Terence H Hull
Men in some areas of Indonesia have a long history of inserting or implanting various objects in their penises. The origin of the practices is unclear, but some writers say that they were copied from Chinese traders who visited the islands, while others argue it is an indigenous innovation related to the use of other forms of amulets and inserts for medicinal and spiritual purposes. The objects used range from the very simple (the implant of ball bearings under the skin), to the magical (the use of specially selected semi-precious stones), or the elaborate (gold bars - called palang - or rings inserted through the glans). Historians have documented these practices in some detail, most notably in the annotated bibliography prepared by Brown, Edwards and Moore in Penis implants in Southeast Asia (1988), and Tony Reid's Land beneath the winds (1988).
Reid cites Pigafetta's 1524 traveller's tale to describe the Indonesian palang as having 'spurs' requiring intercourse to be commenced with the penis in a flacid state, and finished only after the penis has again become soft, to allow the woman to manoeuvre the palang in and out safely. Early reports of inserted bells or implanted balls begin with the 1433 report of Ma Huan, a Chinese Muslim who found the practice in Thailand. Bells were found around Malaya to as far as Makassar.
While these might seem odd and esoteric practices long relegated to museums or Ripley's Believe It or Not, recent research is finding that the use of inserts is spreading rapidly among working class men in the Southeast Asia and Melanesia. The modern manifestations of inserts and implants are important because they may cause vaginal wounds, inflammation and infection among the partners of men attracted to these practices. They can also cause permanent damage to the males, particularly when the cutting involved is carried out under unhygienic conditions.
For some years I had been hearing of penis inserts in Indonesia, but like most middle class Indonesians I dismissed the stories as being little more than sensationalist rumours or fillers for slow news days in tabloids. Eventually though the growing number of reliable sources suggested that there might be something worthy of further research.
In February 2000 with colleagues from the University of Indonesia I examined the records of a random sample of over 700 men undergoing pre-employment checks for work in the shipping, hotel and banking industries. This was an exploratory attempt to determine the likelihood of obtaining information on male reproductive health issues from conventional clinic records. It was found that one percent of the applicants for shipping industry jobs had some form of penis implant. Since most of these men were young and inexperienced this might be taken as a minimum prevalence among sailors. In the course of our enquiries we found that the practices were more widespread and varied than we had imagined.
The difficulty of determining the exact spread of various penis augmentation practices lies in the fact that they are inspired and implemented in a highly informal way. It appears that groups of working class males living in isolated circumstances are quite likely to discuss and attempt these practices. Interviews reveal a variety of practices designed to 'augment' the penis and enhance masculinity.
Basic inserts - ball bearings.
Workers in forestry, fishing and mining industries apparently take ball-bearings from machinery, boil them and soak them in antiseptic, and then insert them under the skin of the penis, about a centimetre back from the glans. Interviews in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and the Philippines have also indicated that overseas contract workers in Saudi Arabia use the extended residence in highly controlled environments to experiment with implants.
Plastics - Tops of toothpaste tubes
Throughout Southeast Asia and Melanesia reports are emerging of prisoners inserting objects under the skin of their penises. The picture to emerge is one of boredom and isolation focussing attention on discussions of masculinity (kejantanan) and dreams of future possibilities to 'conquer' women. Prisoners while away the hours scraping tooth brushes into sharp instruments to pierce the penile skin, and melt down the caps to form small balls for insertion.
Among transvestites throughout Indonesia the use of silicon implants to accentuate lips, cheeks, breasts, and other parts of the body is popular, and easily available through salons as well as some medical practitioners. There are some reports of Indonesian men, both straight and gay, using silicon implants in their penises, though this is probably less common than the use of ball bearings. In the Philippines silicon is used to create 'humps' around the shaft of the penis.
Semi-precious stones and gold - Investing objects with power
Throughout Southeast Asia inserts using precious stones, metals or pearls are regarded as providing special powers to men. In Indonesia the traditions of susuk implants support such thinking.
From ad hoc interviews I have found that men use the devices before marriage, but remove them when they settle down with one woman. Why, if the purpose is to please a woman? One explained: 'You can't really be sure about these things - what if something went wrong? You wouldn't want to take a risk with your wife.' Indeed, doctors and sex workers do report the occasional accident when a ring or stud or other sharp object is left in a vagina, or where women have suffered cuts or severe pain from men's experiments.
Interviews with social workers and commercial sex workers suggested that upwards of ten to twenty percent of regular clients of brothels have either penis implants or holes in the glans or skin of their penises. The holes may be normally for rings or studs, but during intercourse the ring is replaced by a piece of horsehair or the strand of a stiff-leaved plant which is tied and clipped off to a length of three or four centimetres as a 'tickler'. The putative reason for the practice is to 'please the woman', and men with inserts argue quite strongly that 'women love it'. However in the absence of systematic interviews with the lovers of such men, the testimony of commercial sex workers may be regarded as a useful commentary on the practice. Many of the women who earn their living from sex regard the use of inserts and ticklers as both strange and discomforting. One respondent recalled how one man using horsehair had caused her to bleed, while another reported great discomfort. She laughed at the idea that the devices were to 'please the woman'. 'That is what they say, but actually they only want the woman to reach orgasm before they ejaculate. It is a sign of their manliness (kejantanan)to have such control.' At the same time some women report the practices as being pleasurable.
Informal but persistent attempts to understand the practices of genital cutting and the use of inserts and implants among Indonesian men indicate that what we are seeing today is not the resurgence of tradition. Rather these are largely attempts to come to terms with sexualities based on gender relations emerging from rapid modernisation.
Workers in isolated camps who rely on their peers for information on 'what women want' are easily convinced that implants may make them attractive to lovers. Young men who see peers attempting the operations to insert stones or plastic balls, and hear the bragging afterward are easily swayed to try the practice themselves. They do not hear clinical evidence of damage done to sex organs, and they definitely do not hear women's stories of pain, discomfort or infection. From the viewpoint of men and reproductive health the response to penis implants must be based on education and the demystification of large areas of sexuality.
The Indonesian Health Department regards any talk of penis adornments as esoteric, sensitive and obscure. Reproductive health service providers do not recognise the problems associated with genital cutting and the use of sexual accessories because such things are quickly dismissed as immoral. Whatever the moral arguments though, the practice of penis inserts appears to be spreading because men's sexual education is incomplete and isolated. Lower class men in particular are likely to experiment with implants, not because their sexual needs are any different from other men, but because they are the groups most likely to experience isolation from women in their occupations.
Terence H Hull (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Senior Fellow at the Demography and Sociology Program, Australian National University, Canberra. This note is based on a longer article written with Dr Meiwita Budiharsana to be published in the journal Reproductive Health Matters. Much of the information collected here was generously provided by colleagues in the ANU and internationally. Particular thanks go to the doctors and staff of the Klinik Baruna in Jakarta, and to Dr Sarsanto W Sarwono and Dra Ninuk Widyantoro whose work in Timika and other sites in Indonesia has revealed a range of behaviours normally hidden from routine medical practice.