Penile inserts, a piercing tradition in Southeast Asia
Charming chimes — changing times
When English merchant Ralph Fitch visited Chiang Mai around 1587, the city was under Burmese rule, after having been the capital of an independent Northern Thai kingdom for almost three centuries. Fitch was probably the first Northern European to come here.
He was impressed by the fair skin of Chiang Mai’s women, but in his account of the city he paid more attention to the habit of the men, who used to insert small bells made of copper or silver in their penis. Fitch was told that the local ruler also followed this fashion, and that as a sign of especial favour he would, on occasion, remove bells he had himself employed to present to his nobles. Such royal gifts were highly esteemed.
The Great Sin
According to the traveler, these bells served two functions: for the greater gratification of the women, and to break their menfolk of their addiction to sodomy. Fitch was of the opinion that the latter was an extremely common practice in the North of Thailand, even considering it to be the cause of the sparse population. In fact, the population density of the region remained low until the end of the 19th century, which historians have generally attributed to continual warfare, often resulting in forced mass migrations of the peasant populace.
Fitch’s views are not an isolated case. In Pegu, which had strong cultural and commercial links with Chiang Mai, homosexual behaviour was believed to be widespread, also, in the 16th century. And according to a Dutch traveler, the women of Pegu went about almost nude in order to entice men and distract their attention from other males.
The men of Pegu also used to implant round bells into the foreskin of their sexual organ, as reported by the Portuguese Tome Pires in the early sixteenth century. The habit was said to have been introduced by a Burmese queen, and Pires quoted the same two justifications for the practice as Fitch had done.
The latter also reported that the inserts were common among the men in “all the countries of Ava, Langeinnes, Siam and Bramas”.
A strong fear of homosexuality has been prevalent in the West since the 13th century, when the church as a result of a diatribe by Saint Thoma Aquinas, began to view its practice as not only unnatural but dangerous. It may have been the ever-present fear of this Great Sin that led many of the European travelers to relate the function of the tinkling inserts to the curbing of the vice.
What needs emphasizing is that these accounts were mostly based on hearsay, as is clearly evident in the account of a Dutch visitor to 17th century Pattani. Without himself noticing the contradiction, he reports both that “men provided [with these bells] never have had intercourse with women”, and also that “women experience a sensual enjoyment beyond words on account of these bells”. In another report it is even mentioned that the men of Pattani had the inserts in order to curb their sexual desires. What’s more, in a modern Thai novel there is even mention that in the Ayutthaya Kingdom respectable men had golden bells inserted into their testicles!
One of the most comprehensive and probably most accurate descriptions of these inserts was given by the Flemish diamond trader Jaque de Coutre, who traveled around Southeast Asia at the end of the 16th century:
“I have witnessed that all inhabitants in this kingdom [Siam] and Pegu, the important gentlemen, the middle class, and even the ordinary people, wear two bells on the glans of the penis, which are inserted in the flesh. They call these bells bruncioles. They look as big as nuts and their sound is very clear. Important people wear even more than four of them. In the company of five Portuguese I once visited a mandarin. This man had just ordered a surgeon called to remove one of his bruncioles, because this one was hurting him and had caused a swelling of the penis. During our visit, the surgeon entered. As is the custom in that country, the surgeon removed the bell in our presence without any feeling of shame. First he used a razor to cut the glans and to remove one bell. The he stitched the wound. After the wound had healed , he would repeat the operation to reinsert the little bell he had just removed. It is amazing how people can be involved with such ostentatious things. Later they told me that the inventor of this was a queen from Pegu, because during her days the inhabitants of that kingdom were fond of sodomy. She issued a law making it compulsory to keep their vasquinas (a kind of underskirt) open down from the navel in order that their thighs became exposed while walking. Breaking the law was met with the heaviest penalties. She had issued the law hoping that men would get more taste for women and would abstain from sodomy. The bells can be made of gold, silver, or copper. Anyone wears one when he can [afford it]. Countless little shops in all towns and villages sell only these bruncioles. Those who do not wear them have the bad reputation of being sodomites. Although it can cause pain and inconvenience, everyone is devoted to this custom.”
(The above is my translation from Verberckmoes and Stols, Aziatische Omzwervingen — SH)
Surprisingly, all the accounts of rampant homosexuality in Southeast Asia in the many Western sources are related to these penile inserts, and many refer to the Queen of Pegu. Therefore, they cannot be taken as evidence for its widespread practice and the acceptance of such behaviour. Nor do the Thai sources, or any others from the region, lend any support to it at all.
Until about 1700, European voyagers continued to report on the prevalence of the custom of enlarging the male sexual organ with inserts.
“Thereafter nothing is said about it, and no trace of the practice remains today. There seems to be hardly any doubt that it once existed, but has now died out,” concluded historian Donald Lach of the University of Chicago.
His conclusion, though, is definitely wrong. A similar practice is still far from uncommon, at least in Thailand. It is called fang muk, meaning “to bury a pearl”. The ‘pearls’ in question are pea-sized glass beads, with one or more of these being implanted in the foreskin of the penis. This is usually carried out during adolescence or early manhood. The majority of these ‘operations’ take place in prison, or during detention in police cells. The cutting implement generally employed is the sharpened plastic handle of a toothbrush, while the ‘pearl’ is often manufactured from a fragment of the bottom of a broken Coca Cola bottle, that has been similarly shaped by long hours of rasping on the concrete wall or floor. One informant, who had been in prison here for three years, estimated around a third of the inmates had undergone the implantation.
It seems the practice is still fairly common in the North, Northeast, and Central Thailand — though no information came about the South. Most of those involved are from the working class. When asked about the reason for undergoing the insert, they usually replied: “Phu ying chop” — the girls/women like it. The idea that the inserts might prevent sodomy seemed very strange to all the informants I asked. None of them considered themselves gay or a kathoei, even though some had had occasional homosexual contacts. Many of them, in fact, came across as rather ‘macho’.
Since the inserts are no larger than peas, anal intercourse would hardly be hampered. On the other hand, one wonders whether such tiny beads hidden under the skin could truly contribute to the gratification of the women.
Penile inserts of various kinds (pins through the entire penis just behind the glans, rings, precious stones, balls, and bells) belong to a common tradition among a number of tribes and races restricted to Southeast Asia. The inserts are particularly common among the natives of Borneo, but also are, or have been, known among the Bataks of Sumatra, the tribes of Sulawesi (Celebes), the Javanese, the Malays of peninsula Malaysia (especially before the advent of Islam), and the peoples of Burma and Thailand.
In the early Europeam accounts, the inserts of the Peguans and the Siamese are most frequently mentioned, which were large bells that produced a soft and pleasant sound when men were walking. The ‘penis pins’, common among the Dayaks of Borneo, have recently made their way to the West, where they appear predominantly associated with the male homosexual community, sado-masochism, and with body piercing in general, including tattooing.
The authors of a monograph on penis inserts emphasize that the usual explanation given by the practitioners is that women prefer the in this way enlarged male organ. They mention cases in which women seemed to reject as a potential husband any man who lacked such an insert. Although there is a distinct dearth of women’s accounts confirming the supposed conferred delights, the researchers feel this in itself does not refute the claim. What they emphasize, though, is the relatively powerful position of women and their traditional autonomy within Southeast Asian societies, which may have resulted in some kind of control over the male sexual performance, of which the institution of penile inserts is just one aspect.
Already in the 1930s, the relationship between such inserts and increased sexual pleasure had been criticized by the Dutch psychiatrist Van Wulfften Palthe. He argued that some kinds, especially the ‘penis rods’, made intercourse impossible without severely injuring the partner. However, his alternative explanation — that the inserts were meant to prevent the retraction of the penis during koro (a state common in Southeast Asia of extreme fear in which a man believes his penis is shrinking and retracting into his body) — is very unlikely.
Piercing the body
Another suggestion put forward is that the inserts should be placed within the wider context of piercing the body, as with the insertion of charms under the skin, earrings, or tattooing part of the body. These practices are common among all races throughout the world, but are particularly popular in Southeast Asia, as for example among the Dayaks of Borneo, the Burmans, and the Thais. In present day Thailand, tattooing is still very popular among working class men, a practice strongly rooted in beliefs that the tattoos give protection against harmful spirits and a wide range of evils. Tattoos are believed to create saksit, a magic power, as do amulets. On the other hand, tattooing the body satisfies feelings of ‘masochism’ and they can be perceived as an initiation rite to manhood, since the painful process is usually undergone in adolescence. Among many tribes in the Indonesian Archipelago, the acquisition of penile inserts coincides with initiation rituals. Tattooing in Thailand, while common in prison, also remains popular in the wider community.
As early as 1920, Dutch researcher Kleiweg de Zwaan after refuting other theories had already advanced his own hypothesis, that penis inserts should be understood in terms of magic.
©SJON HAUSER: text and pictures
A slightly different version of this story was published in Guidelines Chiang Mai, August 1996, p. 42-44. The drawings of penis pins are from Donald E. Brown, James W. Edwards, and Ruth P. Moore, The Penis inserts of Southeast Asia. An annotated bibliography with an overview and comparative perspectives. University of California at Berkeley, 1988.