensed his medicine and his somber auguries, the NGO health workers left Gapun, and I went with them. I said goodbye to the villagers with a dull, leaden heart. I felt bereaved. The grammar of the villagers’ language that I so naively had hoped would be greeted with acclamation had been paged through politely, then put aside. I understood why: villagers had other things on their mind. An entire generation of young men had permanently, and perhaps catastrophically, maimed themselves. None of them would ever be able to afford to travel to far-away Port Moresby to see the single surgeon in the country who might be able to treat them. Like the majority of men throughout the country who have subjected themselves to a DIY penis enlargement, the young villagers in Gapun are on their own.

And as the disastrous effects of the botched injections increasingly make themselves known across Papua New Guinea, it seems to me that to call what is happening a “nationwide problem,” as the doctors interviewed by the Guardian did, is to understate the point. What health officials — what all of us — should be talking about instead is a nationwide calamity. Or, better: a nationwide symptom of a global disease; one with far deeper roots, and one I fear will continue to have much further-reaching consequences, than the wounded shames of the young men of Gapun.

* * *

Don Kulick is the author of A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea, out this month from Algonquin Books. 

Kulick is the author or editor of more than a dozen books on topics that range from the lives of transgender sex workers to the anthropology of fat. He has conducted extensive anthropological fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and Scandinavia. He is the recipient of numerous grants and honors, including an NEH Fellowship, an A. W. Mellon Foundation Guest Professorship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is currently Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology at Uppsala University in Sweden, where he directs the research program Engaging Vulnerability.

Editor: Dana Snitzky