In 2013, during a discussion on HIV prevention organised by the AIDS Commission of Jayapura regency in Papua, I heard Ardi, a 30-year-old NGO worker, talk about how the traditional practice of enlarging the penis through bungkus (wrapping) increases the risk of HIV transmission. Months later I contacted him to know more about this notorious bungkus practice; unexpectedly Ardi told me that he himself undertook bungkus around six years ago with some of his friends. ‘We were young and wanted to try everything, so we did that’, he recalled. ‘A few days later we also tried to lengthen our penis by massaging it with dried leech oil’.
Traditional treatments for enlarging the penis have been known across Indonesia for centuries. In some areas in Papua, for instance Biak and Kaimana, the bungkus practice was a common method of improving male fertility. In today’s Jayapura, such practices of augmenting the penis have become more exposed, accessible and diverse with new materials and modern pills. Young men from all walks of life openly shared their experiences with me, a complete stranger and a female to boot. They also mentioned friends who could perform the traditional penis thickening method and the penis injection.
While there are no statistics on these practices, one venereal doctor told me that almost every day he meets a patient, mostly aged 20 to 30, who suffers from complications due to injections with silicon, other filling substances, or some other traditional method of penis enlargement. The frequency of penis infection has also raised concerns at the Provincial AIDS Commission. However, as public health experts and local mass media emphasise the risks, they overlook what the practice means in young men’s daily lives. For the young men, enlarging the penis is a way of showing masculine power and assuring a sense of manhood, practiced collectively in male peer groups that are caught in precarious conditions.
I talked to young men aged 18 to 30 from different socioeconomic statuses, occupations, ethnicities and religions in Jayapura and Sentani town. They use a variety of products, both traditional and modern, to lengthen or widen the penis. The most common traditional substances used are daun bungkus (wrapping leaves) and dried leech oil. The leaf-wrapping technique originates from Biak, an island in Cendrawasih Bay off the northern coast of mainland Papua. It is done by wrapping the penis shaft with a mixture of leaves for 3 to 5 minutes. In the past, the practice could only be performed by a healer from a particular clan on the island, but nowadays it is performed by ordinary men, not just in Biak, but also in Jayapura and other parts of Papua. The other method is massaging the penis shaft using homemade dried leech oil every day. Young men believe that their penis will get lengthened after two weeks.
Modern products are also used. Canadian brand herb pills from Vimax are among the most popular. These pills are advertised and sold online, especially through social media networks. They’re also available at local pharmacies that openly display the products. The pills are expensive, selling at Rp.500,000 (A$50.50) for a bottle of 30 pills. Another popular and cheaper method is injecting silicon or oils into the penis. The most common material to be injected is Tokyo Night Oil, a hair oil product. Costing only Rp.50,000 and promising immediate results, this injection method is becoming more widespread than others.
All these practices might seem odd and dangerous, but young men appear to be quite comfortable experimenting with various techniques to enhance their penis size. One of them was Robet, a 23-year-old university student who has been providing the silicon or oil injection service to his friends for almost two years. Among his peers he is known as ‘dokter suntik’ (injection doctor), although he’s not medically trained to perform the injection. His ‘skill’ resulted from experimenting with his peers as the guinea pigs. ‘We were just trying out, there was a friend who had injected 60 cc of oil into his penis, then he injected four of us too’, said Leo, a 25-year-old rapper who had an injection a few months before.
Young men typically perform the penis injection or bungkus collectively in male-only peer groups. Freddy, a 23-year-old university student confessed he did bungkus with nine of his friends in a boarding house. They were lining up naked and the bungkus ‘doctor’ wrapped their penises one by one. Budi, a 30-year-old driver also mentioned that he performed the oil injection with four friends. The bungkus ‘doctor’ and the injection ‘doctor’ were friends too. Young men seldom go to a stranger to have their penis enlarged, so it remains a friends’ affair. Indeed, the decision to do the enlargement is often affected by peers.
Power and prowess over pleasure
For young men in Jayapura the size of the penis certainly matters. It is one of the most frequently discussed topics when they gather, particularly when talking about sex and women. Intriguingly, when I asked young men who had undergone penis enlargement if they knew the size of a ‘normal’ penis, none of them seemed to know. It seems that feelings of uneasiness and dissatisfaction with their own penis size are caused by the way male peers compare each other’s penises, especially when living together in a dormitory or shared rented room where they occasionally take baths together. A young man with a bigger penis will be praised as jantan (manly) or jago (having prowess) and gain reputation among his peers. For example, one group of young men gave the nickname ‘Borlas’ (enlarged penis) to friends who have undergone the augmentation and afterwards can boast many dates.
Conversely, young men with smaller penises are likely to be teased. Usually the mockery is not serious, such as ‘you have a big mouth, but your “thing” is small’. But then, the peers tend to provoke the young men with the smaller penis size to do the bungkus or the penis injection. Some told me that the frequent ridicule from peers damages their self-confidence, all the more if the comment comes from their female partner. As Leo said, being humiliated by a girl for having a small ‘unsatisfying’ penis can be catastrophic for a man’s self-esteem.
These young men tend to prove their sexual prowess and virility to female partners with a big penis. They said the big penis can give a women pleasure: a powerful punch. While the young men claimed that they give their women pleasure, none of the women I talked with actually like the enhanced penis. One woman claimed that she stopped having sex with her husband after he had enlarged his penis since it hurt her. Remarkably, the enlarged penis does not bring more sexual pleasure to young men either. Many young men who have undergone penis enlargement suffer from severe skin rashes, acute pain and inflammations which cause erectile and ejaculation problems. The enhanced penis makes sex more difficult for them. Some of them have had to undergo a series of surgeries to remove the substances from the penis.
To understand why young men still go through such great lengths to enlarge their penis, the practice needs to be understood against the background of their precarious lives. Young men’s daily lives in Papua are challenged by poverty, limited job opportunities and many forms of conflict and violence. These circumstances make it difficult for them to fulfil society’s expectations of being a ‘real’ man.
When I asked young men what an ideal man is, none of them mentioned having a big penis. Rather, it was described as having a steady job and being a reliable provider for the family. As Gerson, a 24-year-old NGO volunteer put it, ‘a man is he who is able to be the backbone of the family, to be responsible for the family’. These are the prominent markers of a ‘real man’ that are hard to achieve in Papua, where opportunities for steady employment are scarce and insecurities are high. This situation creates desperation. ‘To be honest’, Gerson said, ‘we can’t see our future, let’s say five years from now, when we do not even know if tomorrow we can eat, we do not have a real job, no connection in the government offices, and our parents have a rough life’. He continued, ‘Can we survive a week from now? Who knows tomorrow we can be hit on the road, knifed by a drunkard, or trapped in a riot? Nobody cares about us, the Papuan kids.’
From meeting Gerson and other young men, I learned that their sense of manhood is constantly under threat due to structural and daily violence. These young men feel a desperate need to perform their masculine authority. The available domain for them to do so is in heterosexual relations where they aim to prove their sexual prowess. So they capitalise on the one thing that is accessible: their penis. Whereas other sources of power like wealth and a decent job are unattainable for most of these young men, they find that sex and specifically sex with a big penis can restore their sense of power. Penis augmentation is about becoming a man. It is how young men reassert their masculinity against the backdrop of a marginalised and unstable existence in Papua.
Diana Pakasi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam. Her PhD research is part of the ChemicalYouth project at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR). More information about the project can be seen at www.chemicalyouth.org.
Inside Indonesia 126: Oct-Dec 2016