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Why Have Black Widow Spiders Disproportionately Bitten Men And Their Penises?

One old study apparently found that 80 percent of victims were men. The majority of bites were on the penis.

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockOct 21 2022, 15:36 UTC
A black widow spider, with distinctive red pattern on its back.
Cross your legs, apparently. Image credit: Matteo photos/shutterstock.com

Here's a weird mystery for you: between 1950 and 1959, data on black widow bites was collected in the US, during which time 63 people died. The majority of those people were male, and in older studies, it was apparently shown that around 80 percent of black widow bites happened to men.

Weirder still, according to environmental analyst Kelsey Padgett on an episode of This American Life, "the majority were on penises". This, she explained, might account for why there were so many deaths from black widow bites around that time. 

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"The skin there is less thick, and there are lots of nerves there. And this is a neurotoxin venom," she said in the interview. "Perhaps being bit on the genitals sends the venom going into your body in a faster or stronger way than, say, if you were bit on a callus on your foot."

But why do black widow spiders bite so many males on the penis, a part of the anatomy which is famously largely kept in our pants rather than a spider web? Are black widow spiders especially attracted to that area?

Well, no. Black widow spiders do not want to bite you, on the penis or otherwise, and will only do so when they feel threatened. So this disproportionately high number of cases of men being bitten on the penis implies that black widows have been in a lot of situations where they felt threatened, and a penis happens to be in the vicinity. And that's what Padgett believes was happening.

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Most of the black widow bites that were reported happened in outhouses. 

"So black widow spiders, they enjoy dark, low to the ground sort of places. They especially love to make their cobwebs between two objects," she explained, adding that bugs and flies love the stink of outhouses, and made their home in the privvy bowls.

"So putting your web there is excellent. So imagine this. It's the 1950s. You're a dude. You need to go number two. You make your way out to the outhouse. You sit down, and your junk hangles there."

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"And as it does, it hits the cobweb. And the usually non-aggressive black widow instinctually runs over and bites down on the new creature that has landed on its web."

Since bathrooms began moving indoors, the problem (disproportionate targeting of men and penises) seems to have gone away. Their bites today are rarely fatal, with the majority resolving without treatment and others being treatable in hospital.


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